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.

 

Who’s meaning counts?

Consider the following scenario:

After a brief study of a passage from the Bible, the leader of the Bible study asks those present to reflect on what the text means for them. The first person to speak reiterates what they understood the passage to be mean but goes no further. The next speaks of the passage with direct reference to her present circumstances, but this is quickly met with criticism by the first. He objects, ‘that isn’t what the text means at all’. ‘But that wasn’t the question’ she replies, ‘the question was what does it mean for me?’ He replies, ‘That’s not the problem, my problem is that what you claim it means to you has little connection with what the author was trying to communicate to his original readers. It simply couldn’t have meant anything like that to them.’ A third speaks up in defence of the accused, ‘What the text meant is irrelevant, all that matters is that as living the Word speaks to us in our context.’ Feeling increasingly uncomfortable, the accused directs a question to the leader of the study, ‘what’s wrong with my answer? This is what it means to me!’ The third interrupts, ‘why should you’, speaking to the first, ‘get to decide what it means anyway? You can interpret it how you like, but it doesn’t mean that for me or her.’ His response is quick and heated, ‘You can’t make the Scriptures mean what ever you like, that undermines the authority of the Bible Completely!’

How do we determine what a text ‘means’ and what it doesn’t mean? Can texts mean different things to different people? Do texts have a single fixed meaning or a plurality of meanings? Are there any ‘constraints’ on these readings at all or are readers free to take from texts what they wish?

This scenario illustrates some of what is at stake in the debate over meaning, a debate I hope it also shows is not merely a matter of academic interest or quibble, but one of direct relevance to every reader of the Scriptures.