Sunday, August 23, 2015

"The Characterization of the Two Brothers in the Parable of the Prodigal Son"

Last week I turned in an essay that will appear as a chapter in a volume edited by Frank Dicken and Julia Snyder. The entire volume covers a subject I started working on over twenty-five years ago--characterization in Luke-Acts--which ended up as being the subject of my first book, Host, Guest, Enemy, and Friend: Portraits of the Pharisees in Luke and Acts (1991). 

Here is the title of the current essay and the book information:

“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.

Julia and Frank have some great contributors for this volume, and I really look forward to reading the book when it comes out.

As far as my own essay, it reinforced for me just how important reception history is for biblical interpretation in a number of ways, including the analysis of characters and characterization. I won't summarize the essay or talk about its basic elements, but perhaps 470 words from a draft of the essay's conclusion will illustrate (you will have to read the full essay when it comes out to see how I reach this conclusion):

‘The question to ask of [parables] from the standpoint of poetics is not just what they mean or what they do but what they want­—what claim they make upon us, and how we are to respond’.[1]

The quote above actually is about ‘pictures’, not ‘parables’, but in this instance pictures and parables function the same way (especially since parables tend to form pictures in their hearers/readers’ minds). In addition, the characterizations of the two sons in the parable, including ambiguities about both characters’ portrayals, generate a variety of interpretations.

Receptions that self-identify with the prodigal are illuminating, as are the receptions of the elder son where often ‘the dog does not bark’[2]: Ignoring or downplaying the role of the elder brother can lead to more superficial readings. John Ruskin, for example, complains that the elder brother is often relegated to a ‘picturesque figure introduced to fill in the background of the parable agreeably’.[3] His point was that interpreters neglected whatever lessons the elder sibling’s portrayal could generate. Very few people, in fact, want to identify with the elder brother; people usually only want to identify others as fitting that role.

Parables and other narratives, by their nature, do not function as telegraph messages that require a mere decoding. Parables, as indirect communication, serve to generate new meanings, and they, to a certain extent foresee and anticipate our responses. Parables do not give the final word, because Jesus the parabler created them with one ear already listening for our answers.[4] In addition, both parables and characterization themselves are rhetorical in the sense that they seek to persuade their readers, asking them to make particular choices.[5]

But readers do not have to acquiesce to the narrator’s attempts at persuasion, and the varying reactions to the prodigal son and his brother exemplify the enigmatic power inherent in such subtle characterizations. They also demonstrate the gap in most attempts at character evaluation, including some of my own previous attempts: It is informative not just to evaluate rhetorical aspects of characterization in narratives and the supposed effects on implied and intended audiences; it is also informative to evaluate the receptions of such characters by ‘real’ audiences over the centuries.

[1] W. J. T. Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want? (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), xv. I have replaced ‘pictures’ with ‘parables’ in this quote.
[2] As per the ‘curious incident of the dog in the night-time’, when it ‘did nothing’: Arthur Conan Doyle, ‘The Adventure of Silver Blaze’, in The Original Illustrated Sherlock Holmes (Secaucus, NJ: Castle Books, 1979), 196.
[3] Siebald and Ryken, ‘Prodigal Son’, 641. John Ruskin, Praeterita (Boston: Dana Estes, 1885), 397.
[4] David B. Gowler, What Are They Saying about the Parables? Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, 2000, p. 103.
[5] As Bennema notes, ‘character evaluation inevitably leads to self-evaluation’ (emphasis his), Theory of Character, 186.

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