In one sense, Scripture is like nature. A scientist looks at a tree and says, “If you look here at the bark you will see the lenticels through which the oxygen is diffused.” A woodworker looks at a tree and says, “That burl there will make a perfect desktop.” A poet could say, “We move above the moving tree / In light upon the figured leaf;” while a child moves within the moving tree, thinking about the treehouse he plans to build. There are as many ways to see nature as there are people in the world, and no single view can show you nature for all that it is. In fact, you can never know a single tree for all that it is.
This is like Scripture in that there are many different methods that can give you a view into the text. A lexicographer studies individual words; a historian studies people and events; a dogmatician pieces together doctrines across books. And the preacher has to take account of all these things in order to deliver a simple, edifying message on Sunday morning. One of these methods of interpretation is called “narrative criticism,” and we are studying this method in New Testament Exegesis class.
In regular English the word “criticism” has negative connotations. Even when you throw the word “constructive” in front of it, this doesn’t always remove the the sharpness. “I’m only trying to constructively criticize your cooking,” is really not the best choice of words. So perhaps you wonder why we speak of “criticism” when we speak of interpreting Scripture. I mean, doesn’t criticizing the Bible put you in a rather regrettable position? It certainly does, but that’s not the sense of the word here. The word “criticism” here derives its meaning from its Latin root, which means “able to discern.” We need to correctly handle the Word of truth, Paul tells Timothy, and this of course requires discernment. So another way of saying narrative criticism is “narrative discernment.”
All it really means is reading the Bible like you’d read a story. And again, by “story,” I don’t mean something made up. I only mean reading Scripture in terms of plot, characters, and setting, among other things. For example, our exegesis assignments this semester are from the gospel of John. John fills his gospel with different kinds of plots, character flaws, miscommunications, and ironies. There are even genuinely funny moments, like when Christ tells his disciples, “I have food to eat that you do not know about,” and they respond by saying to each other, “Has anyone brought him something to eat?” (John 4:32-33). At the end of the book John tells us that he wrote these things “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (20:31).
I was assigned John 9, which is the account of Jesus healing a blind man. In this chapter some of the significant narrative features are the plot, the character development, and the irony. The plot John uses here is a “discovery” plot, which means that at the beginning the characters are ignorant of something important, and by the end they’ve discovered the truth. Only, in this kind of plot the discovery leads some characters to love and others to hatred of the truth that has been discovered. So this kind of plot is advanced as the characters slowly come to know something.
And by this point in John’s gospel he wants to make something blatant to his readers. He wants us to know how to properly respond to Christ. The disciples thus far have responded to Christ in a number of ways. They’ve followed him (1:37), believed in him (2:11), baptized for him (4:2), grumbled about him (6:61), and some had even fallen away (6:66). But there was one important thing they had never done, and John uses a blind beggar from the fringes of society, a man who remains nameless throughout the chapter, to show us what the only appropriate response to Christ is.
What’s significant, too, is that the disciples have been with Jesus for a while. They’ve seen his miracles and heard his teachings. But this blind man knows only one thing about Christ, and that is that Christ healed him. He doesn’t even know what Jesus looks like, because when the blind man returns from the pool in which Jesus commanded him to wash, Jesus is gone. Yet as the man is questioned by his neighbours and the Pharisees, we see a growing recognition. At the beginning he refers simply to “the man called Jesus” (v.11). Then he calls Jesus a prophet (v.17), and then a prophet from God (v.33). When he meets Jesus again later, and Jesus tells him that he is the Son of Man, the man recognizes this and worships him (v.38).
Worship is the key here. The one thing that the disciples had not done was worship Christ. Yet this nameless nobody, even at great social cost, recognizes Christ for who he is and worships him. And no, it’s not “did obeisance to him,” as written in the Jehovah’s Witness bible. “Obeisance” is something you’d give to the queen; but you don’t just tip your hat to Christ. That’s a conclusion that misses the very sharp point of the chapter. Abject adoration, stomach and face in the dirt, heart and soul in absolute and joyful submission – that is the proper response to beholding the Light of the world.
This isn’t to say that you couldn’t reach these conclusions apart from narrative criticism. But when you are purposefully looking for character development, then it’s much easier to see the man develop in his recognition of Jesus. And it’s easier to see that the Pharisees, too, come to recognize Jesus, but develop in the opposite direction. The more they know about Christ the more they despise him. This helps to see what the point of the passage is. And I haven’t even mentioned the irony that dominates the whole account, like the big wink we get from John in that the blind man doesn’t just comes to see, he comes to see.