Situating biblical narrative studies in literary theory and literary approaches
Johannes C de Klerk
In literary studies of biblical texts one often encounters amazing ignorance of the intricacies of literary theory and the complexity of literary issues. This article addresses this problem from the viewpoint of biblical narrative studies. General trends of these studies are discussed, then biblical narrative studies are situated in the phenomena of `literature', and consequently in narrative theories and some crucial literary issues. Finally the article focuses on whether biblical narrative studies should persist in an old-fashioned literary approach, and some cardinal pointers ahead are presented.
In the analysis of biblical narratives various communicative phenomena are at stake, such as (a) the text, (b) which was produced by an author (or multiple authors), (c) within a certain cultural-historical framework, (d) with certain intentions (e) with regard to certain readers, (f) utilising certain textual tools (narrative conventions and techniques), (g) and finally this text was (is) interpreted by readers in various ways. In the course of time various methodologies have taken turns in concentrating on each of these phenomena, each often absolutising its own presuppositions and taking up battle stations against the others.
In the sphere of biblical interpretation this has happened quite often between the socio-historical types of approach and text-centred (including literary) approaches. The former accuse the latter of not taking the text's socio-historical context (and textual history) seriously, of projecting the reader's frame of reference onto the text, etc, etc. The latter would reply that the former (and let me deliberately dwell on this somewhat more) do not pay due respect to the biblical text as a (literary) unit in its own right, but often focus on the hypothetic materials from which the text was supposedly created -- thereby treating the biblical texts as distorted historical documents and substitutes for what had unfortunately been lost; fall prey to such transgressions as `intentional fallacy', `affective fallacy' and `referential fallacy'; do not show an awareness of the archetypal and universal nature of literature: that literary forms follow certain archetypal and universal patterns quite apart from their cultural milieu -- in the case of narratives, that stories obey certain inherent narrative principles simply because they are stories; and last, that the historical-critical methods applied by many biblical scholars have been shown to produce fundamentally incorrect results when they are actually applied to contemporary literature (Ryken 1974, 31--37).
Literary approaches to biblical narratives do indeed tend to focus more on the text as a unit, comprising different components which are interrelated through all manner of cross-references and patterns, and they do strive to interpret the text as a whole. In doing so they have not always succeeded in escaping socio-historical complaints (see Craffert 1996). However, without elaborating on this pertinent issue, I will proceed with the assumption that this does not imply that literary critics are by definition indifferent to narratives' historical embedding, nor does the discussion of a literary approach to biblical narratives below by definition exclude these narratives' historical embedding. (In this article I will concentrate on New Testament narratives.)
SOME TRENDS IN LITERARY STUDIES OF BIBLICAL NARRATIVES
First, many literary studies of biblical narratives tend to venture on a general analysis of basic aspects associated with the nature and function of stories and their reading and not rigidly restricted to particular literary schools. The narrative phenomena coming into play here include such features as narrative structure and composition, plot development, themes and motifs, characters and characterisation. Thus, for instance, the Gospels are often analysed in terms of the inherent patterns of symbols; narrative structure and the interrelatedness of themes and incidents; plot development and patterns of succession; the function of characters and the method of characterisation. What is remarkable is that micro-analyses are often carried out on smaller units or `episodes' in these narratives (for example chapter 9 of the Gospel of John).
Second (because of the very nature of biblical narratives), literary studies of biblical narratives are generally carried out in the broader context of `mainstream narratives'. Although this may be a debatable term, it situates us in the realm of the more traditional type of narrative which can be appreciated by more than an elect circle of sophisticated critics. Such narratives display fairly realistic human characters, in rather credible environments; operate within a comprehensible time sequence; develop along a rather transparent line of cause and effect; and do so with conceivable human motives and recognisable human traits (Boulton 1975:146--147). (Mainstream narratives can of course be differentiated from `experimental' narratives.)
