The Power of Point of View

Creating Diversity: Appraisal Theory and the account of King Herod and the Magi (Matt 2:1-18) – JAMES D. DVORAK

240px-Magi_Herod_MNMA_Cl23532The key point of Yamasaki’s Perspective Criticism is that storytellers craft points of view as a means of providing “evaluative guidance” for their putative audience in order to generate within them a sense of empathy for a particular character and that character’s beliefs, behaviors, etc. (p. 12). This gets at a main function of narrative (or, for that matter, any text): to naturalize certain ways of interpreting the world; to privilege or deprivilege certain ideologies and their attendant value positions; to establish norms; and to position readers/hearers to adopt or eschew these ideologies and values. For this reason, point of view crafting in narrative is a powerful tool in the hands of moral entrepreneurs (cf. Dvorak, “Not Like Cain”). Marking ideological, value, and moral boundaries is accomplished in large part through, as Yamasaki argues (Perspective Criticism, 13), constructing point of view to position the putative readers/hearers in relation to a character or characters in the story. When a reader/hearer is aligned with a character they tend to accept the value position(s) associated with that character. Yamasaki’s description of point of view crafting is mostly positive in that he emphasizes its role in creating solidarity between the readers/hearers and a character in the story (p. 12). Of course, storytellers do not always want their audiences to “merge” with (Yamasaki, Perspective Criticism, 10) the character(s) about whom she or he is telling the story. There are times when a writer may utilize a story genre (e.g., recount, anecdote, exemplum, observation, or narrative [cf. Martin and Rose, Genre Relations, ch. 2]) to position her or his audience to adopt a negative stance toward a character in order to create distance between the readers and the character. This naturalizes the reading position not to accept the value position(s) associated with a particular character or group of characters.

Matthew’s story of Herod and the magoi (Matt. 2:1–18) provides an excellent example of this, and linguistic analysis bears this out. Reference chain analysis indicates that the two primary interacting participants in the story are, indeed, Herod and the magoi. Theme-Rheme analysis (cf. Dvorak, “Thematization, Topic, and Information Flow,” 21–23) indicates that, even though the magoi are referenced more often, it is Herod’s character that Matthew portrays as the primary thematic actor in this text. For much of this story, then, the readers/hearers are positioned to see from Herod’s point of view. But does Matthew want his readers/hearers to empathize with Herod’s character? Here it is helpful to bring alongside Yamasaki’s model a sociolinguistic model of discourse analysis called Appraisal Theory, which provides a lens for analyzing the interpersonal and interactional semantics of text. Briefly, Appraisal Theory is concerned with the linguistics involved when people take up positive or negative stances as they negotiate points of view and value positions with others with whom they share a social system (cf. Dvorak, “Interpersonal Metafunction in 1 Corinthians 1–4,” 51 [unpublished dissertation]). Appraisal analysis takes place along three axes. The first axis has to do with the attitude of the language user, the encoding of their positive or negative emotions, their positive or negative judgments of people’s behavior/character, and their positive or negative appreciations of things or ideas. The second axis has to do with how the language user—in the present case, the storyteller—positions her or his voice/value position vis-à-vis other voices and value positions sourced in the text (in the case of narrative, this often occurs through the voices and actions of the characters). The third axis is concerned with analyzing how the language user scales interpersonal meanings with regard to intensity (force [e.g., “exceedingly angry”]) or prototypicality (focus [e.g., “a true disciple”]).

As is typical of narrative, Matt 2:1–18 begins with an orientation (“When Jesus was born . . . in the days of king Herod”). This is followed immediately by a complication expressed when the magoi (the protagonists of the story, although relatively “quiet”) arrive on the scene and ask, “Where is the one born king of the Jews? . . . we want to pay homage to him” (v. 2). The complication is expressed negatively from Herod’s point of view in v. 3a, “Upon hearing this, Herod was disturbed . . . ” (negative emotional reaction). Additionally, the force of the negative evaluation is upscaled by the addition of the clause “and all of Jerusalem with him” (v. 3b). Further, it is likely that for Matthew even to name Herod and to refer to him as king would likely evoke a negative appraisal of Herod on the basis of his capricious, often violent reign (cf. Hoehner, “Herodian Dynasty” [DJG], 318–21). Thus, even very early in the story, Herod, the thematic character, is negatively evaluated so as to create distance between the readers and his character. This is Matthew’s way of positioning his readers to take up a stance that opposes those who oppose Jesus. This is only the beginning of the negative portrayal and evaluation of Herod and the ideology and value position(s) he represents. Throughout the entire narrative, Matthew portrays Herod’s actions as less than laudable. Most of the narrative focuses on overturning the seeming positivity of his inquiry regarding the coming of the Messiah (vv. 4–6) with negativity on the basis of his secret plan to kill the child (vv. 7–15).

As if to ensure a thoroughly negative visceral response from his audience with regard to Herod’s character, Matthew closes the narrative in horrific fashion. In terms of perspective criticism, the psychological plane (inside view) is foregrounded in v. 16 through the use of “seeing” (ἰδών), the emotional process “enraged” (ἐθυμώθη), and the emotionally driven material process “executed/dispatched” (ἀνεῖλεν) (cf. Yamasaki, Perspective Criticism, 39–42). This text is clearly intended to evoke a negative judgment of Herod’s behavior. His actions are apparently motivated by an envy-induced fit of extreme rage—note the use of λίαν (“exceedingly”) to upscale the intensity of an already intense word for anger (cf. Louw and Nida, 88.179; on envy, cf. Malina, New Testament World, 108–33). Also, although the participle ἀποστείλας (“having sent [some]”) indicates that Herod employed henchmen to carry out his brutal plan, the process/verb itself, ἀνεῖλεν (“executed/dispatched”), is third person singular and, thus, directly connects the act of murder to Herod. As if these things were not enough to defame Herod completely, Matthew further upscales the intensity of Herod’s actions—and, thus, the intensity of negative judgment against him—in two significant ways. First, Matthew says that Herod killed “every child” (παῖς is ambiguous with regard to gender, so this could include all boys and girls) “in Bethlehem and in all its regions from two years old and younger” (v. 16b). The sweeping, inclusive nature of the language here realizes force via quantification, which construes Matthew as maximally committed to a negative view of Herod.

The final words, an Attribution sourced as the words of the prophet Jeremiah (cf. Jer 31:15), are particularly interesting with regard to interpersonal semantics. Certainly, the language of fulfillment (ἐπληρώθη [v. 17]) presents the quotation as a kind of interpretive lens through which his audience may make sense of what he has just described. But more than that, they serve as a call, based on the authority of Jeremiah and the scriptures, to lament inconsolably (note the abundance of negatively charged emotional lexis: “weeping” [κλαυθμός, κλαίουσα], “wailing” [ὀδυρμὸς] and “not wanting to be comforted” [οὐκ ἤθελεν παρακληθῆναι]) because of Herod’s heinous act. In this way, Matthew positions the readers to align with his unequivocally negative stance toward Herod and all who stand opposed to the Messiah, as Herod epitomizes in this story.

It is my hope that even this brief post demonstrates (1) how evaluation in text contributes to point of view construction; (2) how sometimes a story is told from the perspective of a character in order to create divergence and distance with that character rather than empathy and solidarity; and (3) how sometimes multiple models may be brought together to provide a more full understanding of a text.


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