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The New Testament and the Comic Genre

by Dan O. Via, Jr.

Dr. Via is professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. Tenth in a Series: New Turns in Religious Thought. This article appeared in The Christian Century, October 15, 1975, pp. 901-904. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


I think that I can begin to locate myself both personally and professionally by referring to a book published in 1970, Brevard Childsís Biblical Theology in Crisis. Childs describes the biblical theology movement as a peculiarly American phenomenon which, though it owed something to European neo-orthodoxy, was also considerably influenced by the fundamentalist-liberal controversy in the United States. The biblical theology to which he refers emerged after World War II as a consensus with certain characteristics: (1) the Bible is assumed to be relevant for modern men and women; (2) biblical criticism is to be accepted; (3) the message of the Bible is a unity, if a unity in diversity; (4) revelation is historical encounter rather than right doctrine; (5) the biblical (Hebraic) mentality is distinctive.

Now, as Childs points out, most of the elements in this consensus have been questioned from within and have been made to appear irrelevant by the social and cultural upheavals of the 1960s. He seeks therefore to discern the shape of a new biblical theology which will link a concern for the Bibleís theological dimension and a healthy respect for the importance of biblical criticism. Childs is critical, however, of the efforts of the "new hermeneutic" in this direction; in his view, that hermeneutic has already been superseded.

Childs recognizes the need to establish an appropriate context from which to approach the Bible, and he takes as his context the canon. I appreciate the candor with which he acknowledges that the acceptance of a normative body of tradition is made from a standpoint of faith; I am sympathetic with him up to a point. But he also insists that biblical theology should deal with what a text means as well as with what it meant and that it should serve as a guide for ethical decision-making. These considerations point to the need for developing a way to bridge the hermeneutical gap between the biblical world and the present day, but Childs has not done this. He also maintains that biblical theology should deal with both the Old Testament and New Testament witness on a given question and then grapple with the reality that brought them both forth. This, it seems to me, entails invoking reflective categories from outside the Bible, but Childs has declined to look at the Bible from an external vantage point.

Childs has given us an insightful picture of the emergence and demise of the biblical theology movement and some helpful indications as to what a new biblical theology might be. But I believe that his hermeneutical reflections are not adequate to his own understanding of a proper biblical theology. It is the hermeneutical question which interests me.

Finding a Theological Home

I began my theological studies as a kind of nondogmatic near-fundamentalist. I did not come to this position by considering various options and making a clear decision in favor of this one. It was rather that I had never heard any other position clearly and explicitly articulated. I had been a near-fundamentalist too long to give it up with no pain at all. It was the reading of Emil Brunnerís Revelation and Reason in the early 1950s that enabled me to move with a good conscience from my first theological position toward something like the biblical theology which Childs described. And I shall always be very grateful for that book.

I did my Ph.D. in New Testament with W. D. Davies, who taught me to look at texts carefully, to value historical questions and considerations, and, by his own work and example, to respect responsible scholarship. I finished my graduate work in 1956 with a fair knowledge of the British tradition in New Testament studies, a theological orientation strongly influenced by C. H. Dodd and also by Cullmann, and an introduction to Bultmann.

The next decade was to be a time of immersing myself in Bultmann and his followers. I read existentialism and followed as many of the debates as I could ranging around Bultmannís work. Here I think I found my theological home. Paulís theology, as mediated through Bultmannís Lutheranism and existentialism, is still for me the touchstone for what is meaningful, and it may always be. At a more methodological level I am still interested in posing existential questions to New Testament texts, though I may now have different kinds of existential questions and a different view of the nature of texts and of the relationship of language to history.

About 1965 I began to discover my American theological self and what really interested me personally as a New Testament scholar. Before trying to explain what that discovery has come to mean, I should perhaps say a word about my institutional connection. I understand myself to be some kind of New Testament theologian. That is, from the vantage point of various methodological possibilities and various contemporary understandings of humanity, I am interested in asking how the New Testament understood men and women in their relation to the world as they encountered a power from beyond themselves. I do not try to persuade my students that the New Testament answer should be normative for them. I rather hope that they will see that the New Testament offers a variety of answers and contains many tensions, that it is a very complex set of documents, and that there is no single or innocent access to what it has to say. But I do consider the New Testament to be canonical for the Christian faith, in whose circle I belong, if not the completely exhaustive basis for New Testament theology. That is what it means to me to be a New Testament theologian.

