Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed

Knowing the Currents 3

In the 80s the methods of Gospel Criticism were pushed off the table in academic circles to make room for the surge and flowering of a bundle of disciplines that reshaped Gospels studies into texts that needed to be studied as works of literature.
How important do you think biblical “scholarship” is to the life of the Church? What is the relationship of the Church to the theological/biblical academic life?
The name for this movement can be roughly called literary or narrative or story criticism. These are not the same, for there are nuances distinguishing them, but roughly they are each concerned with treating the Gospels as texts and not as sources through which we look to see the history of how they came to be.
The focus, again, was on treating each Gospel as a work of art, as a literary whole, and as a story. The major contribution for many was that this current of scholarship gave the books of the Bible back to the reader and said, “Go ahead and read it and tell us what you see as a reader.” Gospel criticism — and the use of methods that tried to figure out what the text looked like before it was written — was a game that could be played only by specialists. Literary critics, of course, are also specialists — but instead of looking behind the text they look at the text.
Major books:
D. Rhoads, D. Mitchie, Mark as Story. This was the ground-breaking work for Gospel studies.
J. Kingsbury, Matthew as Story.
W.S. Kurz, Reading Luke-Acts.
For me the definitive studies for learning about narrative criticism are
Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative.
Meir Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative.

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Ted M. Gossard

posted August 27, 2007 at 4:49 am

I think the influence is of course largely indirect, yet can be profound. It all depends just what the pastor or leader gets from such study in school. I do think it can affect how people read their Bibles. That’s why we have to take scholars selectively, not just as to who they are, but as to what they’re saying.
I love N.T. Wright. And I read him. But I think it either takes time for his insights to work their way into my thinking. I don’t try to force them. And if they don’t work their way in, I mean if an insight here and there does not, then so be it. I just want to keep working through good writers and theologians like him. But in the end it must resonate with my reading of Scripture, with my faith in Christ and related to the Church. And often it takes time for something good to get through to me. Then when it does, I want to help others see the same thing, as I have opportunity.

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posted August 27, 2007 at 6:55 am

I agree with Ted about the influence of biblical scholarship. To the extent it is popularized, it has a profound influence. One needs only think of the supposed “scholarship” behind the da Vinci Code … or the current legitimate debate about women in the church …
But narrative criticism is also so important. It’s important to genuinely engage the texts you are reading rather than being “thieves” of other people’s faith, as Margaret Fell wrote. IMHO, we should never rely on other people’s interpretations as primary, though they can be helpful as a resource. And engaging with the Bible needs to be done in a spirit of building up, not tearing down.
In my area, a woman clergy about a year ago wrote a column for a local paper in which she asserted that only people fluent in Hebrew had a right to comment on the OT. The level at anger shot back at her by the public was intense, and I thought, correct. We are a reformation culture and good for us. However, I remember when The Passion of the Christ came out that people went around saying, “Wow, I never realized what Christ really suffered.” (These were Christians). I clutched my poor head and prayed for the patience of 10,000 saints and thought “have you never READ the Bible?” The Bible needs to be open and accessible — and it is. We can all read it, interact with it, interpret it and gain remarkable insights from it.

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posted August 27, 2007 at 8:24 am

It seems to me that in areas of study such as this, there is usually a group that saddles up and rides off into a ridiculous sunset, well beyond orthodoxy. Yet, those of us who are left behind may often obtain greater insights about the genre, style, and devices used within the book.
It is we who submit to the text, not the other way around. Those who think the text submits to them go too far. Those who gain any and all insights possible to help them appreciate the text to which they are submitting gain much. Those who think they are submitting to the text and yet refuse any new or outside perspective or insights about the text fool themselves.

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carmen andres

posted August 27, 2007 at 8:35 am

[Delurking twice in one day, must be the coffee] I, too, resonate with the both-and solution Diane articulates. I’m more of an arm-chair theologian (heh, if even that), but I like to engage Scripture with biblical scholarship in one hand and soaking in whatever part of The Story I’m reading with the other. Coming from a lit background, I’ve often been amazed how life carries many elements and themes of literature, which of course makes sense: The best literature resonates so strongly with us because it tells us something about life. Wasn’t it Tolkien and Lewis who call the Gospel the greatest Myth? Not that it wasn’t true, but that it was the Truest Story. But I think that’s a different approach than taken by the lit theologians Scot mentions? Okay, back to lurking (the caffine is wearing off) . . .

