Whose Point of View: An Introduction of Perspective Criticism

This past weekend I attended the Pacific Northwest regional meeting of Society of Biblical Literature, The American Schools of Oriental Research, and the American Academy of Religion in Victoria—or what my wife not-so-affectionately called Nerdfest 2010—pacific northwest edition.  One of the better received ideas at these meetings was provided by a friend and former professor of mine Gary Yamasaki.  Yamasaki presented two papers which applied perspective criticism, a hermeneutic he developed (the most nuanced form of which can be found in his 2007 book Watching a Biblical Narrative) to two Biblical stories—“Gideon’s fleece” from the Old Testament and Saul’s “Damascus road” experience from the New.

Perspective criticism borrows from literary criticism and is concerned with discerning the point of view from which a story is told.  What makes point of view so significant is that it takes seriously the fact that in the genre of Biblical narrative the narrator tells the story for a purpose or to make a point but rarely does so with the inclusion of an explicit moral statement as to whether the acts of the story are to be viewed positively or negatively.  Perspective criticism suggests that the elusive “point(s)” the narrator is trying to communicate in the morally ambiguous Biblical narratives can be discerned at least in part by examining whose perspective the story is being told from.  The idea being that when a reader ‘views’ the events of a story through a specific character’s eyes their perspective effectively merges with that of the character and as a result identifies, sympathizes, and more or less approves of the character’s actions regardless of whether or not those actions would normally be considered ethical.

Yamasaki illustrates this effect of point of view by referring to many on screen examples where a viewer is influenced to cheer for villains:  “Dexter”, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”, “Ocean’s 11”, etc.  A great example of how point of view can be manipulated to alter a viewer’s perspective of a character can be seen in “Scrubs”.  The show is typically told from the perspective of J.D.—however several episodes are told through the perspective of other characters which lead to temporary identification with them and a distancing from the typical main character.

If Yamasaki’s hypothesis that the point of view of a Biblical narrative can/should be discerned to comprehend the point the author is trying to make then it could potentially have great significance for the future of hermeneutics.  It will be fascinating to see whether perspective criticism is able to shed light on such troubling narratives as Jephthah’s daughter or the Levite’s concubine.  I believe that perspective criticism’s commitment to viewing the narrative as a work of literature may allow it to do just that without slipping into moralistic readings—preserving both the literary integrity and purpose of Biblical story.