Looking to Things Unseen

New Criticism

When I began my studies in English Literature in the late 1960s, the favored method of textual interpretation was called “formalism,” or “New Criticism,” proposed by I.A. Richards in the 1920s.   Other approaches were not favored necessarily, particularly Freudian criticism, Marxist criticism, and philosophical criticism.

New Critical methods focused on discovering the author’s intentions through a “close reading,” while looking at the uses of figurative language or other expository techniques and asking what the author’s purpose was and what he or she wanted the reading audience to learn or discover.  This method involved analyzing a poem, novel, or short story based on the writer’s techniques, without bringing in a lot of background information about the author’s life, the history of the time, the beliefs or values of the culture at the time.

As students, our goal was to analyze each text based on the text alone as much as possible, discovering an ironic tone, for example, or the imagery patterns the author may have developed.  We also analyzed the work’s setting, characters, and the author’s overall point of view and try to discover what the author’s message was in the text.

When I entered my doctoral program of study over twenty years later, I learned that the world of literary criticism and study had changed drastically, for the work of Jacques Derrida, labeled “Deconstruction,” had overtaken the literary realm from New Criticism. This new method was nearly antithetical to New Criticism, for it essentially denied the possibility of any work’s having an inherent meaning, for such a meaning was considered impossible given the nature of human language and thought.

I’ll never forget one published article I read that essentially said, “The meaning of a text changes the moment it is written down, and it continues to change with every person’s reading of that text.”  This idea was stunning to me, for I asked myself, “Why read anything then?”

One of the first essays I wrote for my PhD classes concerned the imagery patterns in a particular novel we were analyzing.  I focused on similar passages in the novel that used the same types of images (similes, metaphors), so I quoted the texts at length, completing a thorough New Critical study of the novel.

I was stunned when I received my graded paper back.  My grade wasn’t the usual top of the ladder mark I was used to getting, and my professor simply wrote in explanation, “So what?”  In other words, he was saying, you have uncovered an imagery pattern, but in itself it means nothing.  What does the novel say as a result of these patterns?

In other words, he was saying, you have uncovered and analyzed the author’s imagery patterns, but in itself your analysis means nothing.  What does the novel say as a result of these patterns, if anything?

I wasn’t used to having to explain the interpretation of a text necessarily, so I definitely had to readjust my thinking when approaching a work of literature if I wanted to succeed in getting my PhD degree.

 

The Scriptures

In actuality, the New Critical approach I learned as an undergraduate was very appropriate for studying the Scriptures, however, for I had learned to recognize the truth resident in the words themselves, understanding that the truth was infallible and could be discovered, for that was God’s purpose.  I had found that a deconstruction approach, however, was futile, for it declared itself to result in meaningless meanings from a text that was itself meaningless. However, I believed that the words of the Scriptures had true meanings, and they could be not only understood but also life changing if received by faith.

However, I believed that the words of the Scriptures had true meanings, and they could be not only understood but also life changing if received by faith.

 

Biblical New Criticism?

Analyzing literary techniques found in the Scriptures is not always easy, for we live in a different age and culture.  Nor are we familiar with the writing strategies prominent in the Scriptures, and finding them is difficult.

For example, the use of an ironic tone in the Bible is not always apparent, and if it is used, it is often difficult to discern.  However, we may discover fairly easily that Elijah is being very ironic when he says, “Call out with a loud voice, for he is a god; either he is occupied or gone” (I Kings 18:27).

If you will recall, Elijah had set up a test for the 450 prophets of Baal.  He challenged them to offer an ox as sacrifice; however, they were not to start a fire, but instead were to challenge Baal himself to burn the sacrifice on his altar.

So they cried with a loud voice and cut themselves according to their custom with swords and lances until the blood gushed out on them. When midday was past, they raved until the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice; but there was no voice, no one answered, and no one paid attention. (I Kings 18:28-29)

When no fire appeared, Elijah was moved to speak words of ironic ridicule, saying, “Perhaps he is asleep and needs to be awakened.”

