Three Challenges in Bible Reading
The church’s own practices, and by this I mean what we learn in sermons and conversations and things we read, of Bible reading can become obstacles. Anyone who teaches Bible as I have for nearly forty years encounters these obstacles in the questions of students as well as in their answers.
Here are three obstacles:
Many read the Bible as verses. The Bibles we possess, less so today than when we were all reading the King James Bible, are versified and so we have learned to read it one verse at a time. We get something or we take something and we move on.
A second challenge is that our Bibles are cut up – rather arbitrarily or oddly at times – into chapters, which is all good and wonderful if the chapters are meaningful breaks. Are they? Sometimes, sometimes not.
A third challenge is our theology and procliviity to synthesize Bible statements – found in verses – with one another so we can form them into a theology and then we learn to re-read or impose on those statements our larger theological constructs. That is, Peter cannot have really meant baptism does what this verse seems to say since we know baptism doesn’t do that:
Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38).
Those three challenges can be answered and lift us to a new level if we learn to read the Bible as a narrative and learn to read each book as its own narrative creation, and especially so if we learn to read each Gospel as its own narrative about Jesus.
Which allows me to turn to Jeannine Brown’s new The Gospels as Stories.
But what is “narrative” and, in the lingo of professors, what is “narrative criticism.” She describes it and I want to look at these terms and see if you might want to read, say Mark, and think about the whole Gospel in light of these terms and ideas.
First, Gospel studies have moved from studying the sources of the Gospels (source criticism) to studying the individual passages/pericopes in light of similar passages (form criticism) to how each author/Evangelist edited and shaped what was before him (redaction criticism) to a more comprehensive approach to each Gospel (composition criticism) – all leading to narrative criticism.
Second, narrative criticism operates with some ideas: the story level (what we all see) to the rhetorical level (ordering, sequencing, using). Thus, she uses an illustration I have myself used for years and years – how Matthew arranges his Gospel from 4:17 through 9:35 with the wonderful nearly exact use of Jesus preaching, teaching and healing in 4:23 and 9:35, both to begin and end a section. We are given clues here about sequencing on how to read this Gospel beyond the obvioius.
Third, narratives have implied authors and implied readers. The implied author is not the “real” author but the author as discerned in the text. She uses the illustration of using a woman author of a novel (say, Willa Cather) and then finding a letter by Willa Cather to a friend. The implied author of the first is not the same as the second if one restricts knowledge to the narrative presentation. The implied reader is the one who goes along with every move made by the author in the text itself. Say, responding to Luke as the author wants you to reply.
Fourth, Brown claims narrative criticism has adapted in two or three ways: it has accommodated to narrative readings sociocultural and historical information so that the text is not seen as the totality of the information needed to read the text. It has also admitted using modern narrative techniques from fiction and has at times imposed those on narrative readings of the Gospels. So, in another move it has sought out 1st Century categories from other narratives to discern narrative strategies of 1st Century authors.
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