Friday, March 12, 2021

Chapter 4 (totally new chapter!) of revised/expanded What are They Saying about the Parables, Chapter 4 (part 1)




What are They Saying about the Parables (second edition), 
Chapter 4: The Parables of Jesus in/and the Gospels: 
The Dialogues Continue (Part 1: Arland Hultgren) 

Introduction 

Parable scholarship consists of diverse and sometimes diametrically opposed points of view. Diversity, however, is not chaos. Parable scholarship can best be described as heteroglossia, which the philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin describes as the dynamic interaction of a number of voices, ideologies, and positions (see Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination). Scholars speak in various discourses, from different perspectives, and using diverse approaches. Yet Bakhtin’s dialogical perspective, even though heteroglossia contains voices that can contradict each other (262–63), also can include polyphony, where many contesting voices representing a variety of ideological positions engage as equals in dialogue (see Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, 6–7). Similar to the concept of heteroglossia, the term polyphony—in all of its profoundly pluralistic aspects—is certainly analogous to current parable scholarship. Such divergent voices are essential, because, as Bakhtin notes, “Truth is not born nor is it to be found inside the head of an individual person, it is born between people collectively searching for truth, in the process of their dialogic interaction” (Bakhtin, Dialogic Imagination, 110. Cf. David B. Gowler, “Heteroglossic Trends in Biblical Studies: Polyphonic Dialogues or Clanging Cymbals,” Review and Expositor 97:4 (2000): 443–66). 

That search for truth in parable scholarship continues, and scholars have made significant progress in recent years, for example, in placing parables more firmly in their Jewish, Hellenistic-Roman, and social contexts. Those aspects are covered in chapters 5, 6, and 7 of What are They saying about the Parables? In addition, although scholarly works since 2000 are discussed in every chapter of this book, this new chapter (Chapter 4) analyzes recent discussions that exemplify a continuing focus on familiar topics: whether, to what extent, or how Synoptic parables should be interpreted as parables from the historical Jesus. It also is different in that a smaller number of scholars and their recent books/articles are examined in greater depth. 

The first section of this chapter, In the Shadow of Jeremias: The Synoptic Parables of Jesus for the Church, focuses primarily on Arland Hultgren’s The Parables of Jesus. This book seeks to fill a void that Hultgren saw within parable scholarship, namely, “a study of the parables that is comprehensive, drawing upon the wealth of parable research, and that is at the same time exegetical and theological” (xi). Hultgren thus primarily interprets the parables of Jesus “within the Christian church” and for proclamation in the church (17), an aspect central to Christian theology and experience, since parables are Jesus’ principal mode of teaching (1). 

In Hultgren’s view, Jesus’ parables have universal appeal as stories that connect with the “human condition,” but they also have been “preserved, taught, and interpreted in the preaching of the church precisely because they are parables of Jesus, regarded as the crucified and resurrected Redeemer.” The parables, then, must be interpreted as communicating Jesus’ distinctive experience, understanding, and proclamation of God’s kingdom (11–12). Although discerning the “original setting” of the parables in Jesus’ ministry is extremely difficult, Hultgren does not want to abandon this historical task completely. Yet since he seeks to interpret the parables of Jesus in the context and proclamation of the Christian church, he advocates examining them in their literary contexts in the (canonical) gospels, not in light of the “Jesus of one’s construction” (17) or “within a preconceived notion” of how Jesus “really” used parables. His main goal remains the exegesis of and theological reflection on “the parables of Jesus as transmitted within the Synoptic Gospels” (19). 

Hultgren’s interpretations are often insightful, and he includes significant discussions of parables’ first-century contexts and the resulting implications for how modern readers should understand the parables. His important exegesis of Matthew’s “Final Judgment” (25:31–46), for example, cogently argues that the judgment portrayed is universal—“all of humanity stands before the Son of man awaiting judgment” (313)—and that the acts of mercy to “one of the least of these my brothers and sisters” means helping any person in need (pace interpretations that argue it designates helping Christians in need, such as early Christian missionaries; 317–26). 

Yet Hultgren’s interpretations sometimes appear to domesticate Jesus’ more provocative parables. For example, he tends to downplay the economic contexts of parables such as the Rich Fool (104–9) and the Rich Man and Lazarus (110–16). Jesus’ parables tend to step on his listeners’ toes harder than Hultgren often allows. 

The next post (Part 2 of Chapter 4) will discuss the section of this chapter, The Parables and Jesus’ “Intention,” that focuses primarily on the second edition of Klyne Snodgrass’s Stories with Intent.

