Tag Archives: Mark Allan Powell

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.

Adventures in Biblical Reader-Response Criticism part 2 – Polyvalence

The first part of the book is entitled “Meaning” and is made up of three chapters, the first of these is “Polyvalence” in which Powell discusses the theory underpinning Reader-response criticism.

He offers the following definition of polyvalence: “In literary theory Polyvalence refers to the multiplicity of potential meanings that seems to be present in any communication event.” In other words, what history and daily experience teach us is that texts (of all kinds) “can mean different things to different people. They can even mean different things to the same person when they are read or experienced under diverse circumstances.” (17) It is a simple fact that people respond differently to movies, stories, jokes, songs, etc. Who is reading, when, where, and why, make all the difference.

He takes up Wolfgang Iser’s theory [1] that all stories have “gaps” that readers fill in the act of reading; imaginatively filling in un-narrated details, seeking clarity from what is left ambiguous, making connections not explicit in the narrative. (16) According to Powell “Polyvalent interpretations result from readers filling gaps in divergent ways.” (17) He then discusses “four factors that influence how readers fill gaps.” (17)

Social Location – One’s social location is constituted by such factors as age, gender, career, social class, income, education, personality, health, the list can go on and on. In other words, what makes you you, the particulars that influence our perceptions and experiences.

Reading Strategy – Powell describes reading strategy through a few examples, but to keep this post short I will note only the last. He gives the example of a women who each morning reads a passage of Scripture “expecting God to speak to her.” (19, the passage, Isaiah 55:1, is the first illustration so far employing a non-narrative text) The result is that she discerns that God wants her to carry out a very specific act that is only very loosely connected to the text. He contrasts this with his typical reading strategy which pays close attention to the literary and historical contexts of the text, with her reading which “looks for direct existential engagement.” (19)

Choice of Empathy – Readers typically “identify” with certain characters in a story and their “experience” of the narrative is determined by this. This usually occurs without thought or deliberation, influenced by such factors as social location and reading strategy. While this can result in the reader elevating minor points or even missing “what the author would have regarded as the “main point” of the tale,” for Powell this “does not constitute misinterpretation” because “readers are not constrained by authorial intent.” (22)

Conceptions of Meaning – Powell outlines and contrasts two conceptions of meaning:(23)

Meaning as message. The meaning of a text may be described in essentially cognitive terms. Understanding the meaning of a text entails identification of the point or points that are being made therein.

Meaning as effect. The meaning of a text may be described in emotive or affective terms. Understanding the meaning of a text involves recognition of its impact on those who receive it.

The former tends to be author oriented and the latter reader oriented. These are not mutually exclusive conceptions, but at least in terms of narratives, the former does not do justice to the genre. The parables of Jesus, for example, cannot be reduced to a message because it is in their form as a story that they function to impact the reader. “The narrative form of a story—it’s characters, plot, settings, and rhetoric—are as integral to its meaning as any message(s) its author may hope it conveys.” (27) The field of biblical studies has privileged meaning as message, Reader-response criticism “advocates” for meaning as effect.

Powell concludes the chapter by stressing the importance of this last factor for interpretation:

“The mere fact that people define meaning differently opens the door to polyvalence. And if meaning can (I would say should) sometimes be defined in terms of effect, that open door is thrown wide. Authors might intend to convey more than one point in a text, but there are limits to how many points can reasonably be attributed to such intention. Reader-oriented meaning-as-effect assumes a potentially unlimited range of meaning. Every individual reader may be effected differently.” (27)

Now for some comments. While Powell states that polyvalence occurs with all forms of communication, all but one of his examples/illustrations so far have been narratives, typically films. Something else needs to be said regarding different genres where Iser’s theory of “gaps” is not so fitting. I can easily see how social location, reading strategy, and conceptions of meaning would contribute to a plurality of interpretations of NT letters (or any writing actually), but not in terms of gap filling.

In terms of the one non-narrative example so far, Powell refers to the woman’s engagement with Isaiah 55:1 and the guidance she received as an interpretation of the passage. But I do not think this is an appropriate label, and am not sure that she would use the langauge of interpretation to describe what she was doing either.  But then perhaps this is because of my own understanding of what “interpretation” should signify. Powell’s use seems to be more inclusive of various reading strategies. The reason I note this is that diverse reading strategies come with diverse objectives/goals/aims which I would argue requires us to clearly place them in separate categories in order to avoid ambiguities which otherwise allow for overly general claims to be made, about polyvalence for example, that would otherwise clearly be untenable. [2] This brings me back to the previous comment on the application of Powell theory to non-narrative texts.

