The Art of Prophecy: Interpretive Analysis, Academic Discourse, and Expository Writing

By Ganter, Granville | Composition Studies, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

The Art of Prophecy: Interpretive Analysis, Academic Discourse, and Expository Writing


Ganter, Granville, Composition Studies


The essayist's "main gift is an eye to discover the suggestiveness of common things: to find a sermon in the most unpromising texts."

Alexander Smith, 1914 (qtd. in Harris 935)

In the late 1500s, William Perkins published the Art of Prophecying, a manual attempting to improve the quality of preaching in England. Like most Puritan theologians of his day, Perkins recommended that the sermon be organized in three sections, the "text," the "doctrine," and the "application" (2:673). According to Perkins' system, ministers should choose an important verse from the Bible, such as "Let there be light," read it out loud, and then explain what it means on several levels. For example, ministers might interpret the meaning of the Creation in Genesis by breaking down the meaning of light into visual light and spiritual light. Depending on their temper, ministers might unfold eight or nine different interpretations from a single verse. After the permutations of the doctrine have been surveyed, the sermon then shifts to an application of the doctrine to the lives of the congregants.

While Perkins' method of exegesis is hardly unique, it foregrounds an intellectual skill which is crucial, if not central, to academic discourse today. Perkins calls the act of analytic interpretation "prophecying," not because ministers are seeing the future, but because they're performing a vatic function of interpretation-saying. The purpose of these acts of interpretation, Perkins writes, is to "edify" people about the meaning and spirit of the scriptures (646). Prophecying is a multi-leveled interpretive act of creation. It's what many of us mean when we talk to our students about "unpacking" the meaning of a text.

For those who have taken the hermeneutic turn, (and even for those who haven't), this story is probably a quaint theological example of a cognitive practice that scholars everywhere perform in different ways in their own disciplines. The broad currency of this critical practice, however, is my point: analytic interpretation, the creation of meaning, is what the critical liberal arts disciplines share. In this essay, I argue that while competence in interpretive analysis is a commonly acknowledged goal of a college education, it is rarely explicitly addressed in the curriculum. Because interpretive analysis makes specific cognitive and generic demands on writers, our expository writing students would benefit from both theoretical and practical training in these kinds of exegetical skills.

As I use the term in this essay, analysis refers to the technique of critically interpreting an idea or problem by breaking it into meaningful parts. I emphasize meaningful parts because the skill is not simply defined by expertise in division and classification: it's about explaining why those parts are important in respect to different contexts and circumstances. Interpretive analysis is both a habit of thought (a cognitive trick) and a rhetorical protocol (an expressive structure in speech or writing). In either case, it's the intellectual machinery of conceptual exegesis. At the risk of oversimplifying the activity I am trying to describe, let me suggest that interpretive analysis is typically forecast with rhetorical expressions like, "the judge's decision avoids several thorny legal questions. First, it indicates. . ." Presumably, what follows will be an analysis of the ruling. This practice is very similar to what religious authorities around the world routinely perform in explaining the significance of sacred texts.

While we may assume that analysis is an obvious characteristic of critical writing, our less-prepared students have great difficult recognizing it when they encounter it. Patricia Bizzell has pointed out that our two-year and public university students often enter school with a limited familiarity of written genres (165). The problem, however, is not just recognizing objective tone: our novice students don't habitually register the difference between analytic interpretation and other types of narrative. …

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