This is the third in a multi-part post explaining why I think rhetorical criticism is a valid and helpful tool for examining New Testament texts. In part I, I talked about texts having an origin and an audience. In Part II, I spoke about texts having integrity and a genre. In this post I will discuss literary criticism as a way to read a text with integrity and genre.
Literary criticism of the Bible, which I practiced for some time, seemed to be a great advance over previous forms of biblical criticism such as form, source, redaction, etc... Literary criticism does exactly what I called for in part II of this series, namely take seriously the integrity of a text and assign a genre to the text. Literary criticism attempts to read any text as a whole and as a literary unity. This, at least to me, seems preferable over forms of criticism that dismember the text into separate parts.
One specific form of literary criticism that has been adapted to biblical texts is that of narrative criticism (NC). NC reads biblical narratives as stories. Thus, the gospels are treated like stories and read through the lens of literary categories such as plot, characters, characterization, story time, narrative sequence, setting, conflict, etc. An easy place to access the methodology of narrative criticism is Mark Allen Powell's book What is Narrative Criticism.
To go further, I must define three concepts: 1) the world in behind the text, 2) the world in the text, and 3) the world in front of the text. The world behind the text refers to the historical situation which created the text, i.e., the author, the place of composition, the sources of the text, the social situation of the writing, etc. In short, form, source, and redaction criticism focus on the world behind the text. The world in the text refers only to the narrative world of the text. It is not concerned with anything that went into the writing of the text, but is only concerned with the world the text creates. Finally, the world in front of the text refers to the world of anyone who comes to read the text, in whatever time and situation that might be.
NC is only concerned with the world in the text. It brackets off all questions of what came before and any questions about the audience of the text. NC is a valuable tool and one which has produced many important works, such as R. Alan Culpepper's Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel and Rhoads and Michie's Mark as Story.
Despite all of Narrative Criticism's advantages, it fails the criteria of my first post, namely that all texts have an origin and an audience. By ignoring the world behind the text and the world in front of the text, NC ignores the author, the time, the place, and the audience. While insights can be gained from NC, its shortcomings are also glaring.
Another form of literary criticism which has gained some sway in the biblical guild is that of Reader Response Criticism (RRC). RRC looks at the text as a unity and gives it a genre and attempts to read it according to literary patterns, yet RRC gives preference to the world in front of the text. That is, RRC privileges the reader. Whatever response a reader comes up with, that is the proper interpretation of the texts. Therefore, a text has as many meanings as it has readers.
For myself, a Christian, who holds that the Bible has authority in my life, RRC seems to devolve into chaos as the text can now mean anything, or nothing, depending on who reads it.
I would contend that some forms of biblical criticism, like form, redaction, etc., give too much attention to the world behind the text, others, like NC, give too much to the world in the text, and finally, some, like RRC, give too much to the world in front of the text.
Another problem that literary critics have run into is the question of whether categories developed to study modern literature are valid for studying ancient literature. There has been increasing backlash against using such categories. Are there not better categories used by the ancients themselves? We will leave the answer to that question for another time.
In my next post I will discuss audience oriented criticism, which I think steers a middle ground in this interpretive matrix, attempting to draw these three worlds together. (Part IV).