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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