The Power of Point of View

S.B.L. Book Review Session on “Perspective Criticism” (part 5) – MATTHEW WHITLOCK

photo-1It is appropriate to respond to Gary’s work with a quote from the crafter-of-point-of view-in-chief, Marcel Proust: “Only by art can we emerge from ourselves, can we know what another sees of this universe that is not the same as ours and whose landscapes would have remained as unknown to us as those that might be on the moon. Thanks to art, instead of seeing a single world, our own, we see it multiply, and as many original artists as there are, so many worlds will we have at our disposal, more different from each other than those that circle in the void . . . ” (In Search of Lost Time, III; quoted in Gilles Deleuze, Proust & Signs, 42).

Gary has created an original work that opens new worlds to scripture. I discuss his work in two landscapes here: first, Gary’s contribution, and second, the trajectory from his work.

First, Gary has opened landscapes to biblical studies that have remained largely unknown. I have a couple of observations on his contribution.

A. Contribution to scholarship: whereas scholars have used film and literary criticism to support ideological interpretations of the bible, few have used film and literary criticism to show how biblical narratives are crafted. I appreciate the consistent language of “point of view crafting” throughout the book. If we are using literary criticism, we are looking at an author’s craft, not simply an author’s message. For example, in his chapter on Acts 5:35-39 (Chapter 10), where a member of the Sanhedrin (Gamaliel) stands up to comment on the Jesus movement, Gary uses point of view analysis (spatially, psychologically, and informationally) to show how the reader is drawn into Gamaliel’s point of view. There is no theological/ideological investment here other than showing Luke’s craft, the craft of showing us how another (outside of the Christ movement) views the universe. I am not saying that there is no ideological investment on the part of Gary or Luke, but the focus is on the craft, the “how”, not a predetermined “what”.

B. Teaching contribution: if not for books like Gary’s, the bible might be as unknown to our students as what might be on the moon. I would use his book in a class. It is written in a way that starts with a craft with which students are familiar—the movie camera. The book maintains language such as “the camera clearly moves” and “the camera is positioned” and “the camera stays in proximity.” This use of language draws students into a craft, not just their favorite movies. Students are drawn not into a single world of a teacher’s interpretation, but drawn into an author’s world of crafting many.

Second: trajectory (or “future landscapes” in the words of Proust): I have three observations, and they all center on the conviction that biblical studies needs to be in conversation with literary theory at greater depth and length. Biblical literature has had the greatest impact on western literature, yet our scholarship does not take the lead in showing how literature has mutated and evolved from biblical genes, point of view being one of these genes. Erich Auerbach, for example, points out how biblical literature introduces the everyman. Mikhail Bakhtin points out how dialogue in the novel develops from biblical literature (Luke-Acts). But these are literary critics. Gary’s work opens the conversation into how point of view developed in the bible from the perspective of biblical scholarship. Yet, we need to take the lead and show how literature and point of view crafting developed from the bible.

A. Since we are in conversation with literary theory, and since we are using concepts from it, it is prudent to clarify debated issues within that field. In Gary’s book, he refers to the uncovering the author’s intention (Chapter 1 and 11). I question how helpful this language is, especially since intentionality is no longer the accepted norm by which to assert the meaning of a text, and rightly so. The author is “dead” in literary theory (by this I mean appeals to the author’s intention are dead). How can what cannot be recovered (intentionality) be used to make authoritative claims about how the text should be read, or in our case, point of view be imagined? If we are going to enter a conversation with literary theory, I prefer using linguistically informed language to talk about POV crafting. I prefer discussing what is tangible: point of view markers (linguistic markers) in biblical texts. I prefer to use the language of textual constraints, not authorial intention, to guard against random, at whim interpretations. How does the text lead and constrain the reader in imagining point of view? In the words of Paul Ricoeur: it is “the right of the reader and the right of the text that converge in an important struggle that generates the whole dynamic of interpretation” (Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning, 32; quoted in Joel Green, “Discourse Analysis and New Testament Interpretation,” 179). Both rights converge, too, to create point of view dynamics.

B. I appreciate Gary’s acknowledgement that film is a different genre than biblical narrative (p. 4): In cinema “visual images and the audio sounds supply the bulk of the data. In contrast, the narrator of the written narrative is involved during 100 percent of the story, as every word of every sentence in the whole story is spoken by the narrator to the reader.” Yet, as noted above, a lot of visual, cinematic, language is used in Gary’s book. My question is how visual were the audiences who first heard these narratives? Were there any POV markers for those performing these texts orally to an audience?

Literary critics may help us explore these POV markers in the context of oral performance. On the one hand, Bakhtin discusses how point of view is created through characters circling and dialoguing around events in a story. On the other hand, Walter Ong and John Miles Foley help point out some of the assumptions of our text-based culture. They may help us consider point of view crafting within the unique contexts of oral, biblical literature.

In our own field, Kelly Iverson (Baylor University) examines how the Greek text of Mark provides markers for oral performance. In particular, he suggests textual markers for interpreting and performing the Centurion’s proclamation at the end of the Gospel (A Centurion’s ‘Confession’: A Performance-Critical Analysis of Mark 15:39,” JBL 130.2 [2011]: 329-50).

C. Though I love the bible, I recognize that point of view has developed far beyond its capacity. The bible provided POV genes, but literature (whether through novel or film) has mutated and evolved into expressing multiple points of view without reference to the privileged or authoritative one that we see in the bible. Modern writers like Proust or Henry James allow us to “emerge from ourselves so we can know what another sees.”

I remember in a literature class I was once challenged to re-write George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant” from the elephant’s point of view. I learned empathy. But I also learned a lot about Orwell’s own point of view crafting. I wonder what would happen if we asked our students to do the same with biblical texts. I know Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza does something akin to this at Harvard. What would be the outcome? Would they learn the POV craft of biblical authors? Would they “emerge from themselves, know what another sees of this universe that is not the same as their own?”

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  1. A Study of the Point of View in Henry James’s “The Wings of the Dove” | bloomy ebooks

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