Wednesday, July 8, 2015

200th post: Book on Characterization

Out celebrating my 200th "A Chorus of Voices" blog post

This post is my 200th post for this blog (I began the blog on December 9, 2013). The blog occupies a very small niche (reception history of the parables) within a small niche (reception history of the Bible) in scholarship, but it has proved to be very helpful to a number of people, including me. Writing the blog has helped me refine what I write and how I write in the book. Blogspot tells me that this blog has been accessed in at least 110 countries, which I find both surprising and gratifying. I hope the blog continues to be helpful as I come to the “home stretch” of writing the book. I will post more details about my progress on the book later this week

This post, however, focuses on a chapter I am writing for a forthcoming book on characterization in Luke, which is a return of sorts for me, since my first published articles and book concerned characterization in Luke (I started working on that topic in 1987 or so). Since I focus on how characterization in the Prodigal Son parable has been received in various ways over the centuries, the chapter is an appropriate topic to mention here:

“The Characterization of the Two Brothers in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32): Their Function and Afterlives,” in Characters and Characterization in Luke-Acts. Edited by Frank Dicken and Julia Snyder. London: Bloomsbury, forthcoming, 2016.

The chapter is supposed to be 6000 words and, as always, I am way over the word count in the first and second drafts. Only 2000 more words to cut, and I am done (It was originally over 10,000 words)!

Here is an outline of the chapter so far:

I. Introduction
The parable of the Prodigal Son has fascinated interpreters over the centuries more than any other parable of Jesus. The characterizations of the father and his two sons are subtly fascinating; they invite investigation and leave readers mulling over the possibilities inherent in their portrayals.

People tend to identify with—or be identified by others—as one of the two sons in parable, with almost all interpreters assuming that the father in the parable symbolizes the loving and forgiving God of the Christian Gospel, since in the Lukan narrative, the father’s words and actions mirror God’s words and actions.

Responses to the parable, however, are generated primarily by the compelling and almost universal themes the parable evokes, such as conflicts between older and younger generations, including thankless or rebellious children; rivalries between siblings; the relationship between justice, love, and mercy; and the loss and restoration of community or family.

In addition, the parable is famously open-ended: Readers/hearers do not know whether the elder son relents and joins the celebration. What some interpreters fail to realize, however, is that the characterization of the younger son is also ambiguous: Readers/hearers are not told for certain whether the younger son actually repents or whether, similar to when he initially asked for his inheritance, he plays his father for a fool. The contexts—both biblical and Lukan—raise significant questions about his motives and sincerity.

II. The Function of the Two Brothers in the Gospel of Luke

Over twenty-five years ago, I developed a model for analyzing the process of characterization. I developed this model from literary theorists, applied it first to examples in modern literature, and then modified it for biblical studies by adapting the model to ancient literature. Finally, I used this model for character analysis on a test case: the portrayal of the Pharisees in Luke-Acts. The development and application of this model can be found in the 1991 book, Host, Guest, Enemy, and Friend: Portraits of the Pharisees in Luke and Acts.

I subsequently refined this model and have great appreciation for recent advances in the study of characterization in Luke-Acts (e.g., by Cornelius Bennema). My own conclusions about the characterization of the Pharisees in Luke-Acts, I believe, have proved to be correct, including the analysis of the Prodigal Son parable.

Therefore, this essay does reprise those arguments. Instead, it explains briefly the function of the two brothers in the narrative of Luke-Acts and then focuses on selected examples of the afterlives of the brothers over the succeeding centuries in art, drama, and music to demonstrate the power of Luke’s characterization of the two brothers.

The Gospel of Luke provides us with the first “reception” of the parable. All three “Lost” parables—the Lost Coin, Sheep, and Son—virtually become mise en abymes in which the Lukan Jesus welcomes tax collectors and sinners and also entreats the Pharisees and scribes to rejoice over the restoration of sinners. In brief, these three parables perform two functions within Luke: the defense of Jesus’s ministry to tax collectors and sinners and also a continuing call for the Pharisees and scribes to join the communal celebration over the lost being found. Since Jesus addresses these parables, the narrator informs us, to them, all three parables provide a powerful indirect presentation of the Pharisees and scribes, as well as the tax collectors and sinners.

III. The Afterlives of the Two Sons

The earliest interpretations of the parable fall into four main categories: Gnosticizing, Ethical, Ethnic, and Penitential interpretations (see Tissot 363-66). Such allegorical interpretations extend into the Middle Ages. The ethnic interpretation dominates medieval understandings of the parable, but the penitential readings are prominent as well (e.g., Bonaventure).

Since the receptions of the Prodigal Son parable are so extensive, I focus on a few examples drawn from art, drama, and music of two impulses within the history of interpretation that stem directly from the characterizations of the two sons: (a) self-identification with the younger son and (b) assumed reconciliation between the two brothers. Although the parable itself is unclear about whether the prodigal truly repents, Luke interprets it as such, and this focus on penitence seems to be the foundation on which these two responses build: a self-identification with the prodigal both before and after repentance and—amidst an overwhelming neglect of the older brother—a desire to see the two brothers and father reconcile. Both impulses primarily stem from the penitential and ethical interpretations above, that of the younger son symbolizing sinful Christians who fall away from their faith and the need for other Christians to welcome them back.

John Chrysostom provides an early example of both these tendencies in a letter written to his friend, Theodore of Mopsuestia. Chrysostom believes that the prodigal son denotes Christians who have fallen away from their faith and uses the return of the prodigal son as an example of what Christians who have “fallen away after having believed” should do when they also sin against God. Chrysostom thus effectively integrates the ethical and penitential interpretations of the parable.

A. Self-identification with the Prodigal Son in Art
Albrecht Dürer
Thomas Hart Benton

B. Reconciliation of the Two Brothers in Drama
Antonia Pulci

C. Self-identification and Reconciliation of the Two Brothers in Music 
Romanos the Melodist
Blues music and “The Prodigal Son pattern” (e.g., Robert Wilkins)

IV. Conclusion

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