Saturday, March 6, 2021

Hope and Despair in Rembrandt's 'The Good Samaritan'


I am delighted that my essay, "Hope and despair in Rembrandt's 'The Good Samaritan'" just appeared in today's National Catholic Reporter. 

This essay builds upon one of the four short essays I did for the Visual Commentary on Scripture published by King's College, London, which they entitled with the rather distinctive, "Sh*t Happens."

The National Catholic Reporter essay not only has a more family-friendly name; it also, I think, has a very timely message for the difficult era in which we live, specifically because interpretations of Rembrandt's etching shed light on divergent yet interlocking ways in which human beings respond to difficult circumstances.

One response is of hope; the other is of despair.

I won't post the entire essay (even though the essay is brief), but here is the conclusion:

Another way to approach this image and the parable itself, however, is that this act of compassion and mercy takes place not just in the midst of evil or even in spite of evil, but as a radical and in some ways redemptive act against evil.

To be clear, the parable does not focus on what should happen to the perpetrators of such injustices, whether individual or structural; instead, it illustrates how one should treat the victims of injustices, no matter who they are.

The great theologian Howard Thurman believed that the parable of the good Samaritan demonstrated that the transformation of society ultimately depends on the transformation of individual human beings and that this personal transformation should create not just transformed individuals but a community of like-minded human beings (e.g., a "beloved community") dedicated to social transformation in response to the human need that surrounds them.

In times of personal and societal distress, it is often difficult to believe, as did Theodore Parker (and Martin Luther King Jr.) that the arc of the moral universe, albeit long, "bends toward justice." Thurman realized that the pervasiveness of injustice does not provide an "escape hatch" of despair that one's actions will not make a difference in creating a better society. He believed that there is a persistent struggle between good and evil, both in oneself and in society, and that all are responsible for acts of justice, mercy and compassion in the world of parable and in the world in which we live.

The command at the end of the parable, to go and do likewise, to show compassion and mercy to those who suffer injustices, focuses our attention on the need to transform ourselves into people who work actively on the behalf of other human beings who suffer similar injustices, doing our part to try to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice.

The parable of the good Samaritan and Rembrandt's response to it accurately portray the injustices in their worlds and ours. They also do not downplay the fact that the results of one's actions to assist other human beings may be seen as foolhardy or even fruitless. Yet we will never know, unless, as Jesus urged at the end of the parable, and as Thurman himself suggested, that we "try it and see."

Not bad advice from Jesus ("Go and do likewise") and Thurman ("Try it and see"). 

Thursday, March 4, 2021

Chapter 3 of the second edition of What Are They Saying about the Parables? (Part 2)

 


This is the second part of a summary of some of what is found in Chapter 3 of the second edition of What Are They Saying about the Parables?: Fully Developed Literary Approaches to the Parables. Examples of other scholars and works included in this chapter are Bernard Brandon Scott’s Jesus, Symbol-Maker for the Kingdom (1981) and Hear Then the Parable: A Commentary on the Parables of Jesus (1989). In addition to analyses and critiques in this chapter, other related scholars/works are found in subsequent chapters, such as in chapter 6 (e.g., William Herzog) and chapter 8 (e.g., Charles Hedrick; Luise Schottroff). In Chapter 3, I also briefly mention Scott’s 2002 Re-Imagine the World, an introduction to the parables for non-specialists that contains a brief overview of Jesus and the parables and concludes with an essay on parable, historical Jesus, Q studies, and recommended readings. 

The section, Contextual Readings of the Parables, begins with a discussion of John Drury’s The Parables in the Gospels: History and Allegory (1985) and Mary Ann Tolbert’s Perspectives on the Parables (1979; and her 1989 Sowing the Gospel that analyzes the parables as parables of the gospels, not as parables of Jesus). 

Robert Tannehill’s The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts: A Literary Interpretation (1986) is significant because it focuses on how parables function within the Gospel of Luke itself. 

This section of WATSA Parables? also includes analyses of Ched Myer’s Binding the Strong Man (1988) and my own Host, Guest, Enemy, and Friend (a "socio-narratological analysis" later developed into an even more interdisciplinary mode of analysis, a “dialogic reading”: See, for example, David B. Gowler, “The Enthymematic Nature of Parables: A Dialogic Reading of the Parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:16–20),” Review and Expositor 109:2 (2012): 199–217; and “‘At His Gate Lay a Poor Man’: A Dialogic Reading of Luke 16:19–31,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 32:3 (2005): 249–65.), where I examine, in part, how parables become, on the narrative level, indirect presentations of character traits of the Lukan Pharisees. 

