A BRIEF HISTORY OF
LITERARY THEORY I

Chris Lang

Introduction

The question may naturally arise, "What has literary criticism to do with biblical studies?" Indeed the question is not a new one as Tertullian queried many years ago, "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" My response to the question is, "Everything." Because, however much we may lament it, the majority of the Western world lives not in Jerusalem but in Athens and in order to bring Jerusalem to Athens we must first bring Athens to Jerusalem. In other words, we must first understand the thinking of the modern world before we can speak meaningfully to it. In as much as literary theory is a reflection of modern thought, not to mention its implications for biblical criticism, it is worth endeavoring to understand it.

Another way to answer the original question is from a purely pragmatic viewpoint, as Kevin Vanhoozer has said, "For better or for worse, every form of literary criticism eventually finds at least one biblical exegete who is willing to be its champion." Footnote1 These words have shown true time and again. Post-modern literary theories are no exception. Post-structuralist theories such as reader-response theory and Deconstructionism have been gaining in popularity in biblical circles and it is these same post-modern theories that represent the greatest challenge to a grammatical-historical understanding of the text. To understand the challenge raised by these theories we must first survey the changes that have occurred in literary criticism in the recent past.

Literary theory has undergone drastic changes in the past century and this paper is an attempt to understand some of the influences that have altered the critical landscape. The change that has taken place in literary theory is not novel to this discipline alone, nor is it to be explained by any one phenomenon. The influences of modernism and post-modernism are accurately reflected in the changes that have taken place in literary theory.

To introduce the ideas of modernism as an influence on academia is to introduce a host of difficulties which are only exaggerated by the term post-modernism. The factors that have brought about what we call modernism are legion and cannot be attributed solely to either a change in philosophical thought or in sociological "development." There is a reciprocal relationship between these two phenomena. And both are necessary in order to understand the current situation. In the first chapter of this paper I will deal with the changes that have occurred in what is broadly referred to as literary theory, and more specifically with changes in the field of hermeneutics as it is this discipline that has most profoundly influenced literary theory recently. Specifically, I will focus on one post-structuralist critical theory, reader-response criticism as exemplified in the work of Stanley Fish. In the second chapter I will attempt to sketch the rise of modernism from the perspective of the history of ideas with special attention given to the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein as it relates to Fish. In the third chapter I will attempt the same goal from a sociological perspective, based primarily on the thought of Peter Berger. My purpose is to examine and attempt to explain reader-response criticism in light of post-modern thought.

Before proceeding it may be helpful to examine what is meant by the terms modernism and post-modernism. These are notoriously elusive terms which at times appear somewhat arbitrary as they often overlap and at times lack clear distinction. One of the difficulties encountered in elaborating on these terms is that there is no clear disjuncture between these two time periods or paradigms in thinking. Although many try, it is difficult to say exactly when modernism began and ended and when post-modernism has taken over. They are rather like rivers fed by many smaller streams so that while post-modernism may be said to be a late twentieth-century phenomenon, the ideas and sociological changes that have contributed to its rise may be traced back much further.

As there is little consensus regarding these terms, I will make a modest attempt to distinguish them. Modernism began with the rise of rationalism, in which man is viewed as the starting point for knowledge, and with the belief that truth can be ascertained chiefly through the scientific method. As a result of urbanization and the economic reordering of society there is a bifurcation between what is seen as public or social and what is held to be private. Increasingly, religious truth claims, individual morality, and meaning (whether it be that of a text or of life in general) are relegated to the latter, undergoing the same kind of privatization as capitalism has brought to property rights. Third, modernism shows a strong inclination toward individualism with its emphasis on freedom and the "existing" individual.

Post-modernism is in many ways, though not exclusively, a reaction against modernism. Post-modernism is characterized first by a rejection of foundational truth or ontological essentialism. Language is the primary means by which this belief is established as language is believed to be a social construct. Second, its individualism is pitted against any authoritarian structure or worldview that would stand over the individual. Third, post-modernism differs from modernism in the degree to which pluralism is experienced by the average person. As these phenomena have influenced culture, what people view as plausible has clearly changed.


Footnote1

Kevin Vanhoozer, "Aesthetic Theology," Trinity Journal, n.s., 8 (Spring 1987): 43.


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