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posted August 27, 2007 at 9:31 am

I absolutely agree that we have to submit to the text, not the other way around. That’s crucial.
I come from a lit background too, so there may be just a tiny tad of bias in favor of the literary reading … :)

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posted August 27, 2007 at 9:42 am

Scot, are you meaning reader-response criticism? Do you also include in this arena, ideological criticism, rhetorical criticism and narrative criticism?
I’ve found these approaches to the Scripture truly liberating and they’ve changed how I read the Bible (also helped to reveal how I was reading that went undetected by me as well).

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Scot McKnight

posted August 27, 2007 at 9:45 am

Reader criticism developed out of the literary streams … focusing not on what the text says but how the text impacts me as a reader. There was a subtle shift from the text (with a reader) to the reader (of a text).

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posted August 27, 2007 at 10:00 am

I do respect literary criticism and many excellent points have been made here already.
I heard a preacher this weekend (not myself, of course) preach on Jesus cursing the fig tree using the passage from Mark 11. He unfortunately ignored the event that Mark places at the crux of the fig tree events, which is Jesus’ cleansing of the temple.
I think having some knowledge of the literary forms, and being aware of the devices used by the writers will help to preach what the Gospels themselves seek to share. When we fall away from that we risk trivializing or reducing the Gospel merely for good sermon fodder.
I heard an excellent sermon on Naaman from one of my Grad professers (Dr. Jesse Long) revolving around the Hebrew word ‘shuv’ (turn) that shows up over and over in the passage. Without the literary knowledge in place, it would have just been a surface level sermon – be faithful when God calls you to do something unusual. But the sermon pressed deeper showing that Naaman and Israel as well were called to ‘shuv’… to return.

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posted August 27, 2007 at 10:51 am

Well – four out of the five are in the library here, so at least it doesn’t break the bank.
But there are not enough hours in the day.

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posted August 27, 2007 at 11:59 am

Biblical scholarship does influence the life of the church… I think we sometimes miss its influence on how we as readers/preachers/teachers approach the bible.
For example, growing up (conservative evangelical) there was a strong emphasis on Bible as history, and as historical information. So we were taught to mine the text for facts… there was less emphasis on the Gospels, and when there was it was more about a ‘timeline’ of events of Jesus than the meaning of those events. A certain stream of biblical scholarship obviously had some influence on this.
I had the privledge of being exposed to narrative criticism in college. One of the main benifits is that it refocuses how we read/study… Asking us to ENTER INTO the text as opposed to merely extractng facts from the text. True, there has also been a more ‘reader centered’ stream of this… but even there we can find a healthy emphasis on understanding how we (and our context/ history) shape reading, and being open to the text shaping us.

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posted August 27, 2007 at 12:18 pm

I appreciate scholarship where it furthers my understanding of the text, which I think is the obligation of any student. But I am less compelled/engaged by some presentations which seem unnecessarily and overly intellectualized for the sake of academia.
That said, as a writer and speaker whose primary audience is Generation Y, I feel a responsibility to maintain and advocate maintaining a sufficient exegetical tool box. Truth, in our cultural context, is too often filtered through personal preference…a luxury I do not believe serves us well when used within a Biblical framework. So although there is part of me who wants to lean toward the relational savviness of “story,” I think it is crucial that if we grab onto this approach with one hand, we always keep our other hand on scholarship.

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posted August 27, 2007 at 12:46 pm

This is a interesting insight. Never thought is this development before.

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posted August 27, 2007 at 1:20 pm

I like Kingsbury’s book on Mark, Conflict in Mark and got it not long after it was published, and the last time I went through this summer, the pages were falling out and virtually every page was marked up.
The value of this kind scholarship to the church seems to be underestimated. In either teaching or preaching, when I consent to the narrative achieving that which the text already aims toward -over against some kind of proposition- the people of God tend to respond/react differently. Differently, as in, they worship God and sense they are sent by the Lord.

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Jim Martin

posted August 27, 2007 at 4:46 pm

Yes, I think this scholarship is making a difference–if the person who is doing the primary preaching/teaching is taking advantage of these resources. (Or at least is paying attention to other preachers who are reading these works).
I first read “Mark as Story” one year when I preached through Mark. Was it every insightful…

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Matt Walsh

posted August 27, 2007 at 6:57 pm

I read Alter’s book a few years ago. One thing that stuck in my mind was his observation that it is all too often assumed that ancient narratives = simple narratives. After reading “The Art of Biblical Narrative”, one can hardly think this way. Form critical commentaries are so dry (and numerous); it is refreshing to understand and to read the scriptures as the great pieces of literature they are. I found his discussions of some of the Genesis narratives particularly helpful (how Gen 1 & 2 work together, and how the Judah and Tamar story fits with its surrounding context.)

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Ted M. Gossard

posted August 27, 2007 at 7:18 pm

I think it’s interesting how Barth can have a profound influence on people through writers or leaders who have been influenced by reading him themselves. To my own discredit, I’ve read next to nothing of Barth. But I picked up from Eugene Peterson in “Eat This Book” that he has been profoundly impacted by Barth in some way. And on theological tests, or a test, I scored pretty high in being Barthian.
So this goes to show that the writers people read and who these writers have been influenced by, ends up influencing the readers who in turn often end up influencing other Christians who they are teaching or interacting with.

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Ted M. Gossard

posted August 27, 2007 at 7:23 pm

I also would like to echo in my own way and understanding what you, Diane say (#2): There simply is no replacement for us reading the Bible for ourselves. We need to keep interacting with it as we interact with life so that both interactivities would come more and more together, I think (and experience).

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posted August 27, 2007 at 8:30 pm

I just finished reading “Eat This Book” (okay, nobody drop from surprise 8) ), which provided “skin” for the last piece of the CovenantCommunity vision–thank you for your recommendation of this book.
This just smacked me where I am and on pages 166-167 he talks about perspicuity–the belief that the Bible is basically readable as it is.
He also talks about the upward desecration (p.162) to the KJV from Tyndale’s common speech. How many times does the scholarly “put lace cuffs” on common sense understanding of God’s story?
When you leave off the lace and have a translation that renders the meaning in the common language–it can be understood by the common person. There are some context issues that must be foundational, of course, but it isn’t completely about knowing Hebrew and Greek.
This was what was like cold water on a burn to me: Peterson sees folks like me as intelligent but unschooled–yet able to grasp what the Holy Spirit is on about in revealing God to humans in the Bible. Not ignorant…unschooled. There is a big difference. I have felt this same thing from Scot–gratefully.
We have to have the Petersons and the McKnights…who use their gifts to show us the plain, common meaning of Scripture–no lace, please. If we can read (eat!) the Bible in this way, we find God coming to us to pitch his tent among us and our life gets caught up…oh no, not again, in that whole perichoretic dance, interpenetrating thing! 8)
I’m still processing this…the blank page in front and in back of this book are filled with notes that I will have to now go back and process again. But my burden is much lighter today…and for that I’m grateful!

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Georges Boujakly

posted August 27, 2007 at 9:07 pm

Biblical scholarship is extremely important to me. Being a “thinking Christian” I have learned to depend on scholars for biblical understanding. These have often helped to alleviate my doubts and strengthened my resolve to read the Scriptures more intelligently.
I remember right at the beginning of my Christian journey asking questions which no one at church, including my pastor, knew how to answer intelligently or to point me in the right direction. Pat answers were offered but were not satisfactory. This was extremely frustrating but served to challenge me to find out scholarly sources that satisfied by longing for understanding.
In my opinion, Scot, it is inestimably crucial to have scholars (such as this blog is graced with) articulate the story of the Scripture with the best possible ways available to us.

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tim atwater

posted August 30, 2007 at 11:39 am

My new testament prof at BU a decade ago, Abraham Smith, taught all the crit methods but placed himself mostly within the lit crit arena…(and preached v well from a strong faith perspective). Following him, i have found Alan Culpepper’s work on John very helpful and Robert Tannehill, and now Joel Green’s on Luke most helpful.
I find Alter v good but a bit too (well)–critical. great eyes — but not quite sure if the heart always follows?
Everett Fox’s reading of Genesis feels a lot warmer…
but this is v subjective of course.
Our other NT prof (at that time), Paul Sampley, probably wouldn’t call himself a lit crit but taught us to look v carefully at the apostle Paul’s literary style(s) and the rhetorical construction of letters as part and parcel of the delivery of the message…
While i think of it — i had a friend download for me (i’m on dialup) Scot McKay’s talk from an Emergent Village posting called (something like) The Whole Gospel — which was great– and i think captured the lit trad at its best — the telling of the story as God’s story, as a living story — is always contagious and effective… (Because it’s always heavily supported by the Holy Spirit)….
thanks for these postings.

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