Third, in so far as readers' responses to biblical narratives are presupposed, literary studies of biblical narratives generally work with the `average' reader. Although it would obviously be difficult to define such a reader, it is the type of reader of whom a certain spontaneous response can be expected, who would not be unaccustomed to `realist fiction', and who would be more interested in the story's narrative world than in analysing its textual features or rhetoric. At stake here is the meaning biblical narratives would have, not for feeble-minded, or necessarily for sophisticated readers, but for competent readers. Sophisticated readers can of course be presupposed. However, Alter's (1984:21) general cautioning should be heeded:
We seem now ... to run some danger of being directed by theorists to read in a way that real readers ... have never read. If one insists on seeing all novels as congeries of semiotic systems intricately functioning in a pure state of self-referentiality, one loses the fine edge of responsiveness to the urgent human predicaments that novels seek to articulate.
Fourth, with regard to schools of interpretation, literary studies of biblical narratives tend to operate within the boundaries of what may be called a `traditional Anglo-American approach'. Although it would obviously not be easy to define the borders of this approach, its characteristics would include a focus on traditional narrative phenomena such as plot, theme, spatial and temporal movement, and character portrayal, a positive attitude towards the concept of realism, not being sceptical about the illusion of reality in narratives, a high premium on the artistic qualities of narratives, an aversion to atomising tendencies in narrative interpretation because of a predilection for the unitary aspects of narrative, an emphasis on the functions of narrative phenomena, rather than analysis of its historical substructure or textual constitution, and a positive attitude towards the whole enterprise of narrative criticism, harbouring positive expectations from its results. (Classic exponents of this approach would include people such as Henry James, Percy Lubbock and E M Forster, and later exponents would include scholars such as Cleanth Brooks, Rene Wellek and Austin Warren, and Wayne Booth.)
In the application of a literary analysis of biblical narratives, one should be aware of its location within narrative theory. The options above may indeed be a fruitful way to analyse biblical narratives. However, it is necessary to be aware that there are other options which may also prove to be fruitful.
FINDING A WAY INTO NARRATIVE LITERATURE
Although biblical scholars tend to compare biblical texts with contemporary ancient texts, they would benefit greatly by comparing biblical narratives with modern works of literature (novels) as literary scholars do (or at least read some critical discussions of these works). What are the reasons for this? Narrative literature (novels in particular) of the past century and a half or so has tended to follow certain trends and fit into certain movements, and (based on the analysis of this corpus of narrative literature), contemporary narrative theories developed in the past century. Thus, taking note of this corpus of narratives enables one to have a much greater understanding of the issues and mechanisms of narrative theory. It enables one to understand that some facets of narrative theory are really applicable in their full sense to modern narratives (for example facets of the implied reader and `focalisation'), and the endeavour to apply all its facets in full to all ancient narratives sometimes leads to long nonsensical discussions about nothing. Correlating (or contrasting) the premises and practices of modern narratives with biblical narratives renders a more comprehensive perspective on biblical narratives.
- From a traditional viewpoint, biblical narrative studies would probably have significant affinity with the literature movement of realism, ranging roughly from the eighteenth century to a highpoint in the nineteenth century. But actually this is a durable type of literature which has maintained its popularity until today. It runs through writers such as Jane Austin, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Bernard Shaw, Henry James, E M Forster, and on, and on -- writers capable of creating a narrative world so realistic that it seems to be more real than life itself, enticing its readers to relive it by perceptually and emotionally losing themselves in it. Typical of this literature is a realistic correlation between the narrative world and the real world; an interest in referential and historical expression in fiction; an emphasis on the features of character and of plot development; and a high esteem for the artistic aspects of narrative. Indeed, whether we evaluate it positively or negatively, probably the features of realism have generally and lastingly kept people interested in narratives (see Opdahl 1987; Wilder 1983). The study of the premises and mechanisms of realistic literature can be fruitfully used in dealing with biblical narratives which have a lot in common with realism.
