The Exegetical Thesis as (Digital) Storytelling

The “exegesis project” is a The Big Project for masters students in a biblical studies course. Usually, it’s a paper, of course. This term, I hope to encourage students in my “Book of Daniel” to consider doing the project in the form of “Digital Storytelling.” I realize that this calls for a two-part explanation:

  1. What makes exegesis “storytelling”?
  2. What makes exegesis “digital”?

I am going to take these one at a time. Today, we will stick with the first. In beginning to learn exegesis, one of the big hurdles for students is that they are asked to bracket their spiritual autobiography long enough to attend to the biblical text’s own historical context. That being so, what can I mean when I ask them to accomplish their exegesis as “storytelling”? I’ll break it down:

What makes it “exegetical”?

  • The body of the work asks questions about the meaning of the biblical text for its author, and for the community to whom the author appears to have written, in that author’s own social and historical context.
  • The work’s arguments rely on publicly available evidence and explicit lines of reasoning. They do not depend upon private revelation, confessional dogma, implicit lines of reasoning, or logical fallacies.

What makes it “a thesis”?

  • The work is organized around the defense of a single claim, or thesis. A thesis is NOT, then, an opinion, a narrative, an “exploration,” or a review. A thesis should be defensible, relevant, and manageable. By “defensible,” I mean that it is a proposition that can be established by publicly-available evidence (not private revelation or confessional dogma) and an explicit line of reasoning. By “relevant,” I mean that the thesis forces your reader to re-evaluate the biblical text; the thesis “makes a difference” to how the biblical text is read. By “manageable,” I mean that the thesis can be argued comprehensively within the constraints of the assignment; it is not too big an idea for the word count, and also not so small that the paper falls significantly short or has to be “padded up.”

What makes it “storytelling”?

  • Even when presenting data (as in a lecture, or a thesis paper), there is a “narrative” of sorts: you lead the reader from a starting place, through a terrain known only to you, to a destination. A good presenter “knows her narrative”: you could take away her slides or her paper, and she can still guide you through the “narrative” of her subject matter or thesis (Ask a student about a recently-completed paper; if they can do this, it’s probably a good paper.)
  • We commonly ask our students to “book-end” their thesis with an introduction and a theological/hermeneutical conclusion. The project should begin with a statement of the student’s interest in the biblical passage. It should end with her own assessment of the passage’s theological claims as determined by exegesis. (Are those claims moral? coherent with other biblical passages? intelligible to today’s reading communities?). This conclusion should also include claims about how the text might, or might not, lend itself to preaching and teaching in particular, well-defined communities of hearers. This is to say, the thesis project is a “round trip,” beginning and ending with the student’s own pressing theological and hermeneutical concerns.

So…What makes it “digital,” if it is?

Stay tuned. In a follow-up post, I will look at the phenomenon of “Digital Storytelling” in the digital humanities, and how it might serve as a platform for “exegesis as storytelling.” In the meantime, what do you think of this way of putting things? Does “storytelling” offer a useful lens, or muddy the waters?

[The Exegetical Thesis as (Digital) Storytelling was written by G. Brooke Lester for and was originally posted on 2012/01/30. Except as noted, it is © 2012 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

RBL Review of Bibb’s Ritual Words and Narrative Worlds in the Book of Leviticus

Bryan Bibb’s book, Ritual Words and Narrative Worlds in the Book of Leviticus (T & T Clark, 2008), is reviewed on the Review of Biblical Literature website. Find the link to the PDF review on the book’s RBL page.

Bryan’s work is as “intriguing” and “appealing” as the reviewer claims, working further into the ways Leviticus “ritualizes narrative” and “narrativizes ritual.” The reviewer rightly recommends the work.

In the obligatory paragraph of constructive criticism, I would argue that the reviewer is not as clear as Bibb is himself concerning his claims about the role of “gaps” in Leviticus’s narrativized ritual. For Bibb, there is a kind of positive feedback loop (my words, not his) between “gaps” in ritual instructions and “gaps” in narrative. No instructions are so clearly articulated as to cover all aspects of relevant practice, and these “gaps” give rise to narrative explications (whether written or practiced) that seek to establish clarity but which themselves inevitably have their own “gaps.” These gap-ridden narratives in turn call for added instruction, and so on. The story of Nadab and Abihu (Lev 10:1-3), with its relevant instructional material (e.g., Lev 6:12-13; 16:1-2, 12-13) offers a poignant example of the risks involved in a life lived practicing ritual in the “gaps.”

Read the review, and if you have (or could have) any interest in Leviticus or the ways that narrative and ritual instruction may intersect, read Bibb’s book.

