The Power of Point of View

S.B.L. Book Review Session of “Perspective Criticism” (part 4): Response to Black Critique

Steve Blackby GARY YAMASAKI   Steve Black’s review of Perspective Criticism reflects a keen grasp of the fact that the essence of point of view relates to the perspective through which readers are led to experience the events described. This is nowhere more evident than in his treatment of the Mark 1 account of Jesus’ baptism, where Steve asserts that the audience “gain[s] access to this event through the eyes of Jesus.”

However, slips in this grasp are evident here and there. For example, in his handling of the Emmaus Road account of Luke 24, he asserts that the audience being made privy to the disciples’ thoughts and feelings is a psychological-plane move working toward the audience coming to merge with this character group, but the audience being given information the disciples do not possess–that the traveling companion is Jesus–is an informational-plane move working against such a merging.

Steve is correct that dynamics on the informational plane do work against the audience merging with the disciples. However, his assertion that dynamics on the psychological plane work toward such a merging is suspect. He claims that the audience is made privy to the disciples’ thoughts and feelings, but is that actually the case? Verses 14-15 speak of the disciples going along the road and talking about the things that had transpired, but no inside views into what they are thinking or feeling are given. Verses 16-27 report their meeting a person they do not recognize as Jesus, and engaging in a conversation with him, which results in a rebuke by Jesus along with instruction from him, again with no inside views into what they are thinking or feeling.

It could be argued verse 17 contains an inside view. It reads, “[Jesus] said to them, ‘What were you discussing with one another while you were walking?’ And they stood there. . .” with the sentence ending with the Greek word skuthropoi, an adjective carrying the sense of “looking sad.” Certainly, this word does inject an element of emotion into this verse, but note how it is injected. It draws in the element of “sadness” as a component of the disciples’ appearance, something any objective observer could see, in other words, an external view of the disciples. The narrator could have drawn in the element of “sadness” as a component of their emotions–”they were sad”–and this would have constituted an inside view contributing toward the audience coming to merge with the disciples. But the narrator passes up this opportunity, and thus, maintains a consistent outside view of the disciples right through verse 27.

Verses 28-30 cover the three men stopping for the night and having a meal together, and there are still no inside views. Only in verse 31 does the narrator grace the audience with an inside view–in fact, a double inside view–of the disciples with the report that “they recognized him” and that “he became invisible to them,” both making the audience privy to what is happening inside their heads. However, during the whole time the disciples did not know he was Jesus–which contributes to the audience not merging with them–the narrator gives only external views of the disciples–which also contribute toward the audience not merging with them. Therefore, contrary to what Steve claims, dynamics on the informational and psychological planes are not here working at cross purposes.

Steve’s main point of critique is that the book focuses on just the empathy-producing capacity of point-of-view crafting, leaving unaddressed a number of other effects point-of-view crafting is capable of producing. This is a fair point, for the book does indeed push aside other point-of-view effects. But I must add that this was by design. The book was never intended to be comprehensive treatment of point of view. Rather, everything in the book focuses on just its empathy-producing capacity, as is reflected in the subtitle: “Point of View and Evaluative Guidance in Biblical Narrative.”

The decision to go this route was based in a conviction that this empathy-producing effect could be the most significant of them all, and actually has the potential of vaulting point-of-view analysis from its current status as merely one component of narrative criticism–and a minor component at that–into a new critical methodology in its own right, similar to how redaction criticism emerged as a new critical methodology out of its origins in source criticism.

Think back to pre-Second World War source criticism of the gospels. Source critics were engaged in questions such as “Which is the earliest gospel?” and “What is the shape of Q?” and “What are sources of the later synoptic gospels other than Mark and Q?” But after the Second World War, Guenther Bornkamm, Hans Conzelmann and Willi Marxen emerged on the scene claiming that source-critical inquiries could be relevant to the actual interpretation of gospel texts. . .that they could facilitate access to a new layer of meaning in these texts, that is, details of the gospel editors’ theological agendas that had never before been noticed.