Finally, in regards to the two conceptions of meaning (meaning as message and meaning as effect), which of these  conceptions belongs to Powell’s definition of polyvalence as “the multiplicity of potential meanings that seems to be present in any communication event.” Are we talking about a multiplicity of messages or effects? I think that Powell would put the accent on the latter (while not excluding the former), [3] and that we need to recognize this when seeking to assess the theory.

[1] On Iser’s theory see Anthony Thiselton, New Horizons in Hermeneutics: The Theory and Practice of Transforming Biblical Reading (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zoncervan, 1992), 515-524

[2] Similar reservations could be made in regards to his use of meaning. However, Powell is being somewhat descriptive in his use of the term (especially in regards to the two conceptions), a term which is used to mean many different (though related) things. Powell is very inclusive in his use of this term to, and in the next two chapters will explore through two experiments that he carried out, how various conceptions of meaning (as well as the other factors that influence gap filling) work themeselves out in practice.

[3] His reference to communication as an “event” firmly includes the reader, whereas refering to communication as an act might cut off the reader by considering communication complete with the author’s production of a text.

 

Adventures in Biblical Reader-Response Criticism part 1 – Introducing Reader-response Criticism

I am currently reading Mark Allan Powell’s book Chasing the Eastern Star: Adventures in Biblical Reader-Response Criticism (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001) and because I am finding it quite a helpful book, I thought I would share some of it with you. For this first post, lets start with the Introduction.

In the intro Powell outlines a reader-response oriented reading strategy.[1] It is a simple fact that people read the Bible differently—they take texts to mean different things—and reader-response criticism is about appreciating and exploring the nature and reasons for these differences. Thus, unlike Historical criticism, its interest is not in ascertaining an author’s intention but rather in accounting for the varied responses of readers. [2] Powell outlines four steps he employs for such study of the biblical text (pp.8-9):

  1. The first step he calls “descriptive reader-response criticism”, and is concerned with gathering “the responses of real readers” to a text and cataloguing them within subcategories such as gender, ethnicity, etc. that can reveal trends.
  2. The second step involves comparing these actual responses with a “continuum of expected responses” (or implied readings) within which they can be placed or if not, identified as “unexpected readings.” [3]
  3. The third step is to “account for these readings” by asking what it is about the text or each reader that has led to their particular response, particularly those which are “unexpected.” Is the “narrative’s rhetoric flawed”? Do the readers lack implied/assumed knowledge? Is social location an influence?
  4. The final step, which he states goes beyond his work as a Scholar but is necessary for him as a Christian, concerns evaluating “expected and unexpected readings to determine whether they should be regarded positively or negatively.” (8) Note that this is not about evaluating the correctness of readings according to whether they fall within the continuum of expected/implied readings (those intended by the implied author), but about evaluating all potential readings according to an external “value system.” [4]

This sounds like a very worthwhile and illuminating task and I look forward to the case studies later in the book where he puts this into practice.

Some details to note and comments to make. Powell uses the terms “reading” and “response” interchangeably. By these Powell intends not only the discernment of a message within the text but also the effect that the text has on the reader, its impact. Furthermore, within this method the readings/responses looked for are initial impressions (Powell does not use this language). That is to say, they have not yet been put to the test through a closer and repeated examination of the text, or a critical reflection on the hermeneutical moves made in relating the text to oneself, ones world, etc.

The terms “expected” and “implied” readings/responses are also used interchangeably, although a preference for the term “expected” reading/response over “implied” reading/response arises quite quickly and I suspect this is because it softens the call of the narrative towards a particular reading or continuum of readings, and so helps to avoid deligitimizing “unexpected” readings.

Finally, in regards to his fourth evaluative step wherein he does not wish to submit “real” or “actual” readings to a sort of evaluation based upon “expected” or “implied readings,” but rather both according to his Christian moral standpoint, this looks like a case of current convictions judging Scripture rather than Scripture reshaping current convictions. For me this is somewhat backwards, but we will see where he takes us in this regard as the book progresses.

[1] Powell refers to this as a “reading strategy” because he does not see at as the only legitimate way to interpret Biblical literature (7). Like Stephen Fowl he does not wish to privilege establishing authorial intent as the only legitimate goal of biblical interpretation or the only legitimate meaning of biblical literature (2-4).

[2] Powell is well aware that this is a very general statement, qualifying it with the appended footnote (see 199).

[3] Within narrative criticism, “implied readings” are those which a narrative invites or calls for, and as such are those that the “implied author” can be said to have intended. The story is told in such a way as to effect a particular range of responses by readers, and the “implied reader” is the hypothetical reader who by following the lead of the text is led to experience such a response/s.

[4] ‘Expected readings are not necessarily “right,” and unexpected readings are not necessarily “wrong.” Still, I do believe that some interpretations are right and that others are wrong. I know that I can only believe this by imposing my value system on both the texts and those who interpret them.’ (8)

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