Friday, June 22, 2012

Mark as Story: Retrospect and Prospect: An Interview with Christopher Skinner

Recently, I have developed a fascination for Mark’s Gospel and the field of narrative criticism. This interest, of course, has led me and countless others to the seminal work, Mark as Story, originally co-authored by David Rhoads and Donald Michie, and later joined by Joanna Dewey in subsequent editions. So influential has this work been that it has spawned another volume that is both based on and builds off this classic, entitled, Mark as Story: Retrospect and Prospect (SBL, 2011), co-edited by the tandem of Christopher W. Skinner, Assistant Professor of Religion at Mount Olive College in North Carolina, and Kelly R. Iverson, who will soon be a professor of New Testament at Baylor University. Adam Winn, another Markan scholar, gives the work high marks in a recent RBL review, and I found myself in agreement with his positive assessment. This work admirably carries the legacies of Rhoads, Michie, and Dewey’s book into the future of both narrative-critical and Markan scholarship. My friend, and one of the co-editors, Christopher Skinner, was nice enough to take the time and answer  some questions I posed to him about this volume.

Christopher W. Skinner
1.       Many will be very familiar with the first-half of the title of this work. Could you describe the impact that Mark as Story (Rhoads, Michie, Dewey) has had on the discipline of narrative criticism as applied to Markan studies in particular, and the New Testament as a whole?

As we say in the book, Mark as Story, officially “broke the news” of narrative criticism to the unsuspecting world of NT studies. The seeds of narrative criticism had been germinating ever-so-slowly in the late 1970s, specifically among scholars working with the Hebrew Bible. It wasn’t until the early 1980s that those within NT studies expressed interest in reading the narrative in its final form. This interest arose as redaction criticism was at its zenith in Gospel studies. A certain segment of scholars grew weary of redaction critical method and were looking for a less speculative and more honest and satisfying way of approaching the text. Whereas redaction criticism had no universally-agreed-upon starting point, narrative criticism did—you began with the text in its final form. Thus, you were not only looking at the world behind the text, you were being forced to examine the world within the text and, eventually, the world(s) in front of the text. Narrative critics recognized the value in source, form, and redaction criticisms but observed that an exclusive focus on these methods had the unfortunate effect of breaking up the text so it was never read in its entirety. The process of reading the text as a “whole cloth” was something narrative critics were anxious to recover, and David Rhoads was vocal about this in his scholarship.
Mark as Story (originally published in 1982), along with R. Alan Culpepper’s Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel (1983) laid the foundation for what narrative critics are doing today. Everything began with those two works and, as it happens, David Rhoads and Alan Culpepper had been doctoral students together at Duke and ran up very expensive long distance telephone bills in the early 80s discussing these two projects with one another.
In answer to your question about the impact of Mark as Story on contemporary Markan studies, let me briefly make three observations. First, the impact of Mark as Story can be observed by looking at the bibliography of many books, monographs, and articles on the Gospel of Mark published since the mid-1980s. It has proven to be a go-to resource, even for those who aren’t working from a consciously narrative-critical approach. It offers an elegant and insightful reading of the gospel and is not overly technical. Second, another testament to the book’s enduring impact is the fact that it’s still being used as a textbook in graduate, divinity, and doctoral programs today. Originally published in 1982, the book was comprehensively revised in 1999 (with the addition of Joanna Dewey as co-author), and a third revised edition was released just a few months ago (largely as a result of our project). Consequently, I was a seminarian in 1999 when I read the (revised) book for the first time. I had not even seen the first edition prior to this project. Third, as we’ve tried to point out in the book, a number of important methodological trajectories have been spawned by the different iterations of narrative criticism, several of which (e.g., reader-response criticism, performance criticism) have proven to be of great interest to contemporary Markan scholars.

2.      This question flows naturally from the first. Could you describe the conversation between yourself and Kelly Iverson that lead to this volume, Mark as Story: Retrospect and Prospect?

