The Power of Point of View

Reading 1 & 2 Samuel with Undergraduates using Perspective Criticism: A Retrospective

Head Shot 3 (08.09)by SCOTT S. ELLIOTT   About a year ago, I wrote a post about an upcoming upper-level course on “Literature of the Hebrew Bible” that I would be teaching during the spring 2014 semester. This year’s edition centered on 1 and 2 Samuel and integrated perspective criticism. My primary objectives in doing the latter were to better equip students (i) to differentiate between the narrative and its narration; (ii) to, then, critically analyze, assess, and engage the presentational apparatuses of the narrative discourse; and (iii) to more fully appreciate the diverse and often conflicting ideological and theological perspectives reflected in the Bible, not only by recognizing when they are in play, but also by considering the implications and consequence of their interplay. All of these share in common, I think, a desire on my part to move students from being consumers of biblical literature to being robust readers of the biblical text, whereby they embrace their roles in making meaning and (re)creating the texts of the Bible. My goal, in sum, is creative critical thinking, and imaginative response in kind to the biblical literature.

On the whole, the students responded well to Perspective Criticism as a method of reading, analyzing, and interpreting 1 and 2 Samuel. Not surprisingly, certain planes were more accessible to them than others (e.g., spatial, psychological, informational, and temporal were fairly easy to track, while the phraseological and ideological planes proved rather elusive). One of my students made a color-coded bookmark listing each of the planes, and then proceeded throughout the semester to mark up her textbook with various highlighters identifying when and where different planes were in operation.

Two exercises proved especially fruitful. First, I brought in a couple of poems from Marilyn Singer’s Follow Follow: A Book of Reverso Poems (New York: Dial Press, 2013). These “reverso” poems are positively brilliant. For starters, they present familiar stories in poetic verse, which serves well to emphasize the substantive role played by language and form in the invention and presentation of narrative. Each poem is presented twice on opposing pages. The version on the recto appears in reverse of the rendition on the verso, with only minor changes to structuring and punctuation. The result is nothing short of a completely different story, which stems most fundamentally from the revision of perspective and narratorial voice.

The second activity I found particularly productive required students to practice rewriting episodes from the narrative of 1 and 2 Samuel from an alternate character’s point of view. One of the episodes with which we experimented was David’s flight to Nob and his visit with Ahimelech (1 Sam. 21:1-9). Students crafted alternative versions of the incident from the perspective of either the priest or Doeg the Edomite. Although they were strictly limited to only the information available in the text as we have it, they were encouraged to consciously shape their stories according to perspectival planes. Forcing them to pay such close attention to the details of the narrative operating at the level of both story and discourse made a remarkable impact on their experience of the story. It demonstrated to them, for example, how little information there is in the story once the reader steps out from behind (i.e., to momentarily look at rather than see with) the point-of-view character. Moreover, it illustrated, in a very salient way, how something like narratorial reliability can be established by indirect means (not to mention how a narrator’s ideology can be subtly woven into and through various story elements). Finally, it provided students with an opportunity and a means by which to see and appreciate the writer’s presence in the work. While we will never be able to access the author directly or completely, recognizing the traces of his or her compositional activity adds depth and dimension to material that might otherwise be perceived as something either a bit too familiar or a bit too fantastic.

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