Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Great expectations: the importance of genre for NT criticism

There was a story recently in the news about the discovery of yet another fabricated memoir. The author, Herman Rosenblat, had become famous for his story of how he first met his wife while in a concentration camp, only to be reunited much later in New York. He appeared twice on Oprah and this was actually to be his second published book. Alas, scholarly scrutiny revealed that the story couldn't have played out like Rosenblat said it did, and he was forced to admit that he made the whole thing up. As a result his publisher canceled the book along with a children's book based on his story, expressing 'shock' and 'disappointment' at having been misled (see here for the original reporting that brought this controversy to the public).

Why did this revelation produce such a negative response? One might argue, as do his agent and a producer making a movie of his story, that even though the love story was fabricated the important thing is that he was really a Holocaust survivor and he "found a way to tell his story and bring a message against hate." Isn't it good enough that the story 'might have happened' or that it is representative of other stories that did? (As the defenders of Rigoberta Menchu argued in the face of anthropologist David Stoll's demonstration that her own highly acclaimed autobiography of Guatemalan oppression contained significant distortions and embellishments) Isn't it good enough that the story might express some truth about the author's life, such as redemption from the horrors of the concentration camp through the love of his wife?

Well, no. The problem is not that Rosenblat's memoir mixes fact with fiction. Historical novels do this all the time, while composite characters are a commonplace in autobiographical writing. What makes the fabrication a moral wrong and not just a literary device is that the popularity and acclaim for the book was explicitly based on its having actually happened. There is an emotional resonance true-life stories have that fiction cannot achieve. Rosenblat evoked this resonance by telling his love story as if it actually happened, and people took him at his word. When it came out that he had lied about this, people felt betrayed and misled.

The upshot is that Rosenblat broke a contract with his readers that we usually call genre. In simplest terms genre is simply a set of expectations that a reader brings to a literary work, which expectations were also the author's intentions in writing. It is important that we acknowledge the latter element as well as the former. People are often misled about the genre of a book through no fault of the author, either because of cultural distance or carelessness. It is the responsibility of the author to communicate clearly to the reader what he/she should expect: whether the events recounted actually happened the way they are described, and if so whether the account is comprehensive or selective, etc. This does not have to be set out explicitly: often there is a tacit understanding between author and reader communicated through various literary devices in the text itself. But at the end of the day the reader comes to the author expecting to learn in advance what kind of literary work they are reading, since that will determine their emotional investment and how they let it affect them.

Again, the important issue here is not whether a book, even one called a memoir, can mix together fact and fiction. What is crucial is that the author informs the reader in advance or at least from the text as a whole whether there is fiction and to what extent. The fictional material may very well express some deeper truth about the author's life, but the reader must know that the material is fictional and has that particular function.

Turning now to the Gospels: a common motif in skeptical criticism of the Gospels is to find inconsistencies within and between them as proof that they cannot be trusted to give an accurate account of Jesus' life. The equally common response is that many of the objections stem from cultural distance: chronological and thematic re-ordering of events, or giving different versions of the same event were all common biographical practices in the ancient world, even if we in the modern West find them bizarre or even unethical. This response seems to always go over the heads of atheists, however, so it bears repeating and expanding in light of the above discussion of genre: criticisms of a text must only be made in light of the contract between the author and the original readers. It is hardly the evangelists' fault that we come to the Gospels with different expectations from the first Christians.

Note that this is not an argument for the irrelevance or incomprehensibility of texts from distant historical periods or cultural settings. On the contrary, after careful work by historians and textual scholars we can understand the original contract between author and reader and appropriate the text for ourselves in light of that understanding. Of course there is the danger that due to cultural distance a certain understanding of a text will have become so embedded in the consciousness of its readers that the correction of this misunderstanding is very upsetting. Say for example a biblical passage that we read as straightforward factual narrative was actually a complex parable. We might feel betrayed and hurt because our appreciation of the passage was based on our assumption that it was factual. But that does not cast a negative light on the author the way Herman Rosenblat's intentional deception did.

I conclude that a true debunking of a biblical book or passage only occurs when a critic demonstrates that that book or passage doesn't have the meaning, genre or relationship to other passages we have come to expect, and that this resulted from a deliberate fabrication and intent to deceive on the part of the author. So far I have seen many examples of the first part of the criterion, but none of the second.

This article is cross-posted at Christian CADRE

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