Posts Tagged ‘literary criticism’

If you have not read anything on literary criticism, this little book, An Experiment in Criticism, by C.S. Lewis will open your mind to a whole new world — the world of the text and it well-read.

Rather than judging the quality of a books by their composition or content, Lewis suggests one should judge them by the nature or way in which they are read. For example, some people read books only once to gratify some curiosity or lust, only to abandon them forever afterwards. Contrarily, those who truly love their books will read them countless times and cherish them as favored possessions. In other words, bad readers read books seeking only to find a world they already are comfortable with and understand; a world they already have categories for and can explain. A world that “makes sense” in their system of thought. By reading books in such a way, these readers are not challenged by what they read. And in the end, book after book, they meet only themselves. For Lewis, this explains the vast hoard of trashy novels which follow the same basic principle. In these case, the reader is never brought to a higher level of knowledge. There is no additive transfer. Such readers only get out what they already knew. This all takes very little effort on the part of the reader.

On the other hand, good readers begin by getting themselves “out of the way.” Good readers will first surrender their own preconceived notions and biases. They open themselves up to receive “instructions” (as it were) from the text itself. In effect, they surrender to the text. And now the text can actually begin to work on the reader. This is an entirely different kind of reading and leads to an additive gain in knowledge on the part of the reader. Rather than meeting only themselves in a text (and learning only what they already knew and had categories for), good readers open themselves up to a whole new world. By “receiving” the text a reader actually meets ‘someone else’ (as it were) and thus grow in the process.

All of this is written in Lewis’ classic and beloved, easy style. Taking things ordinarily complex, he makes them simple.  I could not recommend this little gem more highly!

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How do we read the Gospels? If we expect to be bored by reading the gospels then it is likely we have never learned how to read them aright. The following is a short explanation as to why the Gospels should be approached with the expectation that they can, and will, excite our imaginations and move us in the deepest ways possible, no matter how many times we have read them before. Kind of like your favorite “classic” that you keep returning to. (How many times have you read it now?)

David Tracy defined a classic as a text which so discloses a compelling truth about our lives that we cannot deny it some kind of normative status. These texts produce a disclosure of reality which ‘surprises, provokes, challenges, shocks and eventually transforms us’ (1981: 108). Religious classics like the fourth gospel also produce these kinds of reactions. Such texts have a disclosive power. They shock us into recognizing our finitude, our mortality, our sinfulness, our rage for order. They awaken wonder, trust, loyalty justice, love or faith (1981: 164). However, such responses are only elicited in readers who approach such classics as literature. To use Martin Buber’s terminology, there must be an I-Thou relationship with the gospel, not an I-It divorce. – Mark W.G. Stibbe, John’s Gospel, (Routledge, 1994), 70.

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Don Carson, in the introduction to his commentary on the Gospel of John, offers this helpful assessment of preaching and gospel narratives:

The challenge of preaching from the Gospels is, in part, the challenge of preaching from narrative. The best of Western seminaries and theological colleges reinforce the cultural bent toward the abstract, and fill students’ heads with the importance of grammatical, lexicographical exegesis. Such exegesis is, of course, of enormous importance. But in students who do not have a feel for literature, it can have the unwitting effect of so focusing on the tree, indeed on the third knot of the fourth branch from the bottom of the sixth tree from the left, that the entire forest remains unseen, except perhaps as a vague and ominous challenge.
The Gospel According to John, (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids: 1991), 100-101.

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