- A parallel literature movement is displayed in romanticism, dominated by idealisation and aesthetical and moralistic value judgements of life and people (see Current-Garcia & Patrick 1962:3--37). With romantic forerunners such as Samuel Coleridge (writer/scholar), William Wordsworth, and Charlotte Bront═, it held a high esteem for mythic imagination, poetic expression, the spiritual facets of life, and human feelings. It comes as no surprise that romanticism actually found the Bible a great source of inspiration. The premises of this literature movement are clearly not alien to those of biblical narratives, and studying it should provide valuable comparative insights for biblical scholars.
- The modernist literature movement in the first half of the twentieth century paved new ways by means of more individualistic experimentation with narrative artistry, and produced well-known authors such as Yeats, Dostoevsky, James Joyce, Musil, Kafka, Proust, Virginia Woolf, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, West, Sherwood Anderson, Gertrude Stein, and Faulkner. However, it probably has less to offer to the interests of biblical narrative studies because of its growing distrust of ultimate concerns and of history and social order (viewing them as chaotic and insecure), and because of its extensive experimentation with narrative techniques. What can be of value in general terms is its criticism of society, and also its striving after narrative as a well-rounded composition, as an artifact which could be complex yet still be inherently consistent.
- The liberalist literature movement in the middle twentieth century was really a postwar movement in a world faced with the horrors perpetrated by humankind and possible atomic annihilation. This literature reflects the individual's despair with a nightmare society, his doubts of human nature, and his search to find himself with the question `How should a good man live?' Thus it exhibits realism (but a stark and shocked realism), and humanism (but filled with doubt about human nature). Writers of this period would include Lionel Trilling, Mary McCarthy, and Carson McCuller, but most of its initial writers actually went on to become writers of the postmodern movement (Capote, Flannery O'Connor, Salinger, Updike, Bellow, etc). This literature has substantial elements to offer biblical narrative studies, in spite of its relativisation of universal norms (because of its high appraisal of individualism). Relevant here are its return to realism, the penetrating questions about human nature posed by its contents, a high esteem of `character', its moral concern, and its devaluation of technically complicated narrative techniques.
- Next in line was the postmodernist literature movement (surfiction, meta-fiction) after the middle twentieth century, which took certain trends of modernist narrative to their extremes. Some of its better-known writers would include Nabokov, William Gaddis, Iris Murdoch, Thomas Pynchon, Richard Brautigan, Angus Wilson, Donald Barthelme, John Barth, Doris Lessing, Norman Mailer, Muriel Spark, Truman Capote, Kurt Vonnegut, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Nelson Algren, Flannery O'Connor, John Hawkes, John Updike. This multifaceted movement challenged the concept of narrative as a realistic representation, and was also infiltrated by the conviction that life itself is an illusion -- therefore there is no real point in carefully creating literature which proposes to render an illusionary representation of life. (If anything, the narrative itself is reality.) Thus we often find in this literature the narrative focusing on itself, the narrative playing games with the reader, surrealistic expression, blatant display of writer activity, an expression of the untrustworthiness of the text and the absurdity of life. Alter's (1984:22) typification is applicable:
In this vehemently contemporary fiction, there is ... a cavalier attitude towards consistency of incident, plot unity, details of milieu, and, underlying all these, a kind of despairing skepticism, often tinged either with exhilaration or hysteria, about the validity of language and the very enterprise of fiction (see also Lodge 1977a:105--109).
The premises of this literature are generally at odds with the sentiments of biblical narratives (striving after ultimate concerns). However, its value for biblical narrative studies lies in comparison, presenting a unique opportunity to clarify its own features, points of departure and frame of reference (see Keegan 1995; Adam 1995).
- It is interesting that since 1980 there seems to be a new trend in some narrative literature, which for the moment we may call 'neo-postmodernist' literature. It seems to be reacting to postmodernistic extremes, with a re-evaluation of the importance of realism (see Bradbury & Ro 1987:xvi--xvii). (Will we see in literature a parallel of the `back to junkfood' trend in society?) This may again be nearer to the sentiments of biblical narratives.
