Thursday, December 12, 2013

Why the title, “A Chorus of Voices”?

A few weeks ago, just a day after I had received copies of my new reception history commentary on James (James Through the Centuries), I went to the library of a theological school (not Emory, where I teach). As I was pulling a book (on reception history) from a shelf in the stacks, I overheard a student complaining about his professor assigning a reception history paper. The student thought it was a complete waste of time. Who cared how long-dead people had interpreted biblical texts?

In brief, Mikhail Bakhtin states the case best: “Truth is not born nor is it to be found inside the head of an individual person, it is born between people collectively searching for truth, in the process of their dialogic interaction” (The Problem of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, p. 110).

Bakhtin stresses the importance of the dialogic interaction of numerous voices, a polyphony, in other words. Polyphony is an expression derived from music that denotes a combination of two or more independent, melodic parts. Bakhtin, however, applies it to what he discovers in Dostoevsky’s novels, where Dostoevsky unfolds “a plurality of consciousnesses, with equal rights and each with its own world.” The voices of the characters, alongside the author’s voice, are “full and equally valid voices” (pp. 16–7). Polyphony thus can be seen as any environment devoted to the idea that all voices—often contesting voices representing a variety of ideological positions—receive a fair and equal hearing.

The title of this blog comes from a quote from Gregory the Great, who also uses an example from music to make a similar point (although in a different context) about the need for dialogue. In his Pastoral Rule (III.22), he cites the admonition of Psalm 150:4—to praise God with tambourine and chorus—to point out that with a tambourine, “a dry and beaten skin resounds, but in the chorus voices are associated in concord.” One person plays a tambourine; many people work together in a chorus.

The history of parable interpretation aptly illustrates that voices are not “in concord” as far as what specific parables mean, but as parables are heard and reheard, told and retold, dialogues are created among interpreters of differing conceptual horizons, dialogues that enrich and deepen our understandings of what a text connotes and denotes (see Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, p. 282).

Contrary to what that graduate student thought, interpreters of parables are not like telegraph operators who must receive and decode an “original” message. Instead interpreters participate in the construction of meaning, a construction that began when Jesus first spoke the parables and continued through the centuries in which people have responded to them. 

Therefore, the “meaning” of the parables does not reside alone in the creative genius of Jesus and/or the Gospel authors; it exists in a relation between creator and contemplators. We stand, therefore, on the shoulders of centuries of conversations; our own interpretations are never independent of the reception history of these parables. To paraphrase Ecclesiastes 1:9: In parable interpretation, there is very little new under the sun.

This blog and my book about the reception history of the parables will make explicit what in reality is inherent but usually implicit—that our own interpretations are incomplete without a dialogic response to the responses of those interpreters who have preceded us.

Jesus, after all, told these parables to get a response from his hearers. He created them with one ear already attuned to our answers, and it is fascinating to see the various ways that people have responded. We can learn much from those responses.

The book on the reception history of the parables, by the way, doesn't yet have a title; suggestions are welcome! 

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