Poetics for the Gospels? Rethinking Narrative Criticism

By Tan, Randall K. J. | Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, September 2004 | Go to article overview

Poetics for the Gospels? Rethinking Narrative Criticism


Tan, Randall K. J., Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society


Poetics for the Gospels? Rethinking Narrative Criticism. By Petri Merenlahti. Studies of the New Testament and Its World. London: T. & T. Clark, 2002, xi + 174 pp., $49.95.

Poetics for the Gospels? Rethinking Narrative Criticism is part of the fruit from a six-year research project, "The Gospels as Stories" (1994-1999), by the Department of Biblical Studies at the University of Helsinki. In the series of critical essays within this book, Petri Merenlahti surveys and evaluates the history and practice of narrative criticism, and he proposes a more critical and comprehensive program of historical poetics.

The essays are grouped into three sections. Part 1 consists of three chapters that trace the origins and nature of narrative criticism, demonstrate the historical contingency of the conceptions of literary meaning and value, examine the consequences of historical contingency for practical analysis, and show the inescapable ideological nature of the biblical text and how narrative-critical readings of the Gospels have necessarily interpreted and evaluated the narratives' values and beliefs and responded to them with action in the present. Having established the indissoluble relationship between textual features and ideology in the Gospel texts, part 2 examines the nature of this relationship. The three chapters in this section explicate the complex relationship among text, history, and ideology by means of practical analysis under the three classical loci of narrative theory, namely narrative rhetoric, characterization, and plot. In light of the demonstration in the first two parts of the book that the formal features of the Gospels texts are not to be dissociated from their ideological and historically particular cultural aspects, part 3 relocates poetics as part of a broader interpretive framework.

The chapter on the history and origins of narrative criticism yields not only an informative history lesson, but also several significant insights. On the one hand, Merenlahti argues that literary interpretation of the Gospels may as easily yield unity as diversity and fragmentariness. Moreover, both unity and fragmentariness as literary values are particular and historical, not universal and timeless. On the other hand, he shows that both the historical standard of the evangelists' time and the evangelists' own aims required a degree of unity. Furthermore, the evangelists were not primarily engaging in an aesthetic enterprise but were promoting "an ideologically viable interpretation of an essentially historical message that was to be preserved in an authentic form" (p. 31). One consequence for practical analysis is that interpretation must take into account the historical particularity of the text and the reader. Chapter 3 "Why do Modern Readers value Mark?" is a particularly powerful example of the historically conditioned nature of the reception and (re)evaluation of a text. In addition, chapter 4 helpfully illustrates that the implied readers of the Gospels are thoroughly ideological beings, and thus narrative criticism's desire to assume the implied reader's position and point of view leads it back to ideology. Another noteworthy conclusion from its analysis of the implied reader of the Gospels and Acts is that "Christian social experience and identity become necessary preconditions for understanding the narrative" (p. 54). I find the above points persuasive and helpful, though to differing degrees.

The practical analysis of the relationship between textual features and ideology in the Gospels in Part 2 is also enlightening. …

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