The Power of Point of View

5 Questions on the Interpretive Approach set out in “Perspective Criticism” – GARY YAMASAKI

CASCADE_TemplateI was recently contacted by a grad student who had found my Perspective Criticism book helpful for work on her thesis, and who wanted to ask some questions on the approach to analyzing point of view set out in the book. Following are some of her questions (some of which are edited for the sake of clarity) and my responses:

1. With regards to the literary theory you utilize, why did you chose a text-oriented approach [i.e. meaning is inherent in a text, and not in the author’s intention] rather than a reader-oriented approach [i.e. a reader’s social location will necessarily impact the meaning he or she will derives from the text] ? I realize that over the past couple of decades, reader-oriented approaches have provided a number of helpful interpretative insights, but the insights arising from these approaches are not pertinent to my area of research. My goal in studying biblical texts is an exegetical one, that is, getting at their originally intended meanings, specifically, the originally intended effects of the point-of-view crafting in these texts. Reader-oriented approaches would say it is impossible to bracket out all subjectivity in this endeavour, and I concede that is true. Nevertheless, exegesis is, by its very nature, an objective enterprise. So the best I can do is allow my attempts at being objective to be informed by the caveats of reader-oriented approaches, thus being especially vigilant to keep my subjectivity from impacting my exegesis.

2. Given the persuasive power PoV manipulation may yield, what formational problems occur when one does not consider PoV in what they read/watch? Not considering PoV in what we watch is not really a problem. When we are watching a movie, we become lost in the world of the movie (losing awareness we are sitting in a movie theatre), and when we are in this state, we are totally susceptible to the point-of-view dynamics built into the crafting of the movie, and thus, experience the point-of-view dynamics we are intended to experience (without us even realizing what PoV dynamics are being used). And this “getting lost in the story world” can also happen when reading a written story; you may have had the experience of losing awareness you are sitting in an easy chair when becoming immersed in a good novel. However, this dynamic tends not to happen when reading biblical narrative passages simply because we tend not to view biblical stories as “stories” in the same we view movies or novels as stories. And because we don’t view biblical stories as stories, we do not allow ourselves to become immersed in them the way we become immersed in the stories of movies and novels. And because we don’t become immersed in them, we don’t experience the PoV dynamics we are intended to experience, And since we don’t experience these PoV dynamics, we will remain unaware of the impact they were intended to impart (for example, empathy for a particular character). And if we don’t want to be oblivious to any such intended impacts, it is important to conduct PoV analyses of passages to determine any intended impacts embedded in the PoV crafting of the passages.

3. With regards to your suggestion that viewers of movies can come to empathize with PoV characters whose values are at odds with those of the viewers, what are the potential positives and negatives of allowing ourselves to be manipulated in this way? The most serious “negative” would be that repeated instances of coming to side with PoV characters who exhibit values at odds with the viewers’ values could eventually result in an erosion of the viewers’ values as they become replaced by those of the characters. Of course, it is not an automatic that this would happen. For example, a viewer with an exceptional strong value system is less likely to be affected by even repeated exposures to such characters. And even with viewers with weaker value systems, isolated instances of exposure should not have much of an effect. However, the formation of the value systems of child and youth viewers, whose value systems are still in the process of being formed, may involve the incorporation of the values of PoV characters of the movies they watch without their even realizing it. Regarding “positives” from being exposed to such PoV characters, I can see this type of PoV manipulation as beneficial in a situation where the viewers have deficiencies in their value systems, and exposure to a PoV character who exhibits the missing values could function to remedy those deficiencies; this, of course, is the case of using movies as a tool for character development.

4. What role does PoV in biblical and filmed narratives play in theological imagination; how does this literary device help people to imagine or test their understanding of scripture/God? As mentioned in my response to question 1, I understand the PoV crafting of a story as bringing about particular effects on the story’s audience, and I view my role as a story interpreter as discerning these intended effects. And so, in answer to your question of how PoV crafting helps people to imagine or test their understanding of scripture/God, I would have to say “only to the extent that the biblical story intends the readers/viewers to imagine or test their understanding of scripture/God” (this would again be a matter of determining which characters have been established as PoV characters, and examining how their understanding of scripture/God has been imagined or tested, for this is what is intended for the audience as well). Of course, a reader-oriented approach would go beyond just what has been intended by the story itself, but that is territory upon which I do not tread with my approach.

5. How do you respond to the idea that movies are mere entertainment, or that people simply want to “turn their brains off” and watch a flick? If my thesis is correct that PoV crafting does indeed have the capability of engendering a sense of empathy for any given character, whether positive or negative, then I believe it is not possible to consider movies as “mere entertainment.” Rather, movies must be recognized for what they are: potential tools for subliminal influence, and that makes movies a significant societal factor. If this is the case, it becomes dangerous simply to “turn one’s brain off” when going to the movies, for that would leave open a totally unguarded input channel allowing the entry of all kinds of influences unawares.

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