FINDING A WAY INTO NARRATIVE LITERARY THEORY
- Since we are dealing with modern narrative theory, the objection may be raised that contemporary literary theories would not do justice to ancient narratives, and modern concepts and categories will be artificially forced onto these narratives. A twofold answer can be given: first, the real contrast does not lie between contemporary narratives and ancient narratives, but between hardly any narrative theory (of antiquity) and extensive and refined narrative theory (as developed in the past century). Thus, literary critics do not share the hesitancy of some biblical scholars:
To literary critics, this skittishness about using the best critical terms available today is as self-defeating and arbitrary as it would be to to discuss the history of the Bible using only the historical methods and terminology available in the ancient world ... if a given generic term or critical method helps us to see what is present in a biblical text, it would be perverse not to use it (Ryken & Longman 1993:21).
Of course, this does not imply that narrative interpretation should treat ancient narratives as simply identical to contemporary narratives or disregard the literary conventions of ancient narratives (genre, etc), or not place biblical narratives in the context of ancient Near East and Hellenistic literature. However, that does not affect the applicability of contemporary narrative theory, because in real terms that is the only theory we have.
Second, man's love for stories stretches back as far as recorded history, showing that most of the essential narrative characteristics have changed very little throughout the ages, and showing that there are substantial resemblances and common narrative features. It can be quite misleading to propose essential differences between these narratives:
Tzvetan Todorov has shrewdly argued that the whole notion of `primitive narrative' is a kind of mental mirage engendered by modern parochialism, for the more closely you look at a particular ancient narrative, the more you are compelled to recognise the complexity and subtlety with which it is formally organised and with which it renders its subjects, and the more you see how it is conscious of its necessary status as artful discourse (Alter 1981:21).
- As we have discussed above, many biblical narrative scholars prefer to work within the framework of a `traditional' Anglo-American approach. However, one has to take cognisance of other approaches in narrative theory. This will inevitably lead not only to a broadening of one's interpretive horizons, but also to a clearer understanding of the strengths, weaknesses and limits of one's own approach.
- Speaking of a broadening of interpretive horizons, one would do well to take note of communication theory, first because some aspects of literary theory have their roots in the communicative theory of scholars such as Jakobson, and second it would broaden the basis of one's approach. So, for instance, the relationships between communicative and literary phenomena could be explored (see Taylor 1982), or the narrative text could be placed within a communicative model (see Kloepfer 1980).
- The first important cluster of narrative theory outside Anglo-American theory centres on Russian formalism (which is related to Soviet semiotics as well as Prague structuralism, which again in a number of ways were the forerunners of later structuralism). The short-lived Russian formalism (with scholars like Shklovsky, Ejxenbaum, Tomashewsky and Tynjanov) produced pioneering literary theories, which really make interesting reading (in their translated form!). Admittedly, some of their important theories would probably not receive much attention from biblical scholars, such as their high esteem of the independence of the literary work as a closed system of meanings; their enthusiasm for the `literariness' of the literary work; and their distinction between fabula (the actual story in its causal and historical sequence at the basis of the narrative), and sjuz§et (the artistically reworked and reshuffled story constituting a work of literature).
However, some aspects of their narrative theories should be of great interest to biblical scholars, for instance their contributions concerning literary devices employed by authors; narrative themes and the importance of themes as expressions of universal human needs and anxieties; motifs as subordinate supplements of theme; the conflict-oriented development of narratives which build up to a resolution at the closure (`synthesis'); the way narratives are narrated; the whole issue of disentangling oneself from historical and referential restrictions in order to look at the text from a fresh vantage point.
- Russian formalism is linked to the development of Prague structuralism and semiotics. In as far as their contributions have become accessible through translations (especially Mukarovsky), they will probably escape the attention of many biblical scholars, for instance their studies on the linguistic phenomenon of language as a `sign', and the literary work as a `sign' in itself (whilst also being a system of signs). However, biblical narrative studies should really be interested in their exposition of a narrative's `dominant principle' (pervading every part of the narrative to provide its cohesive unity), and also in their exposition of the radical interdependence of a literary work's (smaller) components.
- The theories of semiotics of the Soviet Union supplement those of the previous schools of thought, with Jury Lotman as their well-known exponent. Some of their theories may be too abstract and technical for the practical interests of some biblical scholars, notably the distinction of textual artifices leading to a high concentrate (density) of semantic meaning, which causes duality of meaning (which again is a hallmark of the `literary' text); the encoding and decoding of the literary codes in a text, which leads to the reader's mastering of the alienating effect of a literary text; the paradigmatic and syntagmatic levels of a narrative text; and the distinction between sjuzet-containing and sjuzet-less narrative texts.
However, biblical narrative studies should pay attention to their observations about the literary work as a system of signs composed within a particular socio-cultural context, and about binary opposites as the substructure of narrative literature.
- The bridge between these schools of theory and structuralism was to a large extent formed by the contributions of De Saussure, Levi-Strauss, Jakobson and, of course, Propp's structuralist prototype analyses of Russian folktales. Structuralism represents an influential school of thought in narrative theory, put on the map by such scholars as Greimas (with his structural semantics), Todorov (proposing a kind of universal narrative `grammar' with extensive hierarchical embedding), and Genette (known for his analysis of the roles of time, `aspect' and modality in narratives). Particularly relevant for biblical scholars are Barthes' proposition of the horizontal and vertical levels on which narratives operate, his views on cardinal functions which constitute the moments of risk and determination in narrative, and on `sequences' in narrative as the coherent functional units. Bremond's views on the progression of narrative by processes of improvement-deterioration-recovery, are also very useful.
- `Later' structuralism could include the work of scholars such as Van Dijk (proposing micro-structures on the text's surface, and abstract macro-structures in the text's substructure), Prince (a leading figure in the proposition of `story grammars' which extends syntactical composition to narrative composition), and to an extent also scholars such as Bal and Rimmon-Kenan. The related semiotic structuralism would include the contributions of people like Dolezel (known for his diagrammatical exposition of the act-centred interaction between motif and motifeme), and Eco (for codes of encoding and the different levels on which texts can be decoded).
The structural approach has certainly been successfully applied to biblical narratives. However, contrary to the enthusiasm it generates in some quarters, it has also met with (harsh) criticism in other quarters of biblical narrative studies. Alter (1984:6) judges it as follows:
The formidable intellectual apparatus of structuralism ... offers the literary intelligentsia what any professional or priestly caste needs in order to maintain its own coherence and morale -- an esoteric language, a set of elaborate procedures that can be performed only by the initiate, and the conviction that the specialized rituals of the caste have universal efficacy, or at least universal applicability.
Be that as it may, the premises and methodology of structuralism differ so much from the traditional Anglo-American approach that, in as far as one could generalise, we would do well to compare some of structuralism's distinctive traits:
- Structuralism in general shows a more formalistic approach, with a love for hierarchical narrative patterns and embeddings. This often results in all kinds of tables, formulae, diagrams, lists, and categories (often imitating a scientist's drawing board). Such tendencies have caused someone like Crossan (1978:275) to remark: `There is a danger of a new positivism ... a reduction of narrative art to logical mechanics.' Thus, structuralism has often been accused of being so minutely and mechanically dissective in its formulaic analyses that it does an injustice to what literature is all about (creativity, individualistic expression, artistic harmony, etc). In contrast, the Anglo-American approach is more inclined to treat narrative as a dynamic organism which is flexible, and not easily restricted by categories.
- Structuralist analysis often demarcates narratives into micro-units, giving them an atomistic appearance. The Anglo-American approach, however, generally shows an affinity for broader narrative structures and unity.
