Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Review of Art of Biblical Narrative


I started my review of The Art of Biblical Narrative I posted it below. Essentially, Im okay with saying Ruth and Boaz weren't real people... Ask me about it.

Robert Alter's The Art of Biblical Narrative is a must read for anyone interested in hermeneutics and Biblical interpretation. Although this book was written before the French Revolution of Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault, his approach is free from many of the snares and objectivist language that plagues so many hermeneutics books. "Well then, what is approach? What's his worldview? I see that he teaches at Berkley, he must be liberal" You might say. For 'hardlined evangelicals' drinking the cool-aid of Warfield, they will have a problem with his understanding of historicity of the events recorded in the Old Testament. For 'hardlined liberals' drinking the cool-aid of higher criticism, they will have a problem with his understanding of historicity of the events recorded in the Old Testament. No that wasn't a typo. Alter argues that the ancient Hebrew way of realizing history was through fiction.

0Not a balance-between-a-documentary-and-spiritualized-fables, but something different. Inspiration is pretty easy to understand when we think of the propositional stuff of 1 Timothy. What about fiction? The other 3/4 of the bible. Every character's inflection, which P.O.V., which details to include, which ones not to. Anyone who has been involved in any creative process knows that there are no rules as to what must be included, as Marilynne Robinson tells her students if they can pull it off they can do it, with that said how does a Sovereign God inspire and put His stamp of approval on a set of texts that seem to open to interpretation? I have not read every inerrantist's dealing with questions but I know what I have read is that they are assumed at best, ignored at worst.

The book is arranged with each chapter dealing with a different literary device of the OT. Alter's greatest insights are on the subject of repetition. When we are confronted with events that seem to overlap, some respond by saying "see how similar these stories are, who can make heads or tales, who knows what is real and what is made up"? Alter argues that the key to these stories is wrapped up not their similarities but in the subtle differences, in that we begin to perceive the message and shaping power of the narrative.

The Art of Biblical Narrative is not an apologetic for the scriptures, rather Alter demonstrates the beauty, intricacy, and craftmanship of the OT. Which becomes a kind of apologetic, but certainly only for those who have eyes to see.

10 comments:

jim thompson said...

victor hugo said that the book of Job was the greatest written literary work ever.

sounds like he makes some good points. too bad most of the NT writers suggest that most OT characters were real. i'm stil open to thinking though.

Paul-David Young said...

I guess the operative word would be "real".

John Paulling said...

It seems to me that like art, or artists not all biblical characters are created equal. The Prodigal Son, Lazarus, maybe Job, maybe Jonah, and so on could easily be characters that are "real", but that couldn't be visited via time machine. I don't think it does violence to the NT to say so. Take James' statement for example, "You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is merciful and compassionate" (Jas. 5:11). It is possible that that is an inspired version of something like this, "You have heard of the strength , and valor of Achilles..." The exhortation does not necessarily lose it's force because Achilles is a part of Homer's myth. Now, an obvious objection might be that for James' statement to hold water God needs to have actually vindicated Job, "we have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is merciful and compassionate." To that I say not if it was intended from the beginning as an inspired, extended parable. The text doesn't need that anymore than it needs Lazarus, or the Older Brother to have historical references.
That being said, I would want to say that Ruth and Boaz are "real". The reason for that being Matt. 1. To my knowledge a character in a parable cannot get a woman pregnant, and have the woman give birth to a baby outside of the parable. I want to be careful to not create a kind of, "canon within the canon", but I think the importance of Ruth giving birth to Obed goes without saying.

Paul-David Young said...

What I meant to and should have included was the idea of reality, historicity and other elements. Is our understanding of inspiration so wrapped up in a kind of scientific validity that we feel threatened when it is questioned. OR Am I pushing too pragmatically, because the stories of Ruth and Boaz are able to be used for teaching, training, correcting, etc. they are inspired. I think this is the kind of Barthian idea of the "bible becoming what it already is" that I am starting to understand and affirm...

John Paulling said...

That's fine, I understand what you are saying, but the Bible is not made up of one literary genre. While all we know of Jesus is what Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John tell us about Jesus, we worship a Jesus that actually exists apart from those texts. The reason I think Ruth was a historical woman that was married to a man named Boaz, is because of the emphasis that the NT places on her being Jesus' great-great-great-great-etc. grandmother. Once again, although Luke gives me an indispensable, and uniquely Lukan Jesus I do not worship Luke's Jesus, that to me creates a different kind of idolatry of the Bible. However much we appreciate the artistry of the biblical writers, I think we ought to affirm that the primary purpose of much of the narrative portions of Scripture is testimony, and therefore has significance beyond the use that Paul reminds Timothy of. You can't get to Act 4 without Act 3, and so forth. That being said, I am completely happy to say that the Holy Spirit inspired the biblical writers to use different genres in their writings, if that genre was deemed more compelling by God to demonstrate his mighty acts.

jim thompson said...

i agree on some possible vagueness to Job or JOnah. i understand the role of "story" and the parable in Jewish culture. but i'm talking about pages of genealogies in matthew and luke. ruth and boaz aren't symbolic or question marks used for examples. they were REAL time-machine people through whom the Messiah has come. hosea wasn't a fake guy who married a fake whore. isaiah wasn't a story who ran around naked for three years. Ezekiel wasn't a vision-seeing hippie from a fable. the prophets, all included in the genealogical sections of the gospels, and the history books - real people. there's still enough room for fake people in there too, but it is an overwhelming minority.

aside from this, i'm sure the dude makes good points. it is still something that church likely needs a tigther grip on.

have you heard whether grant osborne's hermeneutics book is good? i've heard he's a pretty sharp arminian hermeneutician?

John Paulling said...

That's kind of what I was wanting to say about Ruth and Boaz. I talked to PD about Ruth and Boaz, and he said that he didn't want to disaffirm that they were real just that the narrative is not written in a CNN live-eye-reporter genre. I think we probably agree on Matt. 1, though.

Paul-David Young said...

Good discussion.
It does seem like there is a kind of canon-within-the-canon that has emerged through some of the comments. Here's where I would delineate with the Gospels and Ruth. In the book of Ruth we do not have statements like (1) "in order to give an eyewitness account", (2) It is not included with the 12 history books, (2.5) and for what it's worth Eugene Peterson's the Message starts off with "Once upon a time...". I do not think that this book would lose any force or weight if it was not historically accurate. As John said, I am suspicious of speaking of OT Narrative as if it was a "documentary". With all that said I would probably say that Ruth and Boaz are real, but I am okay with saying that they might not have been "real" people. As long as we are defining real like Jews and not like enlightenment white Americans (which I realize I am)

I still feel like the doctrine of "narrative inspiration" has yet to be dealt with, I will maybe post a follow up to go after these things better.

Julie said...

I know I'm a little late on this and have missed the side conversations but am wondering what's the point? Is this an apologetic ace up our sleeve in case someone tries to nail us for believing Jonah was really swallowed by a fish or does Alter ascribe some hermeneutical freight behind fictitious OT characters?

I'm too lazy to sign in as myself.

John Paulling said...

I actually got nailed in biology class one time on Noah.

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