Fast-forwarding six decades, narrative critics have been analyzing point of view in biblical texts for a third of a century, but have not managed to isolate how such analyses can be relevant to the actual interpretation of narrative texts. . .to the process of discerning meaning in them. Now, the emergence of this empathy-producing capacity of point-of-view crafting rises the possibility that point-of-view analysis can indeed be relevant to the interpretation of narrative texts. . .that it can actually access a new layer of meaning in these texts, that is, guidance on how characters are intended to be evaluated that has never before been noticed. And while I recognized that point-of-view crafting does have functions other than the producing of empathy for characters, I wanted this book to serve as a vehicle for beginning the assessment of this particular function of point of view. But Steve’s counsel to broaden the scope of point-of-view studies certainly provides direction for future work.

Steve does recognize the existence of this empathy-producing effect in point of view, but he questions the book’s claim that point-of-view crafting in the Bible produces empathy for villainous characters to the point of biblical readers coming to side with such characters. He points to the depiction of Herod in the Mark 6 account of the death of John the Baptist as an example of where an audience is led to experience events through the point of view of a villainous character, but is not led to side with the character (see the detailed treatment of his analysis of this passage).

Steve is correct that the audience is not led to side with Herod in this passage, but I question his assertion that the point-of-view crafting in this passage leads the audience to experience the events through Herod’s point of view. At first glance, it does appear Herod is being established as the point-of-view character; the numerous inside views into his thoughts and feelings do seem to be contributing toward that end. However, there are some key factors in the passage that work against that end.

Consider first the spatial plane, on which the key dynamic contributing toward the establishing of a point-of-view character is the unbroken following of that character. While it might appear the audience is indeed being led to follow Herod–being kept in the presence of this character–a closer look reveals this is not the case. Note that while the report in verses 21-23–of a banquet being thrown for Herod’s birthday, and a dance by his daughter resulting in Herod promising her anything she might ask–has the audience following Herod, that following is broken in verse 24 when the audience is taken out of his presence to follow his daughter as she leaves to consult with her mother. The audience is brought back into his presence in verses 25-27a for the report of his daughter asking him for the head of John the Baptist, his reaction to the request, and his sending a soldier to behead John. But in verse 27b, the audience is again taken out of his presence to follow the soldier as he goes and beheads John. These breaks in the following of Herod contribute to him not being established as the point-of-view character of the passage.

Further, dynamics on the informational plane have the same effect. The key dynamic on this plane has to do with how much information is provided to the audience–exactly the same amount as, or more than, a given character–with the idea that the audience being given exactly the same amount of information as the character forces the audience to interpret the events with the same limitations as the character, in other words, through the character’s point of view. On the other hand, when the audience possesses more information than the character, the audience will be interpreting the events knowing things the character does not know, in other words, from a point of view different from that of the character (for more details on this plane, see Who Knew What When).

A quick glance through this passage suggests the audience’s level of information is the same as that of Herod. However, note what happens in verse 24. Here, the audience is provided with details of the exchange between daughter and mother, but since this exchange happens outside the presence of Herod, he does not possess this information; therefore, the audience is placed in an informationally superior position to Herod. Note also that in verse 27b, the audience is informed that John is beheaded, a fact that does not become a part of Herod’s information database until verse 28 when the soldier returns with John’s head. These two divergences between the information databases of the audience and Herod work together with the dynamics on the spatial plane noted above to keep the audience from experiencing the events of this passage through Herod’s point of view, thus explaining why the audience does not experience a sense of siding with this villainous character.

In connection with his discussion of Herod, Steve asserts that while movies may exhibit cases where villainous point-of-view characters (such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) have audiences pulling for them, biblical narratives do not contain any such “pulling for villains” dynamics. In response, I would point to the Acts 9 account of Saul on the Damascus Road as an example of just that dynamic. Upon entering this passage, the audience’s only exposure to Saul has been his depiction at the end of chapter 7 and beginning of chapter 8 as a villainous persecutor of the Church. Given this characterization of Saul, it would be logical that in the crafting of point of view in the chapter 9 passage, the narrator would work to have the audience not side with this character, but rather, delight in the fact he is receiving pay-back for his villainous acts. Yet, an analysis of the passage reveals that as it progresses, its point-of-view crafting establishes Saul as the point-of-view character, thus drawing the audience into siding with him, and feeling for him, as he faces this rude awakening. So, here is at least one biblical example of point-of-view crafting being used to lead an audience to side with a villainous character.

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