- Structuralism is more set on analysing and categorising the universal (linguistic) substructures in the narrative text -- the `chemical' combinations as building stones of the text. Thus, structuralism has been accused of not dealing with literary issues any more, but with general logic and linguistics. In contrast, the traditional Anglo-American approach is generally more interested in the functions of the text, and the relations in which the text is involved, including its relation to the real world (verisimilitude). This interest is expressed in the generalising words of Alter (1984:11):
From embarrassingly naive readers to the most sophisticated intellectuals, we have overwhelmingly persisted from the seventeenth century into the present in `entering into' the experience of fictional characters in thousands of novels, exchanging lives with them, testing our perceptions of reality against the absorbing details of their invented worlds.
- Structuralism exhibits little of the Anglo-American approach's lively interest in `character' because it concentrates on acts and events in narratives: instead, it performs some analysis of the structure of characters' actions.
- There are also some other noteworthy literary schools of which biblical narrative studies will do well to take notice:
- The society-oriented Marxistic and Neo-Marxistic approaches were once quite prominent and provided noteworthy literary insights (see Wilson 1977), but are probably without future prospects in the light of worldwide political developments.
- Deconstruction was once quite in the limelight, being rather a philosophical approach to the relation (or non-relation) between metaphor and real meaning. However, in my opinion it is handicapped because it can only be really successfully applied by the highly gifted few (apart from Derrida).
- Psycho-analytical approaches to literature can be divided into three branches (Muller 1982): the psychological phenomena at work in the production of a text (see Steig 1984); the phenomena involved in the text as such (psycho-linguistics); and the psychological phenomena at work in the reception of the text. Biblical narrative scholars may be particularly interested in the psycho-analytical view on characters in narrative (see Wolff 1979).
- The philosophical approach to literature divides into a number of different branches, for example the study of the philosophies underlying various literary approaches (see Maren-Griesebach 1976); the relation between language symbols and reality (see Carrier 1984; Wicker 1975); the logics of linguistics (see Martinez-Bonati 1981); and the functions of narrative in the phenomenon of human existence (see Crossan 1975; Kort 1988:4--23), which would include the function of narrative within the context of biblical ontology (see Schneidau 1986). The latter two aspects in particular should intrigue biblical scholars.
- Myth criticism has played a substantial role in twentieth-century literary criticism, and it still pops up every now and then. It should be of substantial interest to biblical scholars because of its contents -- focusing as it does on literary archetypes and the collective unconscious (see Lodge 1977:175--210, 402--441).
- Some other interesting developments in literary theory offer interesting possibilities for biblical scholars, among them speech act theory, specifically the more `centrist' position (see Botha, J E 1991a). Some characteristics of speech act theory which should particularly appeal to biblical narrative scholars are its applicability to very small narrative units because it deals with utterances; its appraisal of the contexts in which utterances take place (linguistic and socio-historical); its emphasis on the author as the meaning-producing entity (through illocutionary, but also perlocutionary acts); and its proposals of how meanings are arrived at through (indirect) textual implications (see Botha, J E 1991b).
FINDING A WAY IN SOME LITERARY PRICKLY PEARS
- To what extent a text-centred (text-immanent) approach should be followed can be quite an issue for biblical scholars (an aspect which links up with the introduction of this article). Text-centred (or autonomistic) approaches treat a literary work as a self-contained entity whose genius can only be really understood in terms of the inter-relatedness of its own parts, and which has its own autonomy quite apart from external textual realities such as the author's intention, or to an extent even the reader's interpretation.
This has been a rather consistent contention in the Anglo-American approach, reaching a high point in the `New Criticism' movement which strove to analyse literature in terms of its own intrinsic principles instead of external phenomena such as authorial biographical particulars.
How to go about it is not an easy question for biblical scholars, because not only are biblical narratives firmly embedded in the socio-historical context of their times, but many (perhaps most) of them find their real meaning in historical links and claims. One way would be to let the different viewpoints supplement each other: to take the text as a literary entity seriously somewhere in the process, focusing on its typically narrative characteristics. This stage in the process should not be predetermined and determined by historical considerations (which do not exclude indispensable insights into the text's cultural milieu, contemporary literary forms, etc).