Other important works in this era include John Donahue’s The Gospel as Parable (1988) and Warren Carter and John Paul Heil’s 1998 Matthew’s Parables. The latter focuses on what happens as Matthew’s audience interacts with the parables in their present form and in their current placement within the plot of Matthew’s gospel, and this sections analyzes four important features of this approach (which I won’t summarize here). See also, John Paul Heil, The Gospel of Mark as a Model for Action (1992) for another example of how parables can be interpreted within their literary contexts, as well as Peter Yaw Oppong-Kim, Matthean Sets of Parables (2013) and John Kilgallen’s explorations of twenty parables in their Lukan contexts: Twenty Parables of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke (2008). 

Another more recent work is Lauri Thurén’s 2014 Parables Unplugged that reads the Lukan parables in their “rhetorical context” in an attempt to get beyond the “bewildering diversity of interpretations” and move toward a “natural listening” by “detaching the parables from all other perspectives.” The aim is “to read the parables of Jesus ‘naked’ or ‘unplugged,’ without any presuppositions, alterations, or later problems” (10). To attempt this task, Thurén endeavors to “get back to the text, back to the message and function of the parables in their real context” (and by “real,” Thurén means their gospel contexts; 11). 

Thurén’s focus on the text is commendable, since a critical first step in interpretation focuses on “inner texture”—rhetorical features such as the literary context, structure, and details and thus the specific ways in which texts attempt to persuade their readers. Yet because texts are more complex than Thurén’s model assumes, additional steps are needed, such as including “intertexture”—a text’s representation of, reference to, and use of phenomena in the “world” (That is, a text’s citations, allusions, and reconfigurations of specific texts, events, language, objects, institutions, and other specific extra-textual contexts with which the text interacts)—and social and cultural texture—how the text shares the general social and cultural attitudes, norms, and modes of interaction which are known by everyone in a society. For a student-friendly early discussion of these textures, see Vernon K. Robbins, Exploring the Texture of Texts (1996). 

Thurén’s interpretations of parables are often insightful and contain helpful correctives for those interpreters who stray too far from the text. In the end, however, Thurén’s reading includes too many of his own presuppositions, which ironically confirms Dieter Roth’s conclusion that “Parables can never be unplugged, and parables never should be unplugged” (Review of Biblical Literature, January, 2017).

 I write a lengthy “Bakhtinian rejoinder” to all of these analyses (of the first three chapters) and then close with a few additional remarks. As far as the scholars/works in Chapter 3: The advent of “fully developed” literary approaches to the parables of Jesus inaugurates a significant shift in orientation, methodology, and language. Debates still occur about simile/metaphor, parable/allegory, and other related matters (see chapter 8 below), but implicitly or explicitly, most scholars accepted a view of parable as primarily metaphoric in a context of which metaphoric elements actually extend to all language (cf. Charles Hedrick). 

As always, scholarship is an ongoing discussion, with new insights and approaches appearing, including old questions being addressed in innovative and different ways. The development chronicled in the first three chapters entails a shift from a primarily historical focus to a focus on the nature of language in its social, cultural, literary, historical, ideological, and rhetorical contexts. Current scholarship, as the following chapters demonstrate, continues to explore the nature of parables and the nature of language in a multitude of ways, but most of them, in varying amounts and degrees, incorporate at least some of the insights of these literary approaches—if not their orientation, methodology, and language. 

The next post or two (next week) will be about a brand new chapter in WATSA Parables?: Chapter 4: “The Parables of Jesus in/and the Gospels: The Dialogues Continue.”

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Chapter 3 of the second edition of What Are They Saying about the Parables? (Part 1)



Chapter 3 of the second edition of What Are They Saying about the Parables?, Fully Developed Literary Approaches to the Parables, is another significantly revised/expanded version of the chapter in the first edition (stay tuned: Chapter 4 is a completely new chapter!). 

This chapter begins to explore how literary approaches to the parables began to be applied in a programmatic way to the entire parable corpus or to key parables within a particular gospel. It analyzes how earlier studies on the literary aspects of the parables began to bear fruit in the works of other scholars. John Dominic Crossan is the primary example because he pulls together the advances of his predecessors and furthers their work with innovative insights from contemporary literary criticism. John Drury and others also represent an important turning point; they return the parables to their gospel contexts but now examine them afresh with a literary sensitivity to how parables function as narratives within larger narratives. 

