Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Midweek Musing: participating in conversation with living texts

History of interpretation or history of reception has been an important component of PhD theses for, well, ever, or nearly. It is the first task all my biblical studies colleagues were working on when we began. My own thesis is essentially a history of one method of interpretation. But that's another story.

Last week at New College, we were treated to a lecture from Professor Choon-Leong Seow of Vanderbilt University. Professor Seow was presenting an interpretive method that is not history of interpretation or reception, but history of consequence, an analysis of the story and its relationship with its audiences.

Applying this approach to a text from the book of Job, Professor Seow reached the conclusion that programs of annihilation of Jews in Europe could be understood as a consequence of the story of Job. I wondered, as I heard this idea, are we blaming the story of Job for Jewish genocide? Are we to hold a story accountable for the ways in which people have interpreted it, and others have applied those interpretations? Perhaps we can trace interpretations' relationships with each other and the story, but what does it mean to claim that an interpretation or an application of an interpretation is consequential? Are all stories dangerous? Why am I so bothered by that possibility?

I have a vested interest in stories being seen as vehicles for nurture, healing and wellbeing. My identity and my vocation are bound up in the idea.

Of course, I am happy for stories to be dangerous if they hold the potential for challenging unjust power structures, for empowering and liberating the oppressed.

I was strongly resisting the linking of genocide to a biblical story as a consequence of that story, and that response intrigues me.

In the time for questions after the lecture, I asked, 'How does this approach change our relationship with the story?'

Professor Seow's response was that
  we are participating in a conversation with a living text. 

Now, anyone who has had a conversation with another person knows that the act of communication is fraught with a lack of control.

Once I have said something, I have no control over the way in which it will be received. I can attend to my voice, body language, choice of words, pace, pitch, expression, and in so doing, give my message the best chance of being received as I intend.

But a receiver may be distracted by internal thoughts or external commotion, hard of hearing, not attending carefully, anticipating – fearfully or hopefully – a certain message. In short, the receiver of my message will have any number of circumstances colluding to potentially distort the message.

The story is always mediated
The story is alive
The story is dangerous ... 
So it is with a story. Another of Professor Seow's contentions is that there is no such thing as a 'pristine' text (and remember we are talking biblical texts). The story is always mediated, through the composer (whether orally or in writing), scribes, editors, presiders, teachers, storytellers, translators, scholars ... every encounter with the story is a mediated encounter. Every encounter with a story is also an encounter with the conversation around that story. So every story is both the story itself and the story of its relationships with audiences over time.

Exegesis – analysis – of how a story comes to mean what it does for this receiver or that thus becomes as important as analysis of what it means. (And thus, the History of Consequence method of interpretation.)

Now I am excited.

For this is the task of my own research, to analyse how a story comes to mean whatever I find it means, through my practice as a storyteller.

I wonder, whether I can find here an answer to my concerns about the 'consequences' of a text. Professor Seow's approach of history of consequences traces the meanings and how they came about, of a particular story over time. Where other stories have been brought into the conversation, where errors of judgement or oversights have occurred, where wilful misreading has taken place – this is all acknowledged through consequence analysis, and the responsibility is laid with the interpreter, not the story.

This is also an approach that allows for multiple meanings to sit side by side without the need for a resolution for the 'correct' one meaning. The multiple possibilities for meaning emerge in preparation for performance, but in the performance moment itself, the performer must choose one meaning for this moment, this audience. Only in reflecting on the process is there room for acknowledging the possibilities that were considered in preparation.

There is more to ponder, I suspect, for a performer engaging with living texts and the ongoing conversations around them, in a live moment in conversation with a live audience. I do appreciate the way this self-professed classically trained biblical scholar has opened his scholarly practice to engage with the breadth of conversations about biblical texts by listening to the artists as well as the scholars.

So now I will set about bringing more of the intuition and imagination to the conversations in response to biblical texts: I wonder what dangers we might thus encounter in the stories? 

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