Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Hearing the Silence: An Interview with Bruce Longenecker

I have often scratched my head at the ending of Luke 4:28-30. How does Jesus escape the clutches of the angry Nazarene mob that is ready to hurl him off the side of a cliff? Luke's narrative does not tell us the "how", he simply writes, "But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way" (Luke 4:30; NRSV).

Talk about an understated conclusion! What is Luke on about? Why would he end such a gripping scene so anti-climatically? Thankfully, Bruce Longenecker,  Professor of Religion and W.W. Melton Chair at Baylor University. along with being a  first-rate New Testament scholar and author, has penned a volume,  Hearing the Silence: Jesus on the Edge and God in the Gap--Luke 4 in Narrative Perspective (Wipf and Stock), that addresses these perplexing questions and more. Longenecker provides a sure-footed and imaginative way forward, and manages to write such a reader-friendly and entertaining volume while addressing complex exegetical issues at the same time. This book needs to be used in classes such as Luke-Acts, Jesus and Film, and any classes that deal with Narrative Criticism.

Recently, Bruce was kind enough to sit down and answer some questions regarding this volume. I don't want to give away how Bruce comes to the conclusions that he does. Trust me, it will be worth your while to pick this up!  Now, on to the interview...
those who have not read it yet, I purposefully restrained myself from asking too many questions, because you

1.      Could you talk a bit about how Hearing the Silence came about?

            To answer this, I need to take you back to 2003, when my historical novel The Lost Letters of Pergamum was published. The prospect of writing a historical fiction was actually proposed to me by the publisher of that book (Baker Academic); at first I told them that I wasn’t the right person to write something like that. But I gave the prospect some thought, and to my utter amazement, a narrative started to take shape even within 24 hours of the proposal. The pieces seemed to fall into place without much prompting from me, and the narrative virtually wrote itself. Since its publication, The Lost Letters of Pergamum has been used widely in university and seminary courses that introduce the New Testament, enabling students to better imagine their way into the ethos and practicalities of the first-century world.
            But after that novel was published, I started to become interested in reading other fictions about Jesus and his first followers. So I began making my way through some of them, since they make for good bedtime reading. After a while, I begin to see certain patterns and features emerging from a cross-section of very diverse novels about Jesus. It occurred to me that the study of Jesus-novels might make for an interesting research project “on the side.” Little by little I began to craft what looked like a pretty interesting book on the subject of how the story of Jesus is being used today as a vehicle to engage with debates currently underway within the theological disciplines in particular and society more generally. But one chapter in that book just kept growing and growing. Eventually it became so large that I needed to jettison it from the larger project. So when my friend Robin Parry (an editor at Wipf & Stock publishers) asked me if I had anything that they could consider for publication, this project on Luke 4 came to mind. At that point the project was only 25,000 words (maybe something like 80 published pages or so), but it ended up at about 45,000 words. So that’s the story of the books inception over the past eight years. 

2.   In Hearing the Silence you mention “narrative vacuums” in the Canonical Gospels and the attempts that novelists and filmmakers make in filling those gaps in creative ways. Could you discuss some of the guiding principles they use in filling these lacunae in creative ways?

            Well, the main guiding principle is simply this: Use the story of Jesus to amplify your own interests. I know it sounds crass to say it like this, but it is what characterizes the whole enterprise, no matter where novelists are on the theological spectrum.
            The enterprise of amplifying the Jesus story by adding to it in one way or another has traditionally been done by “orthodox” Christians, from the earliest centuries of the common Era right up to today. The task is to devise an extra-canonical story about Jesus in order to explore some particular interest held by the novelist. So we get novels that probe what it might have been like for one person to have been fully divine and fully human. Or novels that tease out Jesus’ parables by giving them back-narratives to enable their meaning to be fully appreciated. Or novels demonstrating that Jesus brings wholeness and healing where there was psychological fracture and loneliness. Or stories about Jesus whose love restores relationships of enmity. That sort of thing.
            But other interests get thrown into mix along the way. What about abortion? Well, there’s a Jesus novel that deals with that. What about capitalism? Sure, take your pick – there’s a Jesus who embodies all that is good about Western capitalism, and there’s a Jesus who despises capitalistic impulses altogether. What about homosexuality? What about relations between Christianity and Judaism after the Holocaust? Or other religions? What about the reliability of the New Testament Gospels? Sure enough, the “novel Jesus” has had a lot to say about all these matters in recent years. That’s because the story of Jesus is such an intriguing venue in which to carry out reflections on matters of pressing interest. This is not an arena reserved solely for Christians; all sorts of people beyond the Christian church have seen advantages in tapping into the Jesus story in order to promote special interests of one kind or another. This has been going on for centuries, as testified to by the many apocryphal Gospels of the second and third centuries.