The lengthy section about John Dominic Crossan’s prolific contributions to parable study includes revisions of what was already in WATSA Parables? and new analyses of his works over the past twenty years (including some insights I also covered in my What are They Saying about the Historical Jesus?, also with Paulist Press). Some of the works examined are: 

  • In Parables: The Challenge of the Historical Jesus (1973), where Crossan examines the “historical Jesus,” not in the sense of his religion, faith, or self-understanding, but in the sense of the language of Jesus—specifically that of “the reconstructed parabolic complex” (xiii). The distinction Crossan makes in this work between parable and allegory is crucial for his thesis. He compares allegory—which expresses the intelligible—and symbol—which expresses the inexpressible. Crossan argues that parables reflect the temporality of Jesus’ experience of God, establish the historicity of Jesus’ response to the kingdom, and “create and establish the historical situation of Jesus himself” (32). In other words, Jesus was not crucified for speaking parables, but for ways of acting that resulted from the experience of God presented in the parables. These poetic metaphors, Crossan asserts, portray a “permanent eschatology,” the continuous presence of God as the one who challenges the world and repeatedly shatters its complacency. This kingdom of God and its parables manifest an advent of a radical new world of possibility, a reversal of ordinary expectations and the past, and a call to action as an expression of the new world with new possibilities (26–27). 
  • The Dark Interval (1975), which uses the structuralist models of Claude Lévi-Strauss (as adapted by the anthropologists Elli and Pierre Maranda) and Algirdas Greimas (as modified by Roland Barthes) and asserts that “reality is language” (37). 
  • Raid on the Articulate (1976) that juxtaposes sayings and parables of Jesus with works by the Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges. Tania Oldenhage speculates that Crossan’s book might be the “first instance of a biblical scholar trying to make Jesus’ stories speak to a post-Holocaust situation” (Parables for our Time: Rereading New Testament Scholarship after the Holocaust, 2002, 7). 
  • Finding is the First Act (1979) that examines the structures of the parable of the Hidden Treasure (Matt 13:44) by mapping out its plot options (finding, acting, buying) in comparison with other Jewish treasure stories and an array of “treasure plots” in world folklore. 
  • Cliffs of Fall (1980) that shares Jacques Derrida’s belief that all language is metaphoric. Metaphor creates a “void” of meaning that generates the free play of interpretations. Language thus is judged to be polyvalent; it allows no single and definitive reading/hearing to emerge. For Crossan, theology therefore must be seen as devoid of absolutes and of all pretense of knowing any secure reality by which to test other reality claims: “Parable becomes the deconstructive medium par excellence” (cf. the critique by Brown and Malbon, “Parabling as a Via Negativa”). 
  • Brief discussion of The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Peasant (1991); Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (1994); Who Killed Jesus? (1995); and, with Jonathan L. Reid, Excavating Jesus (2001). Crossan notes that he wrote about a million words about the historical Jesus in the 1990s alone. 
Additions to the second edition of WATSA Parables? includes that fact that, as Crossan notes in his autobiography, A Long Way from Tipperary (2000), the word parable is also constitutive for all of Crossan’s work on the historical Jesus and earliest Christianity. He argues that when Jesus wanted to say something important about God, he did so through a parable, and when the church wanted to say something important about Jesus, they too used parables: “the parabler had become parabled” (168). Crossan believes that the earliest followers of Jesus created “parables” about Jesus (136). For example, the nature miracles described in the gospels “scream parable” at Crossan; not history, not miracle, but parable: “They were not historical stories about Jesus’ power over natural forces, but parabolical stories about Jesus’ power over community leaders” (167). 

The section thus concludes with an extended analysis of Crossan’s 2012 book, The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus became Fiction about Jesus, where he proposes a threefold typology of parables—stories that “point metaphorically beyond themselves to some external referent that has to be discovered by their recipients” (136). The most accurate way to categorize the parables of Jesus, according to Crossan, are as challenge parables, “extremely gentle” provocations that are pedagogical and instructive, not primarily polemical and aggressive: “They want to seduce you into thought rather than beat you into silence and batter you into subjection” (137). All three types of parables—riddle, example, and challenge—are “participatory pedagogy,” but Jesus preferred challenge parables because they are nonviolent pedagogy, thus the medium of the message coheres with the content of Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God (245), whereas riddle and example parables are more adversarial (136). The second section of Crossan’s book then argues that the four New Testament Gospels are actually parables told about Jesus, similar in function to the books of Ruth, Jonah, and Job in the Hebrew Bible (73–88). 

I’ll write about the rest of Chapter 3 in the next post.

Evan Christensen's "Virtual Museum" Reception History Website

"The Rich Epicure and Poor Lazarus" by Jose Arana Included in Evan Christensen's "Virtual Museum" My thanks to Dr....