October 16, 2021

Mark as Fiction? Mark as History? Mark as Representation!

 Rhoads & Michie’s classic Mark as Story (1982) could not have been called Mark as History without a challenging redesign of the project, but I’ve been wondering for some time whether it could have been called Mark as Fiction. Would such a title have mandated any changes to the contents of Mark as Story, or could it have remained essentially the same? 

 The contents of both first and second editions were focused on basic elements of fiction and literature: narration, plot, setting, character, and rhetoric, and the fierce avoidance of historicity was less a suspension of judgment than a judgment about relevance. In its own words, Mark as Story aimed to look past the “referential function” of narrative in favor of its “poetic function”. More acutely, Rhoads’s 1982 article in JAAR called for two shifts in thinking about the Gospel narratives “in their final forms”: (1) respecting “the autonomy of the story-world” and (2) adopting tools from the study of fiction. If these two shifts correctly sum up the content of the book, the question remains.

 Could Mark as Story be re-titled Mark as Fiction? Or would something need to change?

 To answer that question, let’s consider the two shifts in Rhoads’s thinking. The second shift was and remains entirely non-problematic. Examining the Gospels as literature should work in a similar fashion regardless of whether we judge their contents to be fiction or non-fiction, so in this regard Mark as Story holds up very well by today’s standards in its attention to things like emplotment, settings, and characterization. Adapting tools from the study of fiction works well in studying published histories (e.g., Hayden White's tropology), so in this regard Mark as Story probably could have been called Mark as Fiction with slight framing modifications.

 The first shift is more interesting to examine. What did Rhoads mean by “the autonomy of the story world”? Primarily, this was a boundary marker. In the early days of the field, New Testament Narrative Criticism needed to distinguish itself from NT Historical Criticism, so the meaning and significance of “autonomy” was especially potent and clear, but the meaning of “story world” (in and of itself) was unintentionally ambiguous. Despite interacting with Seymour Chatman, the first edition of Mark as Story effectively made no distinction between the two major concepts of Story and Discourse. This may also explain why engagement with Chatman was exised from the second edition. 

With or without that material, however, both editions equate discourse with story, undoubtedly reflecting the postivistic legacy of NT Historical Criticism, which for so often effectively (still!) equates the text with the past - or at least, has so often equated the unrejected bits of text which survived critique with the critically verified past. (See also the introductory chapter to Hans Frei's The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative.) 

 For historical critics, the acceptable text *is* what happened. Likewise, for Mark as Story, the narrated discourse *is* the complete story world. 

 Such conflation is problematic, for either history or fiction, but I can illustrate this more sharply if we consider historical fiction

 When Victor Hugo wrote about Jean Val Jean and Cozette in Les Miserables, those characters lived and spoke in a “story world” that was built partly from the referential aspects of Hugo’s textual discourse and partly from the audience recollections (general, fuzzy, or specific) about France in the revolutionary period. Along with Hugo’s Paris we could mention Homer's Troy and Shakespeare’s Rome, and even Joyce’s Dublin. The same point holds for fictional worlds that are serialized, like Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, or DC Comics’ Gotham City, in which any individual episode evokes situational context established in previous iterations of storytelling. In all of these cases, due to audience knowledge of situational context, the “story world” is much broader than a single text. Whenever Garrison Keilor told yet another tale from Lake Woebegon on his radio show, new listeners could only fill in the blanks with guesswork, hoping for some eventual corroboration about their creative assumptions, but old listeners could represent that fictional town more fully in their imaginations.

 Point: because the Gospels are stories set in the recent past of their original audiences, their story worlds involve more than what is on the page. Ergo, reading Mark as Historical Fiction requires us to grant that audience inference played a major role in co-constructing the narrative setting. For knowledgeable audiences Gospel authors could evoke detail not explicitly mentioned.

 If you read a biography about Marilyn Monroe or Princess Diana, the story world is informed by your knowledge of the actual world in their day. That is more than a “referential effect” or a “poetic effect”. The phenomenon of the story world is not contained by a narrative text. Likewise, when the Gospels’ earliest audiences read or heard about Jesus and John in Galilee or Herod and Pilate in Jerusalem, there was much more being evoked than a few contextual details. Facts and basic knowledge were contributed by the earliest audiences. The “story world” was not merely whatever Mark wrote which referred to people, events and locations. The story world of the Gospels included everything early Christians had ever heard or believed about Jesus and the traditions passed down about what transpired in his brief years of fame.

 In that regard, Mark as Story is a pale shadow of what Mark as Fiction could have been, because Mark as Fiction would necessarily become a study of Mark as Historical Fiction. At that point, Rhoads and Michie might have come uncomfortably close to issues of historical representation...  

 And that, finally, brings me to the larger point of today's post.

 Because the fledgling field of "New Testament narrative criticism" needed to bracket out the so-called "historical critical approach," their rhetoric about "the autonomy of the story world" had more to do with methodological and disciplinary boundary-keeping than actually engaging the inferential co-construction of story worlds. Indeed, any efforts to practice narratological gap-filling were consigned to "reader response criticism," effectively quarantining a more robust historical contextualization from informing any approach to the text or its possible meanings. Proper critical interpretation, they all said, required textual discipline without any creative inference. A "representation" of the past was understood to be one of those reconstructions produced by historical Jesus scholars, and that only after the relevant questions of historicity had been thoroughly vetted. 

 Thus, “representation” was an issue for "historical" approaches, even while “story world” became an issue for NT Narrative Studies. But, of course, there is no difference.

 A literary history is the author's representation of the past. A narrative depiction is the author's aesthetic vision of historical truth. In such framing, the Gospels themselves qualify as “historical representations” and we ought to perform readings in this way. That is, we should not approach the interpretation of Gospel narratives any differently because we believe they are fiction or non-fiction.  When historicity becomes our secondary concern, rather than governing all other concerns, then narratives about the past can be viewed properly as “historical representation”, before considering how or in what aspects those representations might be “accurate”.

 To consider Mark as Narrative is to consider Mark as a Representation of Jesus’ life and public ministry in the historical past. 

 Mark as Fiction? Mark as History? Mark as Historical Fiction?

 Choosing any of these categories should require us to receive the Gospel in the same way: as a representation of past events.

 But this receptive posture cannot rule out constructive inference. We cannot overlook the author's subtle evocations of audience knowledge. And we cannot quarantine "narrative studies" away from historical contextualization. Not if we wish to argue substantially that we have understood the text...

 Because whether or not we believe it, the text happens to offer a representation. 

 We should take it as such...
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