The Power of Point of View

S.B.L. Book Review Session on “Perspective Criticism” (part 6): Response to Whitlock Review

photo-1by GARY YAMASAKI   Matt’s review of Perspective Criticism provides a relatively rare perspective, that of a biblical scholar who is also a literary critic trained in the study of the modern novel. Such a perspective is most welcomed in the discussion of point-of-view crafting, a topic right in the wheelhouse of literary critics, but so foreign to the typical interpretative paradigm of biblical scholars.

His literary orientation picks up on the fact that the book’s use of literary criticism means “looking at an author’s craft, not simply an author’s message.” Of course, this focus on an author’s craft has led many scholars to criticize this approach to biblical narratives as lightweight for its inability to generate significant insights. And this critique is justified if by “insights” they mean points relevant to discerning meaning in texts, for most literary-critical studies of biblical passages have indeed been light in this regard. However, I see the approach set out in this book as involving not only a look at biblical authors’ crafting of point of view, but also, the discerning of a particular layer of “meaning” in texts, the layer related to which characters’ actions are to be looked upon favourably, and which are intended to be viewed unfavourably.

Matt does express some doubt about the veracity of one of the key components of the book’s thesis: the idea that the narratives of the Bible would have created images in the hearers’ mind’s eye of what is being described. Matt wonders just how visually oriented the original audiences would have been. This is a crucial point, and one that the book does not address. But since the book’s release, I have come across research on just this point.

Harry Maier’s forthcoming Picturing Paul in Empire (T. & T. Clark) focuses on “the role of imagery in imagination and persuasion in the ancient world and. . .demonstrate[s] the critical importance of visual evidence in the exegesis of biblical texts. As such it aims to develop a form of ‘iconographic exegesis’, that is, a disciplined treatment of the [contested Pauline epistles] in their visual world” (p. 16). In pursuing this inquiry, Maier cites the work of Roman rhetorician Quintilian who, in discussing the use of images, wrote, “It is a great virtue to express our subject clearly and in such a way that it seems to be actually seen.” Further, Quintilian understands persuasion as “setting forth our facts in such a striking manner that they seem to be placed before our eyes as vividly as though they were taking place in our actual presence” (Institutio oratoria 8.3.62, 9.1.27; at p. 30).

These quotes clearly reflect composition being undertaken with an eye to what one’s hearers will be visualizing as they are listening. This being the case, it is not unreasonable to posit that the narrative material of the New Testament does work toward forming specific images of events in their hearers’ mind’s eye.

Matt makes a good catch in questioning the book’s speaking of seeking the author’s intention behind the evaluation of characters’ actions. He is correct in his assertion that such intentionality is no longer the accepted norm in literary approaches to biblical texts. I should point out that when he speaks of his preference for the use of the language of “textual constraints,” as opposed to “authorial intention,” he reflects what I actually had in mind when writing this book; unfortunately, this became obscured through my inadvertently falling back into terminology from days gone by.

With regards to trajectories for the future of point-of-view studies that Matt sets out, I especially appreciate his suggestion that point-of-view crafting as we have it today may actually have developed from the Bible. I was aware that “point of view” as a literary concept only appeared a little over one hundred years ago in the context of the study of the modern novel, though narratives of antiquity did involved point-of-view dynamics for no other reason than point of view is a necessary component of any story. However, it had never occurred to me that what we have today in terms of point-of-view dynamics might actually represent the end of a two-thousand year development beginning in texts of the New Testament. This is definitely an aspect of point-of-view studies that warrants attention.

I wish to conclude by addressing the point with which Matt concludes his review: that literature has “evolved into expressing multiple points of view without reference to the privileged or authoritative one that we see in the Bible.” Matt is certainly correct in this assessment; many narratives of today do utilize multiple points of view, in stark contrast to “the privileged or authoritative one that we see in the Bible”; I suppose this is to be expected, given the extent to which postmodern relativism has been brought to bear on the literature of today. However, this book consciously situates its approach to point-of-view analysis as a modern–as opposed to postmodern–methodology, aligning it with the other modern approaches to biblical texts developed over the past couple of centuries. Like these other approaches, this point-of-view methodology exhibits a commitment to thoroughgoing historical investigation, specifically, investigation into what effects the point-of-view crafting of the narratives of the Bible might have had on people of the biblical era. And those effects are to be found through examination of “the privileged or authoritative” point of view running through the narratives of the Bible.

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