The Power of Point of View

Does Acts 9 characterize Saul of Taursus as an “Anti-Hero”?

TheConversionOfSaul_Sabdiasep-Mercado-Adorno_Bh_CC-BY-ND-30_150sby GARY YAMASAKI   In a previous post, I addressed the point-of-view dynamics behind why we feel empathy for anti-heroes in movies. In this post, I will explore the possibility that the Acts 9 depiction of Saul of Taursus characterizes him as a biblical example of an anti-hero.

Saul first appears in Acts in the scene of the stoning of Stephen, receiving just a mention as a bystander at whose feet those doing the stoning put their cloaks (7:58). This represents a mere implicit indication that his sympathies lie with those engaged in the stoning, and explicit confirmation follows shortly thereafter in the form of a declaration by the Lukan narrator that Saul approved of the stoning (8:1). This begins a negative characterization of Saul, though 8:1 does not go so far as to depict him as a full-fledged villain. However, the next mention of Saul a chapter later does accomplish exactly that, as chapter 9 opens with a statement that he is not only breathing murderous threats against the followers of Jesus, but is even starting to engage in overt actions against them, in the form of seeking out authority to arrest any of them he might find in Damascus (9:1-2).

Because Saul is depicted as a villain, we would expect the narrator to use point-of-view crafting to distance the readers from him, and such distancing is accomplished through providing the readers with an objective experience of the character. And that is what we find as we examine the way Saul is characterized up to the first part of 9:2; we are given an entirely external view of him, a view limited just to what an objective observer could see.

Note, however, what happens in 9:2. This verse begins with the image of Saul appealing to the high priest for letters to the synagogues of Damascus, clearly an external view. But the verse continues with a purpose clause, setting out the reason why Saul wants the letters: to enable him to make arrests in Damascus. This is not an external view, for what he is thinking is not something an objective observer is able to discern. Rather, the only way the readers would be made privy to this information is by being taken inside the head of Saul by means of an inside view into his thinking, and it is this type of subjective experience of a character that contributes toward readers coming to experience the events of the story line through that character’s point of view.

Verse 3 states that a light from heaven flashes around him—another external view—and verse 4 reports that he falls to the ground and then “he heard a voice, saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?'” It has been suggested that a statement by a narrator that a character hears a particular thing should be considered an inside view, the reason being that an objective observer simply looking at a character is not privy to what the character is hearing, that taking a vantage point right inside the character’s head from which one can discern exactly what auditory data is registering in the character’s brain. This being the case, the narrator’s note in verse 4 that Saul heard “a voice” transports the readers into Saul’s head from which vantage point they can witness this dynamic occurring in his brain, and thus, verse 4 presents another subjective experience of Saul.

The content of verse 4 is also significant to informational-plane dynamics of point of view. A narrator’s causing a convergence between the information databases of readers and a particular character—that is, limiting the readers to only the information possessed by the character—forces the readers to experience the events of the story line through the same informational point of view as the character. And this is another way of providing readers with a subjective experience of a character.

Examination of verse 4 reveals that just such a convergence between the information databases of reader and character exists. First, it is clear Saul is not aware of the identity of the speaker of the words reported in verse 4, for he needs to ask about that identity in the following verse. Further, the readers are not privy to this information either, for the report of the words spoken are introduced just with the words “he heard a voice,” with no indication of whose voice it is. This creates a convergence between the databases of the readers and Saul, thus enhancing the readers’ subjective experience of Saul.

The beginning of verse 5 shows Saul asking for the identity of the voice, and the rest of the verse reports the response: “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.” Note how this statement fills the voids in Saul’s database and the readers’ database simultaneously, thus preserving the convergence between the two databases, and this continues the readers’ subjective experience of Saul.

To summarize, Saul’s introduction into the story line depicts him as a villain, a characterization that would ordinarily warrant loathing towards him on the part of the readers. However, just as he is about to receive his comeuppance in the form of an encounter with the glorified Jesus, the readers are given a subjective experience of him, the type of experience that has the effect of creating within the readers a sense of empathy for Saul. And the readers’ being prompted to empathize with the villainous Saul fits the model of an anti-hero.

It remains to address why the narrator might wish for the readers to feel empathy for Saul in this situation. When villains end up being traumatized as payback for their evil deeds, it is only natural that the audience feel a sense of delight in their trauma. In this case, however, the Lukan narrator knows what the character Saul will turn out to be later in the story line, and so, would not want the readers to delight in his trauma. Given that Saul is to go on to be a hero, a more appropriate response here on the part of the readers would be empathy for Saul as he suffers. And the point-of-view crafting of this passage accomplishes precisely that result.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: