The Power of Point of View

Another word on Mark 6:47-52. . .with a focus on “Focalization”

Steve Blackby STEVE BLACK   I wish to consider Mark 6:47-52, in the light of some of the conversation on this blog concerning it. I should note that my interest at this point is not so much the staging of this passage in a live presentation as it is a narratological analysis.

Focus has been made in the preceding conversation on the psychological focalization through the disciples in 6:49-52. Yet previous to this, the story was internally focalized through Jesus. (I prefer to speak of “focalization” rather than point of view.) “When *he saw* that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the sea. *He intended* to pass them by” (6:48). The narrator starts this episode from Jesus’ perspective by explaining what he saw and intended. If this were a movie, the camera would be set next to Jesus on the shore with the disciples in the distance on the water.

This shifts in 6:49-52 where the story is internally focalized through the disciples. The reader gains entry into this story through the perspective of the disciples. The narrator does not say in 6:49 “Jesus was walking on the sea,” but “*they saw* [Jesus] walking on the sea.” Hence, what the reader sees is filtered through what the disciples see and feel.

The shift in focalization at 6:49 moving from Jesus to the disciples is accompanied by a shift from externally focalized disciples to an externally focalized Jesus. That is, in 6:47-48 the disciples’ inner consciousness is not penetrated and they are represented externally, but Jesus’ inner consciousness is represented, while in 6:49-52 the situation is reversed, and the Jesus’ inner consciousness is not penetrated and the disciples’ inner consciousness is represented. Initially Jesus is close to the “camera” and the disciples far away, but then the disciples are close and Jesus far away.

It is interesting the narrator does not focalize things through both Jesus and the disciples at the same time. It is as if they are in two distinct camps and must be kept separate. The disciples may be traveling with Jesus in the narrative, but the focalization separates them from him.

Now when we get to the second part of the episode, which is focalized through the disciples, the reader and the disciples both have Jesus as an object of consideration in this episode. It is likely that the reader, along with the disciples, finds it astonishing that Jesus is walking on the water. The reader experiences the narrative from the point of view of the disciples, but of course, the reader also knows more than the disciples. The juxtaposition of the internal focalization of the disciples with the superior knowledge of the reader, as Robert Tannehill argues, might be explained as a means to challenge the reader to become fully aware “of the difficulty of discipleship and the possibility of discipleship failure in their own lives” (Dec 13/2012). However, it may also be a means of making the reader feel superior to the disciples. The closeness wrought by means of the internal focalization invites the reader to closely consider the disciples’ reactions, while the contrast on the informational plane invites to the reader to enjoy her better understanding of the event.

As Jesus steps into the boat and calm is restored, the disciples are said to be “utterly astounded.” It might be that the implied reader is intended to react with astonishment as well. Form critics have argued that a response of wonder to miracles is not only suitable, but also expected. If this is her reaction, then it seems that she is being “set up.” The narrator interprets the disciples’ astonishment entirely negatively, and if the reader has reacted similarly, then she also might fear that her heart has also been hardened. The feeling of superiority provided on the informational plane is subverted by the psychological plane. The narrator sets the reader up by making her feel superior to the disciples, only to subtly suggest that she is more like them at this point than she might want to think. The final clause in 6:52 explains the reason behind the hardening – a failure to understand the multiplication of the loaves. If the reader has reacted as I have suggested she might, then she will carefully reconsider the story of the multiplication of the loaves. Hence, rather than forcing the reader to consider the “possibility of discipleship failure in their own lives,” this passage might be a means of engaging the reader in an ever more careful reading of the text, with the disciples providing a negative example of what might happen if she does not take appropriate heed.

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