Performance, Criteria, Success

Quadriga In the examples I’ve been discussing, we see settings in which someone ventures expressive behaviour, which the audience then accepts or discountenances (“Keep your hands off me!” “Don’t you dare speak to me that way!”). In these examples, the authorial intention matters less than do the circumstances of the expression. We can similarly regard (let us say) the sermon and the academic lecture as settings wherein authorial intention may also matter less than it does in other discursive settings. In the sermon, the specific intent of a prophet, an evangelist, a law-giver or epistolary apostle may be taken up and subsumed into a greater comprehensive consepctus of what message should be proclaimed for that congregation in those days (of course, if one ascribes authorial agency to God, we suppose that the message ought always be guided by the author’s intention; but since God’s intentions are even less accessible than human intentions — ”My thoughts are higher than your thoughts” — and since the Bible is not always immediately transparent to any alleged divine intention, I bracket that possibility for the time being). Similarly, the technical biblical scholar justifiably derives clues for interpretation from unintentional aspects of the text. One can think of other examples of interpreters drawing inferences from unintended circumstances as well: the detective, the psychoanalyst, the harbour pilot.

The difference between a sound and an unsound interpretation, then, need not be measured by their relative approximation of an author’s intention. A harbour pilot who navigates her cargo to the dock, reading the waves, winds, traffic, and instrument panel, has undertaken a successful interpretation. The criterion of success in that case draws on very widely-recognised standards. Audiences apply less generally accepted standards for a successful classroom lecture or Sunday sermon, but the relatively smaller domain of shared criteria doesn’t imply that no standards obtain, or that the criteria are less important. Expressive endeavours require interpretive response, and different response call forth critical evaluation of the expression and response. Such scholars as Nicholas Lash, Fracnes Young, Stephen Fowl, and Stephen Barton have discussed this phenomenon as interpreting biblical texts as performance; here I simply add my testimony to theirs, with the caveat that sometimes, some other proponents of interpretation-as-performance adhere (to my mind, misguidedly) to the authorial criterion. Just as a performance of Mahler’s Ninth or Waiting for Godot or a still life with fruit and game need not match an authorial intentional in order to succeed in some discourses, so biblical interpretation correctly draws on authorial criteria in some circumstances more than others.

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