- Related to this issue, but not identical with it, is the relationship between fact and `fiction' (see Forster 1963:55). It is broadly recognised today that the relationship between fact and representation of reality (`fiction' for that matter) is highly complex. In addition to the fact that any narrative is presented through the author's filter of creativity, the narrative world can never be equivalent to the real world: as a representation it is simultaneously less, but also more than the real world (see Kermode 1979:118--123).
This issue is quite problematic with regard to biblical narratives, most of which have a referential basis, and in addition abound with transcendental references (claims about transcendental reality). The problem is complicated by the aversion of many biblical scholars to the literary concept of `fiction', interpreting it as fabricated (untrue) stories. In contrast, the term `fiction' is used in literary scholarship to indicate literary works of sound literary composition, including the necessary element of creativity (see Berthoff 1970:171--173; Wellek 1982:19--29).
However, just as `fabricated' narratives have strong ties with the real world, referentially oriented narratives are subject to standard literary analysis. Furthermore, in literary scholarship the relationship between the two poles of fact and fiction is increasingly seen not as antithetical, but as supplementary, more a difference of level than of essence (see Mohr & Mohr 1982:104).
Questions of fact (`What really happened?') are really more of an issue for religion and theology than for biblical narrative studies. A biblical narrative approach should not have a problem with it, but should read biblical narratives as `realistic narratives' (Frei 1974). With Sternberg (1985:24--35), such narratives could be treated as `re-creative discourse' (next to `creative discourse'), and subjected to standard narrative analysis.
- In literary theory the `fact versus fiction' debate is continued on a more philosophical level in the `mimesis' debate, a term derived from Aristotle's distinction (via Plato) between `mimesis' and `diegesis'. This involves the whole possibility and meaningfulness of emulating reality in literature. This debate was particularly stimulated by the work of Auerbach (1953). Contrary to his contention, the mere possibility of knowing or representing reality with any certitude has been challenged by postmodern narratives and corresponding criticism, often with the conviction that, if anything, the literary work itself comprises reality.
The traditional Anglo-American tradition has been rather more positive with regard to the `mimesis' issue (see Alter 1984:3--21). It has held realism in high esteem, accepting that there must be some congruence between the textual world and the real world for the reader to be able to recognise it and deal with it. The Anglo-American tradition generally works with the idea of verisimilitude, accepting the possibility of creating (and interpreting) a trustworthy illusion of reality in narratives. It goes even further in accepting that conversely such representation can offer insight into reality!
- The interaction between narratives and society is another issue being debated in some literary circles. This discussion branches into several sub-debates: first the contention that narratives are an endeavour to understand the lifeworld of humans and to assign meaning to it; second, the way narratives are directed towards society, inter alia to elicit certain responses; and third, it is contended that narratives mirror society as reflections of society.
This last assertion broadens out from more limited confines, as for instance that human experience of time is reflected in narrative composition (see Ricoeur 1984); to broader observations that the spiritual undercurrents of various eras are precipitated in narratives; to such comprehensive convictions that the fundamental patterns of human existence are reflected in the roots of narrative structure (see N Frye 1972). These issues should produce great interest among biblical scholars because of the very premises of biblical narratives and their own scholarly enterprise. This field of research certainly presents splendid opportunities for constructive contributions from biblical narrative scholars (see Botha, P J J 1994).
- The debate about the interaction between literature and ideology/religion is an extension of this issue. This discussion branches out into a host of subordinate fields of interest, including the influence of ideology/religion on literature (see Garvin 1982a; Suleiman 1983); the influence of biblical literature on literature (Frye 1982; Hirsch & Aschkenasy 1984; Lewis 1967); ideological presuppositions that religion and literature have in common (see Garvin 1982b); and the relation between divine authority and literature (see Green 1987).
