Archives of Reception of the Bible

Past blogging in more ways than one.

Monday, July 24, 2006

My conference paper (1 of ?)

Part of the idea of blogging was to try out ideas on-line, and this I have signally failed to do. So let's have a go at writing an essay on-line. Here is section 1 of my conference paper so far (no prizes for seeing that the title is different to the post below-par for the course, I think).

The Man Comes Around”:
Gauging the Impact of Revelation on a Contemporary Apocalypticist

William John Lyons
University of Bristol

1. Introduction

It came to me a while ago that most of my thinking about the Bible as an object moving through history was predicated on a view of that book as being almost wholly passive. Readers have constructed the text, used it, abused it, but, strangely, appeared to me to have been little changed by their interaction with ‘it’. That this is in fact an accurate depiction of what has happened in the examples that I have been studying should not have blinded me to the possibility that the Bible may also function as an active agent, influencing and altering those who encounter it.

Reading Heiki Räisänen’s essay, ‘The “Effective History” of the Bible: A Challenge to Biblical Scholarship’,[1] has set me to considering these things somewhat more rigorously. He opens by describing his embarrassment at being unable to answer the lay-person’s ‘very reasonable’ question, ‘what effect has the Bible had?’ The initial problem, for Räisänen, is that the Bible’s influence has been assumed rather than critically demonstrated.[2]

Compounding this has been our failure to adequately define our terms. Here I want to note three of Räisänen’s distinctions before building on them in the rest of this paper.

(1) ‘Effective history’ is not the same as the ‘history of interpretation’.[3] Räisänen points out that allegorical readings, for example, are not important for ‘effective history’ but are fundamental for the ‘history of interpretation’.[4] Allegory generally permits promiscuous ‘use’ of texts to back up pre-existing views, but for Räisänen, the effective history’s object of study can only be ‘a (new) consequence of [a] reading; mere justification of something with the Bible will not qualify.’[5] Effective history is thus being defined by Räisänen as ‘an actual history of empirical effects’,[6] albeit with the caveat that ‘[d]rawing a line between effect and use is surely somewhat hazardous and subjective’.[7]

(2) For Räisänen, the ‘Bible’ of effective history cannot be restricted to the text as originally ‘meant’.[8] He suggests instead that ‘[t]he Bible is an effective factor when something results from a reading which is plausible in the circumstances.’[9] This clarifies his earlier comment that ‘it would be impossible to exclude the allegorically understood Bible when we consider the influence of the Bible on medieval and Rennaissance art and literature.’[10] In that context allegorical readings were also plausible readings. As a reading appears less plausible and more contrived therefore, it becomes increasingly peripheral to the concerns of effective history.

(3) Räisänen notes the sheer complexity of effective history’s object of study—the Bible’s influence may be uneven and indirect, is always augmented and sometimes deeply compromised by other influences, and is, often, disturbingly widespread on both sides of any particular argument.[11] Nevertheless, he is obviously of the opinion that its influence may be critically discussed, subsequently offering a number of effect-types: (a) specific words (e.g. Origen, St Francis); (b) the general impact of religious and moral ideas; (c) emotional impacts—both positive (e.g. hope) and negative (hell); (d) the showcasing of exemplars to imitate; and (e) the idea of a holy book.[12] Significantly for my purposes here, he also notes ‘the Bible has often exerted its influence indirectly through means which certainly have left their own marks on the biblical stuff.’[13] The impact of material produced by the Bible’s influence therefore may also propagate that influence, albeit indirectly.

With these distinctions in mind, I want to ask about the effect of Revelation on a specific reader, the American vocalist, Johnny Cash. I want to suggest that Cash’s description of the process involved in writing his 2002 song ‘The Man Comes Around’ supplies us with an effect-type that is not included in Räisänen’s examples, that of interpretive failure. In other words, I am suggesting that an expression of readerly confusion is the visible marker of an effect that almost certainly results from an encounter with the Bible rather than with the tradition in which an interpreter stands. In my experience, traditions generally know what the Bible means. (I’d be interested to hear your comments on this.) If the Bible has influenced Cash’s song, it also follows that subsequent impact of the latter must also be considered part of the Bible’s indirect influence. Whether any of this counts as something genuinely ‘new’ in Räisänen’s sense is less certain, however.

To be continued.


[1] In his Challenges to Biblical Interpretation: Collected Essays 1991–2001 (Biblical Interpretation Series 59; Leiden: Brill, 2001), pp. 263-82.
[2] ‘Effective History’, p. 263.
[3] ‘Effective History’, pp. 269-71.
[4] ‘Effective History’, p. 270
[5] ‘Effective History’, p. 271. Räisänen writes that ‘[i]f it can be shown that a particular allegorical interpretation had actually brought about a new idea or a new practice, and not just legitimated an existing one, that would belong to effective history’ (p. 270).
[6] ‘Effective History’, p. 265 n. 12
[7] ‘Effective History’, p. 270.
[8] ‘Effective History’, p. 271.
[9] ‘Effective History’, p. 271.
[10] ‘Effective History’, p. 270.
[11] ‘Effective History’, pp. 267, 272.
[12] ‘Effective History’, pp. 273-79
[13] ‘Effective History’, p. 267.


At 12:56 pm, Blogger James Crossley said...

So when's the Johnny Cash detail coming? You're leaving us hanging!


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