I can connect the discovery of my American theological self more or less with the writing of my book The Parables, published in early 1967. For several years prior to 1964 I had been teaching a course on religious themes in modern literature and trying to learn a bit about literary criticism. I was by natural inclination drawn to the Aristotelian emphasis on the importance of plot and was also fascinated and partly persuaded by the "new critical" emphasis on the organic unity and autonomy of the literary work.

The Internal Patterns of the Parables

And then one day in an introductory course on the New Testament I was just beginning to discuss the parable of the Wedding Guest (or the Wedding Garment) when a student asked me what "the proper wedding garment" meant. I replied that one of the best interpreters of the parables, in the light of rabbinic thought, held the wedding garment to be a symbol of repentance.

Then it occurred to me that this interpretation, despite the rejection of allegorizing by this and all other competent New Testament scholars, was really an allegorical interpretation. It brings a meaning from a frame of reference outside the parable, and it assumes that the audience would have to be aware of this symbolic meaning in order to grasp the real significance of the parable. But, I asked myself and the class, might it not be that the wedding garment takes its meaning from the parabolic story itself, from the internal connections within the narrative?

In 1964-65 I had a research grant and spent the year reflecting on the parables from that standpoint. I came to conclude that Jesusí narrative parables have well-defined internally organized plots, episode patterns, crises, recognition scenes and other literary features which make them genuine works of art. They are organic unities with a certain, if not absolute, autonomy. Therefore, the meaning of a parable is not to be found, as most New Testament scholars had argued, in one point which has a direct connection with some aspect of Jesusí historical ministry or nonparabolic preaching. Rather the meaning is to be found in the total patterned texture of the form and content of the story itself.

In The Parables I was trying to use a kind of literary criticism which could also be applied to "secular" literature in order to see what possibilities of existence the parables displayed. This confronting of the parables with existential questions is not allegorical interpretation -- at least not in the usual sense, if one agrees with Bultmannís view that presuppositionless criticism is impossible in that one must always approach a text with some kind of question and preunderstanding. Or one may consider the position (held at one time at least) of the French literary critic Roland Barthes that a text is always read from some vantage point -- sociological, historical, philosophical, psychological or what have you -- and that the standpoint for reading is always chosen by the interpreter, reveals something about him, and is never innocent. Barthes also added that interpretations claiming to be the most historical are not necessarily the most objective, but may rather be the more timid or banal. Though I approached the parables with existential questions in mind, I tried to let the internal pattern of the story itself show what the existential possibilities were.

Interpreting in the Light of Contexts

From what context, then, was I considering the parables? I began with the stories themselves, and then I related them to the historical Jesusí non-parabolic preaching and to his mission, insofar as these can be reasonably determined. But I was also interpreting them in the light of contexts provided by existentialist theology and a theory of language and literature. Perhaps the most important element here programmatically for the enterprise of New Testament theology is that I considerably relativized history as the primary context of meaning for one set of New Testament texts -- several parables of Jesus. If the parables -- or many of them -- are semiautonomous patterns of meaning, then the historical context contributes less to their meaning than New Testament scholars have usually believed.

Let me state here emphatically that I consider the historical criticism and interpretation of the Bible to be highly important and in fact indispensable. But historical criticism cannot do everything that needs to be done on biblical texts. There are certain questions which it cannot see or ask, by its very nature, and hence cannot answer. And what biblical scholars have called literary criticism -- source analysis, the search for the author and his intention, redaction criticism as usually practiced (with some recent exceptions), etc. -- are really forms of historical criticism. What is needed to supplement historical criticism is a genuine literary criticism of the Bible as a means to theological interpretation. And this is what I have found myself doing, at first almost by accident and now more self-consciously, both because I think that literary criticism can do some things that historical criticism cannot do and because I find it to be of compelling interest.

The Use of Structuralism

In my recent Kerygma and Comedy in the New Testament I have supplemented my existentialist-theological approach with the use of structuralism. Structuralism is a complicated method of explanation used in many fields, but I must confine myself to a brief and oversimplified description of it only as it is applicable to literary texts. Structuralism, or the structuralist activity -- or my version of it -- is not the attempt to clarify the outline or pattern or "surface structure" of the text. It may be the effort to articulate the unconscious or hidden logic or meaning system or semantic pattern which connects a set of texts or narratives; it attempts to define a genre. The genre may be constructed from the available texts, but the texts are also regarded as generated by the genre.

In Kerygma and Comedy I tried to show that the comedies of Aristophanes, some Pauline texts, the book of Deuteronomy, and the Gospel of Mark all belong to the same meaning system or genre. There is no effort to demonstrate a historical connection between these but rather an attempt to show that they have a semantic or logical relationship. They are generated by the same genre or meaning system. They are all expressions of a comic genre.