Kelly and I have been friends for the better part of 15 years. We met in seminary and we also ended up pursuing our doctoral studies at the same institution. Our academic journeys have been similar and our thinking, though often taking place independently of one another, has taken similar trajectories. Both of us started out in Gospel studies approaching the text with an overarching emphasis on history. I would say we have retained the very best of our historical-critical training while using that as a springboard to shift to narrative criticism and its related trajectories.
In 2008 we were sitting in our Boston hotel room at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature discussing a session we had both attended on the book, Anatomies of Narrative Criticism. The book was a 25-year celebration of Culpepper’s Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel, edited by Tom Thatcher and Stephen Moore. We both felt strongly that something similar should be done for Mark as Story, and as I say in the introduction to the book, the project crystallized within a few weeks. Everyone involved had an enthusiasm for the project that, quite frankly, surprised us. As you know, academicians are not often given to effusive displays of enthusiasm. With this project there was a great deal of enthusiasm and excitement.

3.      It’s one thing to conceive such a volume and another to pull it off. This volume has an impressive list of contributors. How were you able to get some of the contributors that you did?

Honestly, it was not difficult to procure contributors for this volume. We only had one scholar turn us down in the early stages and even she expressed her regret at not being able to contribute because of heavy administrative responsibilities. I think it’s a real testament to the impact of Rhoads’, Michie’s, and Dewey’s work that such a strong list of contributors would so eagerly sign on for this project. As I have already said, the contributors were not just enthusiastic, they were anxious to participate. As we note in the introduction, several contributors actually thanked us for undertaking the project.

4.      I find the book to strike the right balance between essays on methodology and essays that apply these methodologies to specific texts. Can you discuss the importance of structuring the volume in this manner?

I can’t take credit for this one. The idea was Kelly’s. From the start he thought it was essential to stress the importance of narrative criticism for the development of a critical methodology as well as its value for exegesis. Both of us had experienced these two truths in our own development as scholars and we wanted to demonstrate the value of narrative criticism for hermeneutics and textual interpretation. After we decided on this basic structure we wanted to widen the circle to show how narrative criticism “kicked the door open,” in a manner of speaking. We wanted to show how the rise of narrative criticism within NT studies had helped pave the way for other methods to see the light of day (including reader-response criticism, performance criticism, postmodern criticism(s), postcolonial criticism, etc.). I should also say that this book was a real labor of love for the both of us.

5.      Your essay, “Telling the Story: The Appearance and Impact of Mark as Story does a tremendous job of one, recounting the history of  Rhoads and Michie’s Mark as Story (and its subsequent editions) and other works that have been inspired by that work, as well as setting the tone for the remaining volume. Could you discuss the challenge of writing such an essay for perhaps, the uninitiated reader?

First of all, thanks for the compliment. In many ways, my contribution is the least substantive of any essay in the volume. It’s more summative than anything. I wanted to faithfully ‘tell the story’ of the book and what it helped establish in NT studies. Since we envisioned the book as a text for both undergraduate and graduate students, we didn’t want the essays to be too heavy. I really wanted to do two things—introduce narrative criticism and examine how Mark as Story helped get us there. As someone who feels indebted to the early narrative critics, it was actually quite enjoyable to put the essay together. I felt a bit like a journalist because after I wrote the more historical part of the essay, I had a series of phone interviews with Rhoads, Michie, and Dewey where I attempted to get a feel for the ethos of the guild in the early 1980s. (I was in elementary school in the early 1980s!) Consequently, I feel that I have a much greater appreciation for what went on and how it has impacted the field today.

6.     Could you express your hopes on how this volume might be used and the impact that it might have in introducing readers to biblical narrative criticism?

Our original vision for the book was that it be used as a textbook for courses on narrative criticism, NT hermeneutics, and the Gospel of Mark. I am happy to see that book is already getting some attention in those different venues. I know that it is being used as a course text in several institutions that run courses on narrative criticism. I’m extremely happy about that. I also hope the book will help initiate into the discipline those who have not previously worked with narrative critical theory. For my part, I am interested in and passionate about how historical criticism and narrative criticism can inform and complement one another. I would love to see an ongoing dialogue between those in historical-critical circles and those working with narrative, reader-response, performance, and postmodern methodologies. I think our book contributes to these dialogues and (hopefully) helps dispel the idea that narrative criticism is ahistorical, unhistorical, or even anti-historical in its basic orientation. This was a common complaint leveled against narrative criticism by historical critics in the early days and it persists today. On another note, I was pleased to hear from one of my former students this week. He is pursuing doctoral work at the University of Edinburgh and he emailed to let me know that the book is on permanent reserve at the university library.  So, the book is getting some attention. I just hope it helps advance some of the conversations Kelly and I are passionate about.
Thanks for the interview and for giving our little book some notice!

1 comment:

Ardel Caneday said...

Thanks for this good interview.