Byzantine-era synagogue at Capernaum, 2012

My inner child was an English major, and he’s had a run of good luck lately. (I blogged about some of his other recent adventures HERE, reading a French postcolonial author, no less.) Well, my inner English major got lucky again Saturday morning at the first meeting of an adult faith formation class offered by my Central/Southern Illinois Lutheran synod (equivalent to a diocese or a presbytery in other denominations). We got lucky, I should say. Sometimes it feels like I have a whole day care center full of inner children competing for my attention.

The class is a six-week “Introduction to the New Testament for Everyone,” but we’re not talking about the kind of bible stories you probably remember from Sunday School. It’s designed for Synodically Authorized Ministers, lay persons who “assist the church in providing Word and Sacrament ministry to congregations when ELCA [Evangelical Lutheran Church in America] pastors are not available” upon completion of a three-year course of study. It’s every bit as rigorous as the 300- and 400-level English courses I took as a grad student at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville; while it’s for ministers in the SAM program, it’s open to interested lay persons as well. So Debi and I signed up.

We had our first class session Saturday, and it lived up to expectations. After some preliminaries about hermeneutics, a technical term for the nuts-and-bolts of biblical interpretation, we jumped right into a story in Mark’s gospel. And that’s when my inner English major sat up straight, took another sip of coffee (we’re taking the class over Zoom so I had a fresh cup) and started looking around like a beagle pup that just noticed an intriguing whiff of rabbit.

The story’s a familiar one. An elder in the synagogue at Capernaum begs Jesus to heal his daughter. Jesus agrees, and on his way through the crowded village to the synagogue he’s touched, on the hem of his garment, by a woman who has been hemorrhaging for 12 years. He heals her, and goes on to heal the elder’s daughter.

I know the story pretty well. (In fact I blogged about it HERE last year.) I’ve even been to the synagogue at Capernaum; to be more exact, I’ve visited a Byzantine-era synagogue built on the basalt rock foundations of a first-century building believed to the the synagogue where Jesus taught. All of this stuff is conjectural, of course, but I think the Franciscan archaeological dig and shrine at Capernaum has the best claim to be where Jesus actually preached and healed the sick.

But Saturday I learned something from the other people in the Zoom class. Since the woman in Capernaum who touched the hem of Jesus’ garment was ritually unclean, according to the standards of the day, the crowds would have believed he was ritually unclean too as soon as she touched him.

Even so, Jesus went ahead and healed the elder’s daughter. At a synagogue, no less.

What stands out in my mind isn’t so much what I learned. Turns out it’s one detail in a fairly standard interpretation of the miracle. What stands out is the way I learned it. For a few minutes there, it was almost like being back at UT-Knoxville analyzing a story by Faulkner or Jane Austen.

Basically, I just like stories. I guess that’s the English major in me. Sometimes I think the stories are all we’ve got. The best thing we’ve got, at any rate.

Suffice it to say I’m looking forward to the New Testament class. Our textbook is Introducing the New Testament: A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey by Mark Allan Powell, now an emeritus professor at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio. It’s billed on the Goodreads website as “an up-to-date New Testament introduction for undergraduate students and general readers.” Based on my reading the first few chapters, it lives up to its billing.

Powell seems to like stories as much as I do. (Score one for my inner English major.) His first book, which came out in 1990, was What Is Narrative Criticism? According to Powell’s Wikipedia profile, it’s “a standard work for introducing students to modern literary criticism and its application to the Gospels.” I’ve got it at home, I’ve read it and its Goodreads blurb is as good a summary as any of what narrative criticism is all about:

With great clarity Powell outlines the principles and procedures that narrative critics follow in exegesis of gospel texts and explains concepts such as point of view, narration, irony, and symbolism. Chapters are devoted to each of the three principal elements of narrative: events, characters, and settings; and case studies are provided to illustrate how the method is applied in each instance. 

In other words, the lit-crit stuff I learned in grad school at UT. I hope this doesn’t sound sacreligious, but my inner English major was as happy as a pig in mud.