3.   The focus of Hearing the Silence is centered on the narrative of Luke 4:28-30. Can you talk about some of the difficulties that the ending of 4:30 brings to the reader/hearer?

            I sometimes ask students to pretend that they are Hollywood film directors directing a movie about Jesus, and to consider how they would choreograph the movement from Luke 4:28-29 to Luke 4:30. First, Jesus is dragged to the top of a cliff by an angry mob that holds him virtually tip-toed above the precipice, but then the conflict tappers off as Jesus simply “walked through their midst and went on his way.” How does this happen? The narrative gap here is so wide that, unless these budding film directors are going to drop the scene from their movie, they simply must fill the gap in one way or another. They will need to make decisions about how the event is orchestrated in terms of its cause-and-effect relationships.

     4. Could you provide a couple of examples on how novelists and filmmakers have dealt with the curious ending of Luke 4:30?

            I do that in two chapters of the book, where I canvass all of the options that I know to be on offer currently. Basically, if cause-and-effect is the product of human ingenuity and initiative, then Jesus can be likened to one of the following four: (1) a force-wielding Obe Wan Kenobe who uses something equivalent to a Jedi mind trick; (2) a well-intentioned Frodo accompanied by an entourage of skilled companions; (3) an adroit Indiana Jones, whose whip-snapping get-away skills come to the fore; and (4) someone who knows how to jump behind bushes when necessary (sorry, movie analogies escape me for this category; maybe Yogi the Bear?). Novelists and film-makers often seek out explanations of this episode’s cause-and-effect relationships within the realm of options such as these.

    5. How does viewing the Nazareth incident in 4:28-30 in light of the death and resurrection of Jesus provide interpretive clues for the reader/hearer?

            Ah, well, you’ve put your finger on the pulse of the matter. The point I try to make in the book is that Luke’s narrative world is one in which initiatives are not simply restricted to the kinds of ordinary cause-and-effect relationships that we might normally see on the silver screen. Luke’s theological world embraces theological initiative from start to finish. So at the beginning of his Gospel we see life emerge from death, as John the Baptist is born from within the “lifeless” bodies of Zachariah and Elizabeth. So too at the end of Luke’s Gospel we see the risen lord emerge from the tomb of the crucified Jesus. This is divine initiative to the extent that what looks to be a dead end is actually a new beginning. The same pattern appears repeatedly in the Acts of the Apostles (written by the same author).
            So in a sense, if we come to grips with the narrative movement of Luke 4:28-30, we come to grips with the very heart of the Lukan worldview. Held by clutches of anger above the Nazareth cliff, Jesus went through the midst of them and went on his way. This isn’t a theology peddling “it will be alright on the night”; instead, it's a theology undergirded by a remarkable confidence in the final triumph of God.
            So Luke 4:30 serves an important narrative and theological function within the broader story of Lukan Gospel. It introduces a narrative gap that is left so wide open precisely for the purposes of tantalizing readers, who are to consider their own worldview in relation to the worldview of the narrative.
            Luke is doing more than that in this gap, as I explore in the final chapter of the book. I propose there that Luke offers an intriguing insight into the mechanics of how Jesus moved from the edge of the cliff to be on his way. It’s a proposal that is best left for readers to explore for themselves in its fuller form rather than trying to defend it in a sentence or two here.  But I can at least say that explores another of Luke’s favorite themes regarding the death and resurrection of Jesus – that is, the fulfillment of Scripture. 

No comments: