Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Literary Studies and the Humanities (or, it's all interdisciplinary)

a contrapuntal essay

Teaching in the Humanities, I find that there is nothing I read that isn't potentially relevant--even concretely useful--to my profession. Reading John Howard Yoder's The Politics of Jesus (second edition) suggests to me that debates within literary criticism also exist within theology.

There is the larger issue of the relevance of historical understanding of the contemporary context around the texts. Yoder does cite historical context of the gospel writers' words ("historical and literary-critical grounds" (42)), and this seems proper for a historical (and theological) understanding of the work (as aside: while the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's "seminaries and colleges generally teach a form of historical-critical method of biblical analysis, an approach that, broadly speaking, seeks to understand the scriptures and the process of canon formation with reference to historical and social context," the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod "teaches Biblical inerrancy, the teaching that Bible is inspired by God and is without error. For this reason, they reject much--if not all--of modern liberal scholarship"). I think a scholarly, critical understanding of historical context for biblical texts is enlightening for our understanding.

I'm not, however, convinced this historical understanding is necessary for literary criticism, by which I mean criticism of artistic works like fiction, drama, and poetry. Historical context may enlighten an understanding of a given work, but it may also be distracting from understanding a particular work, taking attention away from the text itself and to extra-textual information about the author and his/her society and times. For example, I think of Romeo and Juliet not as a great love story, but as a story of civil war and family rivalry--the feud between the Capulets and the Montagues dominates the text, really, and the relationship and destruction of Romeo and Juliet are problems inherent to the family feud. Perhaps I could follow the path historically (Shakespeare living and writing during the reign of Elizabeth Tudor, the Tudor dynasty being the one that came out of and ended a long period of English civil war, etc. etc.). Perhaps that historical and political understanding influenced Shakespeare (in fact, I think it probably did). But if I start following the path of history back to the War of the Roses, I've moved away from Romeo and Juliet, and there is plenty within Romeo and Juliet to encounter on its own (I'm a defender of the play: I think if Shakespeare had written nothing but this play, it alone would be a masterpiece to justify Shakespeare's place as a titan of English poetry).

Here are some passages from Yoder's book that are relevant to literary criticism, and my own views.

"Hans Conzelmann [...] likewise argues that although it is part of the scholar's task to seek to evaluate his documents and reconstruct the events behind them, the first interest of the student of any text must be what the author of the text means to say" (4).

I think this claim depends on the reason the "scholar" is reading. For an historian or theologian reading a text, an understanding of intent is useful if not necessary. But for reading literature, I mostly reject the necessity of authorial intent. I certainly don't think my first "interest" as a "student of any text" is the author's intent; my first interest as a (let's try the term on) "literary critic" is to engage with the text. If I move away from the text itself to an attempt to understand the author's intent, then I am not interpreting the text as it is, but the text as it may have been intended to be. But perhaps a "reader" of literature is not the same thing as a "scholar" as Conzelmann or Yoder would define it.

"What it means that every reader of a text has and owns a specific perspective, as over against seeking or claiming some kind of quasi-neutral 'objectivity,' is itself part of the continuing debate among scholars about proper method" (14).

I certainly embrace subjectivity over objectivity in literary studies, and this is much easier in literary studies than in other fields. Biblical exegesis is a lot like literary criticism--it engages in close attention to the text to understand it. But theology has consequences--that literary interpretation of the biblical text is used to support or create theological positions. What are the consequences of subjective interpretations of literature? No negative ones that I can perceive. If person A has a vastly different understanding of King Lear from person B, that hardly matters to person C--it's doubtful either person A or person B will use their differing interpretations of King Lear to set up a system of belief for person C. It's just fine that in reading literature, we don't attempt a "quasi-neutral 'objectivity," and it doesn't matter that there is no such thing. We are free to engage with the texts as individuals, and our subjective understandings mostly lack consequence.

"The prerequisite for appropriate reading of any text is the reader's empathy or congeniality with the intention and genre of the text. We do not ask someone hostile to the discipline of mathematics to read a mathematics text expertly. To read a text of the genre gospel under the a priori assumption that there could be no such thing as 'good news' (whether as a true message or as a genre) would be no more fitting" (14-15).

I'm not certain this is true. I suppose in some sense it is: if Person A believes novels are a waste of time and shouldn't be bothered with, I probably needn't read Person A's review of Moby Dick. But a reader lacking "empathy or congeniality" for a field may find important critical insights while engaging with the text. Marx was certainly hostile to capitalism, but that doesn't mean he didn't find keen insights into how capitalism works. I'd be interested in reading a hostile outsider's critique of texts from fields like Economics, or Psychology--that critique might bring with it useful insights.

In reading Yoder's The Politics of Jesus, I've found passages that could directly be applied to and debated within literary studies. But as a reader and teacher, I hardly need such explicit connections to make my reading relevant to my teaching. I often find much of my pleasurable reading coming up during discussion, during lecture, in teaching composition and in teaching literature. I don't always know that what I've read will come up, but then during class, it suddenly springs to my mind, and organically fits into what we are up to. The reading from my "personal" life is never entirely separated from my professional life--but then, my professional life is not entirely separate from personal life, either. My sense is that English teachers tend to love reading on a personal level, and go into the profession because of that love.

1 comment:

  1. While, I don't know much about lit. crit. formally speaking, I find your insights interesting.

    You are absolutely correct in your supposition that these issues exist within theology. In fact, I would point out that these issues, or at least those akin to these, have existed from the earliest ages of the Church and are not recent developments with the advent of the historical-critical method.

    If you look at the Alexandrian vs. Antiochian approaches to scripture you see something like what you are describing.

    I had a friend in college who tried to explain reader-response criticism to me and at the time I didn't understand it but thought that it violated how I was supposed to think about the interpretation of scripture. Since that time I focused my seminary degree on Church history (specifically eastern Christianity) and though I still do not claim to understand reader-response criticism it seems to be much less offensive to how I view the interpretation of scripture.

    The Alexandrian school, while valuing the history of the text, was much more interested in what the was saying and thus they commonly worked in the realm of allegory (I'm not asserting that this is what reader-response does). While this model is very offensive to the modern biblical scholar it seems that it worked for many in that school because they were closely tied to the historical church and its consistent doctrinal and liturgical tradition (something that I admit is a struggle for many protestants). Surely some in this school erroneously interpreted scripture and were found to have heretical beliefs (i.e. Origen) but many were able to stay within the bounds of orthodoxy while doing this because they were tied to the greater witness of the church.

    My point is I think there is room for both forms of biblical interpretation within the church. However, more subjective forms of interpretation (reader-response for example, maybe) are best used when they are normed by the greater doctrinal and liturgical witness of the church.

    I apologize for writing such a long comment. If you would like very brief overview of the Alexandrian vs. the Antiochian approach to scripture you may want to check out this article:


    It isn't written by a protestant so it my be a bit more difficult to digest, but it seems to be a good introduction. He is also not very favorable toward the Alexandrian approach (and I think his objections are spot on), but there were some faithful Christians to come out of this mindset.

    - Ben