Elijah then showed how God was strong on his behalf.  He had the Lord’s altar rebuilt with a trench around it, then he had four pitchers of water poured over the ox, not once but three times, until the water filled the trench also.

When he prayed for God to reveal Himself, the fire appeared miraculously:

Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces; and they said, “The Lord, He is God; the Lord, He is God.” (I Kings 18:38-39)

 

Double Meanings

One university freshman literature class I had was reading an essay from our text that was written in a highly ironic tone. The author essentially was saying that medical personel should not be required by law to hold to their Hippocratic Oath, for they should not be required to treat patients with extremely communicable diseases such as AIDS.

Several students wrote their analysis of this essay agreeing with the author, not realizing that he was using an extremely ironic tone in his essay.  In essence, his intentions were entirely the opposite of what his words seemed to be saying.

After studying this lack of recognition in students further, I learned that the cognitive abilities of most young people do not completely function until well after their teens when their pre-frontal brain lobes have fully developed.

Thus, college freshmen by and large are unaware of the many nuances of tone in language and in writing particularly.  I found I had to demonstrate verbally, using exaggerated tones of voice, to show the difference between the many different messages that might be communicated in writing just by altering the tone in my voice.

 

Irony in the Scriptures?

This kind of ironic double meaning is apparent in the description God gave to Isaiah:

Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed. (Is 6:10)

Why would God not want people to hear, or see, or understand the prophet? Why wouldn’t He want the people to be healed? Jesus essentially said the same thing after telling His Parable of the Sower:

To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God, but those who are outside get everything in parables, so that while seeing, they may see and not perceive, and while hearing, they may hear and not understand, otherwise they might return and be forgiven. (Mark 4:11)

In other words, an obstinate people may hear the words, but they will not receive the message for which they will then be held accountable.  Is God being cruel to these people?  No, He ultimately is being kind.

 

Finding Patterns

In a similar way, I learned that finding patterns in the Scriptures was helpful in understanding what the authors, and hence the Holy Spirit, intended.

While reading through Paul’s second letter to the Church at Corinth, for example, I found some significant passages in the fourth and tenth chapters that seemed interrelated, especially after I was able to discern the similarities in their contexts and meanings.

Read through the following passages carefully to see if you also can find the similar meanings:

  • But our adequacy is from God, who also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. (II Corinthians 3:5-6)
  • And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. (II Corinthians 4:3-4)
  • But having the same spirit of faith, according to what is written, “I believed, therefore I spoke,” we also believe, therefore we also speak, knowing that He who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and will present us with you. (II Corinthians 4:13-14)
  • Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.  (II Corinthians 4:13-18)
  • I ask that when I am present I need not be bold with the confidence with which I propose to be courageous against some, who regard us as if we walked according to the flesh. For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh, for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses.  (II Corinthians 10:2-4)
  • You are looking at things as they are outwardly. If anyone is confident in himself that he is Christ’s, let him consider this again within himself, that just as he is Christ’s, so also are we.  (II Corinthians 10:7-11)

Finding the common themes in these passages may be difficult for you, at least at first, but read them through several times slowly, while thinking about what the Lord is telling us through the Apostle Paul.

Take note of the following extractions from these passages, for they may help you to find the common themes:

  • . . .not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
  • . . .if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. . .so that they might not see the light of the gospel
  • . . .having the same spirit of faith, according to what is written, “I believed, therefore I spoke,
  • . . .while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.
  • For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh.
  • You are looking at things as they are outwardly.

Combining these ideas together, we find that we Christians are contending in a daily struggle or a kind of warfare against two competing realms.  The conflict is in the realm of the flesh and the realm of the spirit, between what is seen as opposed to what is unseen, the outward appearance versus the unseen inner reality, between faith fighting against unbelief, and what is veiled in darkness against what is seen in the light.

Consequently, we find that the Apostle Paul wants to teach us about walking in the Spirit according to the Word of God, not looking to outward appearances or moving according to the flesh, but being guided by the unseen presence of the mighty God and taking our guidance from Him.

 

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