There’s an interesting article this week in The Chronicle Review about the role of first person in writings in the Humanities. It’s primarily a review of Cynthia Franklin’s Academic Lives: Memoir, Cultural Theory, and the University Today (University of Georgia Press) and a reiteration of her belief that scholars talking about their own experiences “may help to rehumanize the ailing humanities.”
Franklin’s claim is one that I’ve been reflecting on myself, as I think about the best style for my Reading the Bible as an Adult project. If I really want to engage people in conversation about how literature, including the Bible, encourages them to think about their lives, shouldn’t I spend at least some time modeling the process–showing how reading the Bible encourages me to think about my life?
What role should autobiography/memoir have in biblical studies?
I had mixed reactions to some of what came out of the Autobiographical Criticism phase of biblical scholarship in the1990’s and 2000’s. Some was really interesting and helped me think in new ways about biblical texts and about myself. Some was just TMI (too much information) about the author and TLI (too little insight) into what in the text provoked such musings. I also had mixed feelings about my first foray into the genre: “On Saying ‘No’ to a Prophet” in Semeia 72 (1995) and I thought the criticism of one of the responses was on target. I’ve gotten better responses to my autobiographical examples in Challenging Prophetic Metaphor (WJK 2008); several people have told me that the book primarily works because of them.
Autobiography–in writing, in preaching, in scholarship–is a tricky business. Done poorly, it is self-indulgent exhibitionism. Look at me! Look at how important/tragic/interesting/pathetic my life is! Autobiography for the sake of self-exposure or catharsis might work for celebrities, but few people go to church or read biblical scholarship primarily to learn about the childhood of its speakers. Done well, self-disclosure can provide a window into the topic and bring writers and readers closer together. The writer becomes human; the passions become more understandable. When done well, the autobiographical style is an invitation for the reader to reflect on her own experiences, to consider how her own life compares with that of the author.
So, my real questions become these:
- what kind of autobiography invites others to share their own experiences? how can monologue encourage dialogue?
- how can autobiography aid in political and social analysis?
- how can autobiography allow/demand that readers not take what authors say about themselves as the last word?