March 12, 2018

The Weight of Discourse (Versus Story)

Devoutly venerating a text can prevent us from grasping its contents. To illustrate, let's look at Philip 'the Evangelist'.

In Acts 6:5, 8:5-40, & 21:8-9, we find 27 verses devoted to Philip's exploits. One of those verses tell us that Philip was chosen to serve food with six other men. Another 24 of those verses tell us that Philip won over a large number of Samaritans (and one Ethiopian) to believing in Jesus. And two of those verses tell us that Philip had settled in Caesarea, raised four daughters who spoke during christian gatherings. There's a vast difference in the amount of narration we receive about three different phases in Philip's life.

That ratio again: 1 to 24 to 2.

This illustrates the weight of discourse.

If we give each verse of scripture an equal amount of attention, our natural cognitive focus will always gravitate, by default, to the topics most frequently mentioned. As an audience, our minds are more likely to remember the content of whichever stories took the narrator much longer to tell. Thus, in remembering Philip, christian tradition labels him 'the Evangelist' because 89% of the verses about Philip (24 of 27 verses) show Philip doing evangelism. In fairness, of course, Acts itself does the same. However, when the narrator refers to "Philip the evangelist" in Acts 21:8, Luke needed to distinguish between two famous Philips. The referential expediency is clearly incidental, but tradition has inflated this efficiency into a summative appelation. The words are obviously there, but we give too much weight to that discourse.

Here's the real problem:

"Evangelist" is not an accurate synopsis of the Philip Luke presents in Acts.

Let's be clear. Luke's narrational emphasis on Philip's evangelism may well indicate that Luke's authorial agenda includes an emphasis on evangelism. Alternatively, the extensive accounts of evangelism might be incidental to Luke's agenda of critiquing Peter's early policy against widows and eunuchs. Either way, the narrator's emphasis absolutely reflects the authorial agenda. The weight of discourse reveals the author's primary focus. The weight of discourse, however, does not accurately summarize everything the author is trying to tell us. Sometimes significant points are slipped in briefly. This requires the audience to work harder, but good readers know that full literary understanding is usually worth the additional effort.

[***For the record, the contrast between the weight of discourse and the weight of story (my terms, today) is something that's been illustrated many times when narratologists differentiate between the pacing/volume of narration and the relationship between "reconstructed" events in the storyworld (see, e.g., any of Gerard Genette's writing about "Time in Narrative," or see Chapter 3.4 in Mieke Bal's Narratology (3rd Ed., 2009) or look up ""narrative speed", "gapping", and "ellipsis" in the R.E.N.T.). As always, when discussing narrative hermeneutics, I am also thinking of Ankersmit's statement, "We read the novel as if it were true..." ***]

Good readers usually manage to locate the weight of the story. Bad readers don't take responsibility for constructing a robust story world based on the text. Good readers "read between the lines" and observe much more than what they've been explicitly told. Bad readers fixate on the surface level and ignore anything which requires an active imagination.

Venerating the text, we expound on each passage, and we make Philip 'the Evangelist'.

Venerating the story world, we are quicker to notice that Philip seems to have changed.

By reading Acts "as if it were true" -- that is, by engaging the complete story world as Luke has designed and depicted it -- we should properly imagine that Philip's evangelistic activity in 8:5-40 would have taken him less than a month to complete, but that raising four daughters has taken Philip over a decade. So, the bulk of discourse about Philip takes up very little of Luke's Philip's life story, while the last thing we learn about Philip fills in the gap years with an entirely different depiction. We aren't told explicitly that Philip had stopped recruiting new converts, but the narrative's strong implication is that Philip had long ago altered his focus. Here's how we can tell:

Luke's statement about four daughters who prophesied is a credit to Philip. Luke's praise of these girls is a compliment to their father. The author thereby implies that Philip had taken responsibility for raising these girls, had spent time actively raising these girls, and now deserves credit for successfully raising these girls. All of this implies Philip has spent decades engaging in fatherhood - a vastly different kind of activity than itinerant cold-call style recruiting. Again, my point is to contrast the weight of all this implied activity against the weight of how many words the text uses to represent that activity.

I could go on and on, but let's wrap this up with three takeaway points.

(1) If preachers want to exhort folks to evangelize, that's fine, but they shouldn't distort Philip's complete narrative identity in order to do it. In the context of Luke's story world, Philip was barely ever involved in evangelizing anyone. If you think christians are supposed to do that kind of thing all the time, Philip himself is a terrible example to uphold. Not that the NT gives you anyone better...

(2) If interpreters want to focus on verses that describe Philip's evangelistic activities, that's fine, but they shouldn't mistake that phase of narrative action for a complete character study of Philip himself. They shouldn't make his brief phase of evangelistic activity into the bulk of a hypothetical biography for this person. I could make this point thousands more times: Interpreting texts is not the same as imagining the past.

(3) If Christians want to imagine the life of Philip as an important figure in earliest christian experience, they should drastically lessen the weight of Luke's extended discourse on Philip's brief mission work and they should drastically increase the weight of Luke's dramatic revelation about Philip's later experience. According to Acts, this amazing man raised up four daughters who spoke up powerfully in the gatherings of the church in Caesarea. For crying out loud... let's hear some fiery sermons about that!

Anon, then...

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