Help Me Write a Metaphor

I am writing an introductory paragraph to an essay about poetics. I am trying to craft a catchy metaphor to kick things off. Need help. Here’s the idea behind the content of the essay, then I will show you the current state of my metaphor.

Overall, the quick-and-dirty that I am trying to get across is that poetic speech calls attention to itself, and yet, at the same time, tries to work with enough subtlety that its use doesn’t completely stop dead the basic task of communication.

The content: In normal communication, the language we use is trying to be a clear window: we do not want the hearer to pay attention to the language we use, but rather to the meaning alone. Just as she would look through a clear window to see what is behind it, we want her “listen through” the language to hear the meaning, the message.

In poetic speech, however, we deliberately “fog” or “tint” the window.* Our language is crafted such that it calls attention to itself. Take this sentence from Chapter 17 of the Hobbit:

Winter thunder on a wild wind rolled roaring up and rumbled in the Mountain, and lightning lit its peak.

This is not a selection from a poem, but is rather just one sentence in a narrative paragraph. The wind is the first warning the protagonists receive that the Goblins and Wargs have arrived unexpectedly to join the battle in progress. Still, the sentence is strongly poetic, mainly in its use of alliteration (winter, wild, wind; rolled, roaring, rumbled; lightning, lit). The sonorant, liquid consonants beat forward, reaching a sharp but delicate crescendo in the unvoiced stops of the t’s in “lightning lit.” (In a comment I may say more about the poetics of this snippet.)

My point is that the alliteration slows the reader down slightly, calling her attention to the poetic device (the fog on the window, as it were). At the same time, the window cannot become so opaque that the poetic language stops the reader dead by distracting her completely from the meanings unfolding between her and the text: she either cannot or will not continue following the story. If the poetic language goes too far in calling attention to itself, communication stops. If the goal of everyday language is clarity, then the goal of poetic language is translucence, but not outright opacity.

The metaphor: At the start of the essay, I wish to compare the poet to a certain kind of criminal, the reader to a member of the public who hears of the crime, and the critic to a detective. I am thinking of cat burglars, or graffiti artists, or anyone else who commits an act that calls attention to itself, that seeks to send a message. On the one hand, this brand of criminal wants to accomplish a mundane task: she wants to steal something of value, or vandalize a public space. This mundane act corresponds in my metaphor to the simple act of communication. The criminal, like the poet, wants to get away clean with the task at hand (for the poet, the task is communication). On the other hand, the criminal wants the public not only to know that a crime has been committed, but to pay attention to the details of the crime: its difficulty, its elegance, its mystery, perhaps how it bears certain signature elements characteristic of the criminal. These elements call attention to themselves for the hearer the way that poetic language calls attention to itself.

Sometimes some of the witnesses will be aware that a crime has happened (something’s missing, a wall is tagged), but lack comptetence to see the artistry (no sign of forced entry; there’s no apparent way to get to that wall). The detective, though (our literary critic), has enough experience to help other witnesses see the elements that they might otherwise miss.

This is the background thinking going on behind my paragraph. All I want to do is to pique their interest in poetic language by capturing some of the romance and grandeur of the master criminal. At the same time, I do not want to bring in the grisly, darker side of the metaphor (serial killers harvesting trophies, and such). Also, it has to be quick and short. Here is my first draft:

The writer who employs a poetic device—say a metaphor, or a bit of satire—is like the criminal who commits a sensational crime. On the one hand, the act must be done covertly enough to accomplish its work. The criminal wants to put over her crime and steal on. On the other hand, the act must be overt enough to be recognized for what it is. Those who discover the crime—say a cat burglary, or a bit of signature vandalism—must “get it,” must have a moment of “a-ha.” The artist walks a tightrope: how shall she weave language that calls attention to itself as language, and yet do so in a way that operates on the reader before he becomes cognizant of the device? The reader, then, like the witness, is confronted with an act that is both showing and hiding itself. The critic, like a seasoned detective, has the task of determining whether the apparent elements of the poetry of the crime are intended by the criminal artist at all, and if so, to demonstrate them to the rest of the public.

It still feels clunky and a bit forced in some ways. In your view, is the metaphor working at all? Is the idea sound but my implementation flawed? In what ways is it not working? Are there elements of the metaphor that raise tactical problems that I’ve missed? What suggestions do you have for improvement?

*(The concept of poetic language as opacity I first found in Gian Biagio Conte and Charles Segal, The Rhetoric of Imitation: Genre and Poetic Memory in Virgil and Other Latin Poets, Cornell Studies in Classical Philology vol. 44. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986.)