Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel: A Study in Literary Design

Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel: A Study in Literary Design

Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel: A Study in Literary Design

Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel: A Study in Literary Design

Synopsis

This book is an attempt to make some initial tracing of what the gospel looks like through the lens of "secular" literary criticism. As an interdisciplinary study, the work is an effort to contribute to that dialogue by studying the narrative elements of the Fourth Gospel while interacting occasionally with current Johannine research. It is intended not as a challenge to historical criticism or the results of previous research but as an alternative by means of which new data may be collected and readers may be helped to read the gospel more perceptively by looking at certain features of the gospel. This process is to be distinguished from reading the gospel looking for particular kinds of historical evidence.

Excerpt

Alan Culpepper wrote much of this book in Cambridge, England, and during his stay I had the pleasure of seeing him often and reading his work in progress. At that time I was convinced of its value; but on reading it again in its final form I perceive that I had not fully grasped its significance.

For a Christian minister there must always be a difference between the word of the secular text and the Word of the gospel. He or she will therefore want to avoid the dilemma in which Shakespeare’s Richard II found himself, of setting “the Word itself/Against the word.” Culpepper has acquired techniques of narrative analysis which originate in secular scholarship. For example, when he treats of time relations in narrative he uses methods brought to a high state of refinement by Gerard Genette, who honed them on Proust. But he does so in full knowledge of the proper relationship between word and Word. The sharp severance between gospel narrative and objective history has, over more than two centuries, caused deep disturbances in biblical scholarship and divisions among the faithful. Culpepper rejects unreflecting literalism on the one part and easy skepticism on the other; he maintains that the only way to heal these divisions is to achieve a proper understanding of the gospel as story, and of the relation of story to truth. Can a story be true if it is not “history”? This is a question, according to Culpepper, on which “the future role of the gospel in the life of the church will depend. … When art and history, fiction and truth, are again reconciled we will again be able to read the gospel as the author’s original audience read it.” Of course we will bring to it our own conditioning, the new shapes of our minds as they have been formed by the pressure of so long a tradition.

It may be, as Culpepper conjectures, that it is our lengthening experience with secular narrative—with the rich and various history of the novel—that has made possible this kind of return to John and the other evangelists. In a book of which Culpepper has taken due note, Hans Frei acutely remarked that at the crisis of historical narrative the Germans developed Higher Criticism, which painfully called into question the veracity of the gospel narratives, and the English invented the novel. If that is so, there seems to be a certain propriety in attempts to apply to the study of the gospel lessons learned in the study of the novel.

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