Thursday, February 25, 2021

Chapter 2 of the second (revised and expanded) edition of What are They Saying about the Parables

Chapter 2 of the second edition of What are They Saying about the Parables, The Emergence of Literary Approaches to the Parables, is also significantly revised but not as extensively as the later revised chapters. This chapter covers the “seismic shift” in parable study that began in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s. 

At the forefront of these creative innovations, and in the middle of those often tempestuous discussions, stood Amos Wilder and Aesthetic-Rhetorical Criticism, beginning with his chapter on the parables in The Language of the Gospel. The chapter is only eighteen pages long, but it established the parameters for discussions for years to come. For example, influenced by contemporary literary-critical discussions of metaphor, particularly the work of the poet and literary critic Ezra Pound, Wilder contends that a metaphor imparts an “image with a certain shock to the imagination which directly conveys a vision of what is signified” (80). The hearer participates in this reality and is, in fact, “invaded” by it (92). 

Wilder is concerned with the historical Jesus, and this can be seen in his discussion about the parables of the kingdom (90–96). Standing on the shoulders of Dodd and Jeremias, Wilder argues that the parables must be extricated from their gospel contexts, and that the “original form” must be reconstructed (90). He does not offer a program for recovering the original parables but asserts that true parables of Jesus have a “tight form” that resists change (cf. the “communal memory” of Dale Allison and the “memory paradigm” of Ruben Zimmermann that I discuss in chapter 4 of this book). 

The section, The Parable as Metaphor, investigates how Robert Funk entered the metaphorical door opened by Wilder and furthered the study of parables as narrative metaphors by focusing not on parable as direct communication about something, but as a language event that reshaped the world of the listener to the point where a judgment was necessary about the everyday world. Thus, like Wilder, Funk stressed the “secularity” of the parables and studied the function of poetic language, as well as the formal features of the parables (e.g., in a chapter entitled “The Parable as Metaphor” in his book Language, Hermeneutic, and the Word of God). In Funk’s view parable/metaphor juxtaposes two discrete and not entirely compatible elements. This juxtaposition is “creative of meaning” and induces a vision that “cannot be conveyed by prosaic or discursive speech” (137). The metaphor confronts us; it produces an impact upon the imagination; it is the bearer of reality. This move is a crucial one, because Funk completely reverses the conclusion of Jülicher by saying that similes/parables are extended metaphors and are not extended comparisons (I also discuss other books/articles about parables and metaphors here and in a later chapter). 

The section, The Parable as Aesthetic Object, begins a discussion with Dan Otto Via’s investigations of parables as “aesthetic objects,” which leads to an analysis, The Varying Legacies of Wilder, Funk, and Via that discusses such scholars as Sallie McFague (e.g., Speaking in Parables), Mary Ann Tolbert (e.g., Perspectives on the Parables), and James Breech (e.g., The Silence of Jesus: The Authentic Voice of the Historical Man). 

The Brief Reign of Structuralism covers, for example, the Society of Biblical Literature’s Seminar on the Parables, whose first meeting in 1973 focused on “A Structuralist Approach to the Parables.” A prime example is Dan Otto Via’s 1974 Semeia article, “Parable and Example Story: A Literary-Structuralist Approach” that adopts the structuralist model of Algirdas Greimas, as developed by Roland Barthes 

The Conclusion to this chapter notes that these scholars who had begun to focus on parables as literary works of art, saw the parables in a different light. Amos Wilder and Robert Funk, for example, reversed Jülicher’s contention that similes/parables are expanded comparisons by arguing that parables are extended metaphors. Another important shift occurred, however. Although these scholars, as previous scholars had done, almost always remove parables from their gospel contexts and use tools of historical criticism to recreate their “original forms,” they now also primarily use literary criticism to try to understand parables’ natural function as language in the new setting of modern interpretations. Thus new methods and skills, such as linguistic and structural emphases, are applied within these literary analyses and interpretations. But, as other chapters in the book make clear, much about the language of and about the parables themselves remained to be explored.

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