On the other hand, structuralism may concern itself with analyzing one text in order to discover the logic that governs the sequences and various levels of meaning. Therefore, I also did an internal analysis of the Gospel of Mark.

Now if there is an unconscious meaning system or structure which generates various related narratives -- I have been especially interested in the New Testament narratives -- where does this structure reside? I have argued that it resides in the human mind. The comic genre is a kind of expansion of a primordial image or archetype which lies deep in the human unconscious -- the image of death and resurrection. If the reading or hearing of a Pauline text about the death and resurrection of Jesus, or of the Gospel of Mark, elicits a positive response from someone, it is because the death and resurrection symbol in the New Testament text resonates with the death and resurrection archetype in the human unconscious and activates potentially the indeterminate bundle of possibilities for renewal and victory which that archetype contains.

The theological entailment of this is that the locus of revelation is not just the event of Jesus Christ or the word about him or, on the other hand, human experience, but is rather the intersection of the New Testament kerygma with the universal archetype of death and resurrection which underlies that fundamental human life rhythm of upset and recovery (Susanne Langer) and which generates comic narratives. Hence another context from which biblical texts must be read is a psychological understanding of the structure of the human mind and especially of the reservoir of formal literary structures resident in the mind. And the context of history is further relativized, though not eliminated. I suppose, therefore, that my New Testament theology or theologizing from the New Testament is some kind of natural New Testament theology.

It might also be noted that if we are really to understand and experience myth and symbol as such and not simply to translate them into concepts -- to demythologize them (which is also necessary) -- New Testament theologians must learn from Jung, from psycholinguists and from others how symbols are experienced.

A Hermeneutical Vantage Point

A word about the context of my present work: I still read British and German New Testament scholars and learn from them, but, without having made a conscious choice about it, I do not think that I read them as much as I used to, and except for people like Erhardt Güttgemanns, who also does New Testament theology from a foundation in literary criticism and linguistics, I am not sure that they are moving me in really new directions. Certainly at the methodological level, and sometimes materially, I have been influenced by the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty and Ricoeur, by the philosophical reflections of Polanyi, and by the structuralist approach to texts practiced by Lévi-Strauss and especially by Barthes, Bremond, Todorov and Greimas. French has probably been a more important language for me recently than German. And of the highest importance have been my conversations, oral and written, with my American colleagues in the parables seminar of the Society of Biblical Literature and those with whom I have been associated in the founding of Semeia, a new journal established specifically to do biblical studies experimentally, drawing on tools from other disciplines.

During the next months -- or years -- I hope to take a comparative look at a few parables of Jesus again, certain texts from the Jewish wisdom tradition, a gnostic myth or two, and some folktales from the Hellenistic and later European traditions. My intention is to use structuralism for determining the dynamics of actions and persons within the texts and also the relationships between the texts and then to interpret them from the standpoint of Jungian psychology. That will be my hermeneutical question or vantage point. I want to discover whether the theological continuities and discontinuities existing among these texts have psychological correlatives. Is there a theological gain to be realized from using the concepts of the self in nonreductionist psychologies for theological purposes? Does the Self as understood by Jung have any less ontological status than the self as understood by Bultmann or Heidegger?

I do not know whether my way of doing New Testament theology will be really influential or not. I hope that it might help us to arrive at a broader view of the possibilities for New Testament hermeneutic and maybe even help in working out what the discipline of religious studies is. I do believe that the new and nonhistorical ways of doing biblical studies, manifested in the emergence of the journal Semeia, will be significant in this country, and that there is great vitality and creativity in American biblical studies.

The Narrative Quality of Existence

Of the many unanswered questions for which I would like to have answers, I will mention two. Does human experience at the deepest levels have a narrative quality? Does it have an order something like the temporal and causal texture of a plot? Is such an order the necessary presupposition for the radical discontinuities found in postmodern storytelling, or is narrative order something that we impose on an existence which is essentially and fundamentally chaotic?

Second, does the comic vision, comic storytelling, tell us something about the possibilities of historical existence itself? That is to say, is existence inescapably tragic and do comic endings only tell us that we may achieve a certain transcendence over the unrelieved tragedy of history in our minds? Or does comedy tell us that within the stream of historical existence itself there are actualized moments of victory and renewal, not just in the mind, but in whole selves and in communities of selves?

I believe that the New Testament suggests that existence does have a narrative quality (although that is to oversimplify the matter), and that comic renewal is a possibility at points within the stream of history itself. But we must reflect more on the New Testament affirmations in the light of ever-changing understandings of history, language and literature and the psyche in order to see how these affirmations might be substantiated.


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