Monday, April 27, 2009

the legacy of form criticism (pt. deux)

I've just finished reading Jesus, the Voice, and the Text (see my previous post), which ended with a contextualization and autobiographical retrospective by Kelber himself on the significance of his work, its aims (intended consequences) and results (actual consequences), as well as a brief response to a few issues raised in earlier essays in the volume. I think this essay, entitled "The Oral-Scribal-Memorial Arts of Communication in Early Christianity," is without question the single best piece Kelber has written (and which I've read).

Kelber spends considerable space recapitulating and reinforcing his critique of form criticism, even to the point of providing an exceedingly handy eleven-point summary of the problems, as he sees them, with the form-critical project (see pp. 244–46). His eighth point rejects explicitly any "evolutionary gradualism" at work in early Christian traditioning processes, which makes my previous post all the more . . . ironic (in the sense in which Alanis Morissette refers to irony, not in any actually ironic sense). Having explicitly rejected the evolutionary development of early Christian Jesus tradition (and this was a springboard for Kelber's work at least as early as 1983), he can still be read—legitimately, I think—as assuming a developmental trajectory from oral to scribal. This assumption needs to be undone.

And yet the essay currently under discussion, though still evincing residual theoretical and exegetical problems, is a wonderful statement of the important gains and immediate challenges of a media-critical approach to Christian origins. I leave you with the following, from the section sub-headed "Epilogue," and encourage you to read the rest.
I now look upon [The Oral and the Written Gospel] as a product of that phase when I was operating, as neophytes in the field are likely to do, with a relatively simple concept of media, exhibiting a tendency to think in terms of pure forms. And yet, OWG succeeded beyond my expectations in reigniting the oral-scribal issue in biblical scholarship. Over the years, however, my media paradigm has undergone unmistakable complexification. Increasingly aware of the uneven, fluctuating and polymorphic nature of the ancient verbal arts, my conceptualizations have grown to encompass phenomena such as oral-scribal interfaces, multiple oral originals, recitation and repetition, the social, even political role of ancient scribes, textual performance and the formation of cultural identity, and now always memory. In short, I cam to understand that all media are, by definition, mediating forces that variously interface with a people's historical experiences. I therefore concede a measure of fictionality to the fourfold media typology of orality, chirography, typography and electronics, because in ordinary media life these modes of communication run together and manifest themselves in mutual re-absorptions. (pp. 260–61)

These are welcome words, indeed.

[PS You can click on Jesus, the Voice, and the Text in My Visual Bookshelf (above) to see a snippet of my review, which will appear in a forthcoming issue of the Stone-Campbell Journal.]

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