“Point of view” has been the forgotten child in the study of biblical narratives. “Plot” and “character”—its more popular siblings—have found eager adoptive parents among biblical scholars looking to the study of the modern novel for insights into how biblical stories might be analyzed. While point of view has received many looks from these would-be parents, it has largely remained an orphan, with nowhere to call home.
With Perspective Criticism, however, this literary concept has indeed found a home, as this new approach to interpreting biblical narratives untangles the intriguing complexities of point-of-view crafting and isolates how a storyteller’s choosing one point-of-view strategy over another can make a significant difference to the readers’ experience of a biblical story. Perspective criticism takes the interpretation of biblical narratives to a whole new level.
But what exactly is “point of view”?The iceberg looming in the background of this page should prove helpful in explaining this concept. Imagine you are on the deck of a cruise ship when this iceberg comes into view; this spectacular sight would certainly warrant at least a few photos. Now imagine you are among a select few to don scuba gear to observe this iceberg from under the water; the view from down there is infinitely more breathtaking! So, your experience of the iceberg changes as your vantage point—i.e. your point of view—changes, and perspective criticism is all about monitoring the points of view from which readers of biblical narratives are being led to observe, in their mind’s eye, what they are reading.
Consider these images (artist: Hailey Kathler) which represent views of Moses from three different vantage points in which the readers of Exod 32 could have been placed to view this scene: a position at the side of God, a position behind Moses, and a position among the Israelites. There are, of course, many other points of view through which Moses could have been depicted, and at the heart of perspective criticism is the task of isolating from all the possible points of view the particular one through which the readers are being led by the biblical storyteller to view the scene.
Essentially, biblical storytellers function like film directors choosing which camera angle to use for any given shot, illustrated vividly in a scene from The Truman Show (1998). In this film, the title character goes about his life unaware that his every move is being captured by hundreds of cameras hidden throughout a gigantic soundstage made up to be his hometown. At a point in the story line when he is beginning to suspect something is going on, Christof—the show’s creator and director—orchestrates a dramatic meeting between Truman and his thought-to-be dead father in order to distract Truman from his suspicions.
Christof is shown making choices among his available cameras to broadcast what he deems the most appropriate viewing angle for his audience at any given point during this scene (58:39-1:00:23). A biblical storyteller can do the same thing simply by building into the text certain point-of-view devices. Of course, a film director’s ability to place a camera at any angle, and any distance, from its subject provides practically a limitless range of choices in terms of vantage points for the viewers, and the point-of-view devices at a biblical storyteller’s disposal afford nowhere near the same range. Still, these devices do allow for distinguishing between close-up shots and distance shots, and can even produce point-of-view shots, i.e. shots through the eyes of a character at what the character is seeing, and the choice in a given scene of one of these shots versus another can make a big difference to how the readers experience the scene. Watch for coverage of specific point-of-view devices in future posts.