That doesn’t mean the class will be like those bible-as-lit courses you may remember from undergrad school (especially if you went to a liberal arts college). C/SIS Bishop John Roth, who is teaching our class, has also taught one of those courses at Jacksonville’s Illinois College. And he made it clear we’ll be approaching from a different perspective. Citing ELCA’s constitution and bylaws, he said we’ll look at the New Testament instead as “the inspired Word of God and the authoritative source and norm of its proclamation, faith, and life.”

So it’ll be a little different from the lit crit I remember from grad school. But maybe not too terribly different.

“We live in a world after Copernicus and after Freud,” Bishop Roth remarked in passing. I take that to mean when I’m reading the bible, I can fall back on techniques from the “New Criticism” and the Sewanee Review (both of which were still in style when I was at UT-Knoxville up the road a piece from Sewanee), and I won’t get struck by lightning.

I should add Louise Rosenblatt to that list. She was an educator, not a literary critic, but she developed something called reader response theory that was a big help to me in later years when I taught college freshman English. And I can see how it’ll be a big help to me reading scripture.

Basically reader response theory says each reader creates meaning by interpreting a text in light of their own knowledge and experience. My understanding of Hamlet, for example, would be different if I lived in Elsinore (modern Helsingør) and knew my way around Hamlet’s castle. Like all literary theories, it can get complicated in a hurry. But for my students, it meant they didn’t have to guess at “The Hidden Meaning” in a poem, with a capital “T,” a capital “H” and a capital “M.” (Spoiler alert: There is no such thing, no matter what your 8th-grade English teacher may have told you.) For me, now, reading scripture, it means I can create my own meaning, within limits, of a difficult passage. It also means I can respect the meaning that others create. In fact, I think it means I have to.

Mark Allan Powell relies on a variety of reader response techniques in Narrative Criticism. He cites the old philosophical puzzle: How do we know a tree falls in the forest if there’s nobody there to hear it? He brings it back home to biblical interpretation, or hermeneutics, with this:

Similarly, the Bible cannot be said to reveal God’s word unless someone receives this revelation. There is something almost blasphemous about calling a book that lies unopened on a coffee table, “the Word of God.” According to Scripture itself, God’s word is an active, dynamic force that never returns void but accomplishes that for which it is sent (Isa. 55:11) The Word of God cleanses, heals, creates, judges, and saves, but it does not sit on coffee tables.

As a matter of fact, Powell finds authority for reader response criticism in places I never would have imagined when I was teaching Emily Dickinson to the kids in freshman English:

Martin Luther regards the Word of God as first an event in history, then as the proclamation of that event by biblical writers, and finally as the event in which that proclamation elicits and enacts faith in those who hear it. Even scholars who pay homage to Luther’s hermeneutic, however, often ignore the significance of the final stage.

LATER (Sept. 18): I’ve read more now of Powell’s Introducing the New Testament, up through the four gospels and Acts, along with introductory chapters on Roman and Jewish political and economic history; ancient genres of secular and religious writing; and historical Jesus research, among other things.

My inner English major is still happy, and my inner history major is enjoying the ride too. (My inner child got a master’s in history first, then changed majors when he realized there were more entry-level jobs for freshman English teachers.) Plus it’s going to make me read a lot of stuff I never quite got around to. My father, the son of a pastor in the old Norwegian-American synod, enjoyed the memory of a roomful of Norskie children reciting “TIM-tee, TIM-tee, TI-tus” as they memorized the names in conformation class, but I haven’t read 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus.

Ours is an introductory survey course, which means we’ll get a little bit of everything before we’re done, and I’ll be interested to see how Powell handles the letters of Paul, Timothy, Timothy, Titus and the book of Revelation. (Especially Revelation!) But I think my inner lit-crit nerd and I are off to a good start.


H/t to Wikipedia pages on Capernaum, hermeneutics, Kronborg [Helsingør], New Criticism, the raising of Jairus’ daughter, reader response theory and Sewanee Review.

[Revised and uplinked Sept. 19, 2022]

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