Although there is always a danger of letting ideology/theology dominate literary matters, these issues should attract the attention of biblical scholars. They offer many opportunities to biblical scholars to present contributions somewhat outside the norm.
PERSISTING WITH AN `OUTDATED' LITERARY APPROACH TO NARRATIVES?
Since many biblical narrative scholars operate in the framework of the traditional Anglo-American paradigm, they are bound to ask themselves whether it is advisable to persist with an old-fashioned approach when confronted with approaches which are technically quite impressive and modern in appearance. Of course, scholars applying the latter approaches have demonstrated their worth.
For those so inclined, the Anglo-American approach remains invaluable for a literary analysis of biblical narratives, and as a method, inferior to none. It offers its own distinctive insights into narrative, which cannot be replaced by other methods.
Furthermore, many biblical narratives are relatively uncomplicated and without complex narrative techniques. A `traditional' Anglo-American approach is certainly well suited to analysing such narratives, and also to making its results accessible to the broader public.
In addition, the Anglo-American approach generally covers many of the same fields of interpretation as other methods, albeit in a different form, from a different perspective, and using other terminology. Let us illustrate this with a few examples from formalistic and structuralistic approaches:
- Take Lotman's (1977) complicated semiotic (cum structuralist) construction of the structure of the sjuz§et, and the transgression (crossing) of spatial barriers as a fundamental phenomenon with regard to sjuz§et: Stripped of its impressive terminology, this lies on the level of an Anglo-American analysis of the role of (binary) opposites in conflict-development in narratives.
- Take Barthes' (1977) exposition of the disintegration of narrative signs, the distribution of nuclei and filling in by way of catalytic agents, the integration of the narrative's upper structure (on a different level from the linguistic code), and the eventual distinction between a horizontal and a vertical reading of the text. In Anglo-American narrative theory these facets would largely be dealt with under the author's purposeful selection and ordering of his narrative material.
- Take Genette's (1980) exposition of temporal succession in narratives, for instance the possible embeddings with regard to analepsis-anachronisms (for example internal analepsis, homodiegetic analepsis, complete analepsis, incomplete analepsis): in Anglo-American narrative theory this would be treated largely under flashbacks and anticipations.
- Take Dolezel's (1972; 1976) complex presentation of the coherence between motifemes and motifs and its incorporation into a text's macro- and micro structural components: this lies on the level of the Anglo-American theory of textual coherence, internal textual relations, and context.
Although many biblical narratives may not match the highly developed narrative composition of modern narratives, a literary approach to biblical narratives occupies its own position in the discipline of literary studies. However, biblical narrative scholars will have to take cognisance of the awe-inspiring vastness of, and variety in, the literary discipline. Furthermore, they should make an effort to situate their own literary enterprise in this vast field, and be aware of its strong points and weaknesses.
A closer look shows that there are many possibilities in a variety of literary approaches that could be prolifically applied in the analyses of biblical narratives. The biblical narrative scholar has a choice of a number of literary approaches which could each unlock different facets of these narratives. Those who choose the traditional Anglo-American approach can be assured of its achievements in the past, and can be enthusiastic about its prospects for the future.
Wherever our choice may fall, let us rather operate free from the restrictions of customary biblical interpretation, and be more sensitive to the sentiments of a genuine literary reading of the text. Let the charge not be levelled against us that biblical scholars do not make the most sensitive readers of biblical texts (see Longman 1987:59).
Whatever method we apply, let us not fall victim to rigorous and narrow-minded interpretative practices, typified in the words of Scholes and Kellogg (1966:4): Its tendency is to formulate rules to attempt the reduction of art to science, to classify, to categorize and finally to prescribe and proscribe.
Let us rather demonstrate something of the true spirit of creativity and freedom, which has always been an integral part of the literary world. Then we shall be able to sense something of the heartbeat and dynamics of biblical narratives.
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Mr J C de Klerk
Department of New Testament
University of South Africa
PO Box 392
Republic of South Africa