Adventures in Biblical Reader-Response Criticism part 3 – From theory to practice

The second chapter (“Two Experiments”) illustrates the reality of polyvalence and the influence of social location, reading strategy, empathy, and conceptions of meaning, by way of two experiments which Powell carried out.

For each experiment 100 participants were chosen, 50 clergy and 50 laity (one of each from each church), each were presented with a passage of scripture to read, reflect on briefly, and then answer the question provided. Participants were chosen so that “the distinguishing characteristic would be lay/clergy status.” (29) While the experiments did not prove anything, the results were very suggestive.

For the first experiment, the passage was Mark 7:1-8 and the question was “What does this story mean to you?” For the second, the passage was Luke 3:3-17 and the question was “What does this story mean?”

Powell provides the complete lists of responses for each, as well as detailed analysis and an exploration of possible reasons for the differences observed. Here I will only note a few of the many interesting observations.

Firstly, a vast number of different responses and interpretations were offered. Plurality was observed not only between clergy and laity responses but was very much the case within these groups. I found the number of different interpretation of the stories staggering.

Empathy: In the responses of the first experiment, “Most of the clergy responses indicate empathy with the character of Jesus, while most of the lay responses indicate reader empathy either with Jesus’ disciples or with his audience (the scribes and Pharisees).” (38) Among the clergy not a single participant empathized or identified with the disciples, and among the laity, not a single participant empathized or identified with Jesus.

Reading Strategy: In the responses of the second experiment, the change of question caused a change in the type of response given by the majority of clergy but not from the laity. Whether they were asked to respond with what the story meant to them or what the story simply meant, the laity consistently responded with self-reference. They consistently employed a reader-oriented hermeneutic, where the majority of the clergy employed an author-oriented hermeneutic if they thought it was called for. (53)

“The two words to you made a significant difference for clergy in determining how they responded to the story, but no for laity. The laity demonstrated a tendency to read stories as applicable to themselves with or without prompting; clergy demonstrated an ability to read stories as applicable to themselves when prompted to do so, but they often did not do this unless prompted.” (51-52)

Powell also categorizes the clergy responses in terms of those which understood the question in historical, redactional, and existential senses (52-53). All worth looking at (so get the book!).

Conceptions of meaning: Powell also notes how the laity communicated how the text effected them with a far greater frequency than the clergy. The clergy responses were far more cognitive in both experiments (54-55).

Powell concludes with some implications for preaching (55-56), but you will have to pick up a copy of the book to get the benefit of those.

Now for some comments. I would loved to have seen a third experiment in which, the laity at least, were given another story from a gospel and asked ‘what did this story mean to the author?’ I would be interested to see if some sort of self-reference and application persisted in their responses. It would also have been good to repeat the experiments with some non-narrative texts to see if these would a generate a lesser-degree of plurality in responses. Perhaps we will come accross such experiments in the upcoming chapters.

One conclusion that Powell draws from these findings is that the author-oriented hermeneutic may be the “less natural” of the two, and that it must be “taught and developed.” (56) I don’t think he is on the money with this one. I think that the reader-oriented hermeneutic has to be learnt as well, it does not come naturally, and its prevalence among the laity is due to a number of factors including the influence of popular Christian literature. I may be missing the point, but I can’t imagine how it would be natural to read an ancient letter (which was addressed to someone else and addresses the specifics of others lives) or descriptive narration of ancient history such as we find in the gospels, as speaking directly to oneself. [1] Such a reading strategy is certainly due to the presence of the document in the Bible and certain conceptions of the nature of the Bible and how God speaks to us through/in/by it. The first part of Christian Smith’s recent book The Bible Made Impossible is somewhat helpful here.

[1] The NT letters and the Gospels are more than ancient letters and historical narratives, but the fact that they are these makes the point.

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One response

  1. What interesting research, and as you note how much room to extend this sort of investigation.

    I a few years ago supervised a PhD by Kay Fountain on Esther in which she compared some real readers reading with what narrative theory suggested about the flow and working of the story. But there has been so little actual research along these lines.

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