Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Initial Thoughts about starting to write this Book

Some people have asked that I include in this blog some aspects about the process of writing the book, especially since some things might be applicable to other writing projects. Here are a few initial, overall thoughts:

The audience for the book will primarily be students (as a supplementary textbook for college or seminary courses), although clergy, educated laity, and even general readers are intended audiences as well.

The purpose of the book is to present a comprehensive, interdisciplinary reception history to highlight and explain the diverse responses to the parables over the centuries. Through this book, then, readers will begin to understand how contemporary interpretations of parables stand on the shoulders of centuries of conversations, that our own interpretations, whether we know it or not, are never independent of the readings and responses that have preceded us. It is those dialogues that this volume will explain and celebrate.

The book will be distinctive for at least three inter-related reasons:
  • There is a gap in scholarship: the absence of a recent, non-technical exploration of how the parables of Jesus have been interpreted since their inclusion in the Gospels. The rare examples of comparable reception historical works differ considerably from this book. The closest parallel is Warren Kissinger’s The Parables of Jesus: A History of Interpretation and Bibliography (1979). That volume, however, is a reference work that focuses on theologians and parable scholarship. In addition, surveys of scholarship may be found elsewhere (e.g., in A. M. Hunter’s 1960 Interpreting the Parables, pp. 21-41; or Robert Stein’s 1981 An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus, pp. 42-71), but those works primarily focus on exegetical and/or hermeneutical approaches. Many reviews of scholarship are out-of-date, not readily available, and/or in German, French, or Italian (e.g., Jülicher, Bugge, Jansen, and Algisi). There are some recent brief overviews (e.g., Plummer in SBJT 13.3 (2009): 4-11), but a more extensive treatment is needed. Other studies are also somewhat inaccessible and focus on specific parables or interpreters (e.g., Orbe on Irenaeus, Lehtipuu on the Rich Man and Lazarus, or Gragg on the Workers in the Vineyard). Other works focus on specific approaches during certain eras (e.g., Wailes’s 1987 Medieval Allegories of Jesus’ Parables). In addition, most discussions focus almost entirely on scholarly interpretations since Jülicher (e.g., my book, What Are They Saying about the Parables?).
  • This book will also serve to correct some misunderstandings about parable interpretation. One example is the paucity of discussion about non-allegorical interpretations of the parables during the ancient and medieval periods (Robert Karris rightly chides Klyne Snodgrass and other scholars here; see Karris’s 2003 Works of St. Bonaventure Volume VIII, Part 2, pp. x-xii). An allegorizing approach was dominant during this period—as was interpreting parables via proof texting with other scripture passages—but there are significant examples of non-allegorical interpretations of parables (I will talk about John Chrysostom, Bonaventure, and others in this respect). This book will also implicitly address the denigration of allegory and allegorization in scholarship since Jülicher and help provide a more nuanced response to allegorized interpretations (cf. Craig Blomberg and Mikeal Parsons; this is a development in my own thinking as well). As we study the history of interpretation with less “Jülicher-biased” eyes, perhaps we should recall the words of Frank Kermode: “Allegory is the patristic way of dealing with inexhaustible hermeneutic potential” (The Genesis of Secrecy, 1979, p. 44). The parables certainly have “inexhaustible hermeneutic potential,” and this book will seek to capture important and diverse variations of those interpretations—allegorical, literal, and everything in between.
  • This book also will address another gap in reception history studies—noted above—that discussions of the “afterlife” of parables are usually limited to theologians and/or scholars. Not only will this book be student-oriented, but it also will discuss non-theologians, non-scholars, and secular interpretations, with discussions that include worship, art, music, literature, etc.
The book can function as a supplementary textbook for a class on the parables, since there is a lack of accessible works that give a more systematic, interdisciplinary discussion of the history of interpretation. Most books on the parables are exegetical/hermeneutical in nature, and this book would be used in conjunction with introductions to the parables such as ones by Snodgrass, Hultgren, or Scott, none of which deal with these issues in a significant way (e.g., Snodgrass mentions Augustine ten times, but Calvin and Tertullian only once each; Chrysostom, Jerome, and Origen four times each; Ambrose five times; and Gregory the Great twice).

The basic outline of the book
  1. Chapter 1: The Early Church (until Gregory the Great in the mid/late 500s)
  2. Chapter 2: The Middle Ages (~550-1500)
  3. Chapter 3: The Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries
  4. Chapter 4: The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries
  5. Chapter 5: The Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries

 The length and structure of the book
  • My outline assumes five chapters of approximately 20,000 words each, plus a brief introduction and conclusion of less than 2500 words each.
  • The interpretations within the chapters will also follow a roughly chronological order, although some deviations from that chronology may be made for the sake of clarity or to illustrate certain themes more completely.
  • My goal is to include a number of diverse responses to the parables, to allow a wide variety of responses to be heard while attempting to balance depth and breadth, and to focus on important voices while being as comprehensive as possible.
  • In addition to significant “mainstream” Christian voices, I also intend to include examples from a wide variety of responses from differing perspectives, such as from “Radical Christianity” (e.g., the Lollards, Anabaptists, William Blake, et al.), responses from outside North America and Europe, and some responses from other religions and from secular sources.
  • I intend not only to focus on theological or academic responses (the book will not concentrate on academic debates in modern scholarship that are adequately covered elsewhere) but also on other types of devotional/worship responses (e.g., sermons and hymns). In addition, the book will also address, where possible, social and political elements, literature, and the arts.
  • Each discussion of an interpreter would begin with (a) biographical introduction of the interpreter that then (b) introduces the discussion of how s/he uses the parable(s) with examples and analysis and (c) concludes with a “For Further Reading” brief bibliography. Thus this book is not a “reader,” although it will include excerpts from interpreters (from public domain sources when possible) to allow their voices to speak for themselves. 


The next post will focus on specific issues I faced while writing Chapter 1 (e.g. the first draft is 35,000 words instead of 20,000!). Then the posts for the next few weeks will focus on interesting things I found from the early church’s interpretations of the parables.

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