Friday, March 12, 2021
Chapter 4 (totally new chapter!) of revised/expanded What are They Saying about the Parables, Chapter 4 (part 1)
Saturday, March 6, 2021
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.
Not bad advice from Jesus ("Go and do likewise") and Thurman ("Try it and see").
Thursday, March 4, 2021
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?, 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.
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.
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