Tuesday, March 11, 2014

University of Oxford Lecture this June

Dr. Christine Joynes was kind enough to extend an invitation to me to present a paper at the Centre for Reception History at the University of Oxford. It looks like June 9 is the most likely option. Chris is at Trinity College (University of Oxford), is the Director of the Centre, and is currently working on her much-anticipated Blackwell Bible Commentary on the Gospel of Mark.

The topic for my paper would be drawn from my work on this book on the reception history of the parables, and I want to highlight some interpretations that are distinctive and perhaps overlooked. I am thinking about two possible approaches, both of which would include Thomas Hart Benton’s idiosyncratic response to the Prodigal Son parable in his lithograph, The Prodigal Son. That haunting image serves as a lament and warning, in my reading, and I want to explore it further. 

Here are the two options for the paper that I am considering:

First option: A review and analysis of a few responses to the parable of the Prodigal Son, such as:
  • The stained glass window in the Chartres Cathedral  (ca. 1200). This “luminous sermon” (used by Stoksted about stained glass windows of this era) gives an answer to the parable’s open-ended question of whether the elder brother went inside with his father to celebrate his brother’s return.
  • Antonia Pulci’s play  (late 15th century), which adds numerous details to the parable (e.g., the son asked for his inheritance after losing a great amount of money while gambling, the prodigal’s companions are the seven deadly sins, etc.).
  • Albrecht Dürer’s The Prodigal Son among the Pigs (1496). This depiction of the son’s moment of repentance among the pigs is rare for its era.
  • Benton’s lithograph (1939), which upends the meaning of the parable (e.g., the jarring representation of the “fatted calf”).
  • The Blues song by Rev. Robert Wilkins, The Prodigal Son (redone by the Rolling Stones), with the development in the son’s understanding of the “way to get along” as the song progresses and the final statement of how we all are “to get along.”

These responses give a wide array of interpretations (and via differing media) to the parable while focusing on one of the more popular parables in the reception history of the parables.

Second option: Distinctive cultural interpretations from the early/mid 20th century in the U.S. (both secular and religious), such as:
  • Benton’s lithograph
  • Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear it Away (which incorporates the Sower parable in her characteristic way; the title of the novel comes from Matthew 11:12 in the Douay-Rheims Bible).
  • Selections from Clarence Jordan’s interpretations 
  • Selections from Blues songs:
    • Blind Willie Johnson, Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning.
    • Blind Joe Taggart, God’s Going to Separate the Wheat from the Tares
    • Rev. Robert Wilkins, The Prodigal Son


Benton’s work is the only one not from the South in this second option, although he does portray aspects of “Southern” religion in other of his works. O’Connor (Catholic) and Jordan (Baptist) lived in my adopted state of Georgia. So the unifying aspect of this approach would be the theme of "Regionalism," since Benton was one of the founders of that movement in modern art, and the other interpreters illustrate how one's "space" or region greatly influences one's interpretation/reception of the parables.

I will write about all of these interpretations on the blog, no matter which option I choose. 

Which paper would you be more interested in hearing and discussing? If you would rather not comment here, you could send me an email privately. 

Just in case you are interested in hearing one of the songs listed above: I don't know if a YouTube video will work on this blog, but if it doesn't, I will post the URL. This video is the Rolling Stones' version of The Prodigal Son, because, at three minutes, it is about six minutes shorter than the one by Rev. Wilkins:


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