Welcome to the Biblical Studies Carnival XXVI, covering blog postings made on subjects of academic Biblical Studies over the course of January 2008 (give or take a nickel). It’s been a productive month, so this is a very long carnival.
I was going to use a rather humorous theme or artifice for this carnival, preceding every heading with “Jesus'” so as to have things like “Jesus’ Tomb Symposium,” “Jesus’ Seal Discovered,” and “Jesus’ Paragaogic Nun Discussion,” because it seems these days to be all the rage to claim that various things belong to Jesus: ossuaries, tombs, and whatnot; however, after reviewing the entries for the initial subject, with my levity dampened and diplomacy worn thin, my concern is to avoid making this field of studies any more of a laughingstock than it already is. If only that concern were universally shared!
To begin with, I will open this carnival with some perceptive words on the role of the critic from the well-known poet and literary critic T. S. Eliot:
At one time I was inclined to take the extreme position that the only critics worth reading were the critics who practised, and practised well, the art of which they wrote. But I had to stretch this frame to make some important inclusions; and I have since been in search of a formula which should cover everything I wished to include, even if it included more than I wanted. And the most important qualification which I have been able to find, which accounts for the peculiar importance of the criticism of practitioners, is that a critic must have a very highly developed sense of fact. This is by no means a trifling or frequent gift. And it is not one which easily wins popular commendations. The sense of fact is something very slow to develop, and its complete development means perhaps the very pinnacle of civilization. For there are so many spheres of fact to be mastered, and our outermost sphere of fact, of knowledge, of control, will be ringed with narcotic fancies in the sphere beyond. To the member of the Browning Study Circle, the discussion of poets about poetry may seem arid, technical, and limited. It is merely that the practitioners have clarified and reduced to a state of fact all the feelings that the member can only enjoy in the most nebulous form; the dry technique implies, for those who have mastered it, all that the member thrills to; only that has been made into something precise, tractable, under control. That, at all events, is one reason for the value of the practitioner’s criticism—he is dealing with his facts, and he can help us to do the same.
And at every level of criticism I find the same necessity regnant. There is a large part of critical writing which consists in ‘interpreting’ an author, a work. This is not on the level of the Study Circle either; it occasionally happens that one person obtains an understanding of another, or a creative writer, which he can partially communicate, and which we feel to be true and illuminating. It is difficult to confirm the ‘interpretation’ by external evidence. To anyone who is skilled in fact on this level there will be evidence enough. But who is to prove his own skill? And for every success in this type of writing there are thousands of impostures. Instead of insight, you get a fiction. Your test is to apply it again and again to the original, with your view to the original to guide you. But there is no one to guarantee your competence, and once again we find ourselves in a dilemna.
We must ourselves decide what it useful to us and what is not; and it is quite likely that we are not competent to decide. But it is fairly certain that ‘interpretation’ (I am not touching upon the acrostic element in literature) is only legitimate when it is not interpretation at all, but merely putting the reader in possession of facts which he would otherwise have missed.
Excerpted from the essay, “The Function of Criticism,” section IV