Book: The Voice of Jesus in the Social Rhetoric of James

This should not be read as a review, but rather as a response and a few notes for potential readers. Dr. Wesley Wachob became pastor of First United Methodist Church of Pensacola last June. His associate minister, Rev. Geoffrey Lentz is a good friend, and I have been hearing many good things about that church and their ministry there. So I was led to read this book because of knowing something of the author and from having heard him preach.

The Voice of Jesus in the Social Rhetoric of James was first published as a dissertation at Emory University (1993), which should tell you something of the level of discourse, not in James, but in the book itself. This is not for the faint hearted, nor for those looking for devotional or sermon material. It did, I must admit, lead me to some thinking about the book and one or two devotionals, but those were an indirect result, rather than a direct reference. I don’t intend this as criticism. Some of my best study, in my own view, at least, is triggered through reading material from which I find it hard to cite a specific instance.

I approached this book with two purposes in mind. First, I was interested in knowing about the author and his thinking. Of course, nearly 15 years have passed since it was originally published, and one’s thinking can develop a good deal in that time. Second, I was interested specifically in looking at rhetorical criticism in action. With regard to the first goal I had more success listening to a few sermons. On the second, I found this an excellent case to study and enjoyed myself.

It is probably not a good idea for someone with no knowledge of Greek or no prior knowledge of Biblical criticism to jump into this book. Though all foreign language quotations are translated, something one cannot always count on in scholarly works, a certain knowledge of Biblical criticism and how things fit together is assumed. This is not surprising, but since most readers of this blog are used to articles written at a much lower level (the ones I write) and reviews of material targeted at an audience with less prior experience, I think it’s important to give a warning.

Let me deal first with the basics. This is a solid work of scholarship (to the extent that I’m qualified to judge), well-referenced with adequate discussions of a variety of viewpoints to point the author’s conclusions into context. I found it necessary to read the footnotes. I often fail to understand how one divides the text in the body from the footnotes. It’s easy to get too much into the text and drive readers to distraction, but it’s also possible to force footnote reading. I’m guessing that a more casual reader would find the body text adequate, but I found myself constantly moving from body to footnotes. Such are the hazards of reading scholarly works.

I wanted to look at a case of rhetorical criticism, because my training was seriously lacking in that area. My one previous significant encounter was Betz’s commentary on Galatians, and I was not overly impressed there. The commentary was useful, but I felt that the material was forced into the critical mold rather than having the methodology enlighten one about the text.

I still think that the rhetorical categories can be somewhat strained if one thinks of the author consciously composing in that fashion, but reading this book helped me shed that way of approaching the issue. The passage considered in James appears to me to be fashioned much more closely to the rhetorical pattern presented than was the one in Galatians. I admit, of course, that this could be due to my inexperience with the tools involved.

Dr. Wachob considers James 2:1-13, and particularly James 2:5 and looks for the way in which that particular saying of Jesus is used in James. He sets this passage in the full context of James, then looks in some detail at the text. For a study such as this one does have to be very precise about the text one is using. Following that he looks at the rhetorical pattern and relationships of the passage itself. Finally he focuses on the use of that particular text.

The most helpful point in this book came in chapter five. The key statement, for me, was this:

Because rhetorical discourse is intertextual discourse – a social possession that is founded on previous texts–inevitably, there is within it a dialogue among different voices. . . .

I had written myself a note about a week before with key elements of an essay I would like to write for this blog about the various voices involved in studying scripture in a Christian community. That list of voices go beyond whatever list might be made for the original author of the text and the way in which his audience would have heard him to include interpreters in the Christian tradition, and in my tradition and community generally. That sentence tied the detail elements together for me.

I’m still traditional enough to be strongly oriented toward the “original intent” that elusive intended communication between the author and his audience. It’s quite problematic to track down, but I consider the chase worth it, even if the fox always escapes in the end. That keeps us looking in the right direction. But then we have to step back from looking at the way different texts and voices interacted for that audience, and recognize the web of relationships that results in our present understanding.

One of the great benefits of critical study of the Bible, no matter which tools one uses, is to force us to think more seriously and in more detail about the text. One of the great dangers of that critical study is that we begin to think that the results of a particular critical methodology give us the final answer. The form critic has accomplished his task when he discovers the genre, the source critic when he has identified sources, and so forth. Rhetorical, genre, and canonical criticism, along with the various tools of literary criticism tend to push us to take a bit broader look at the text in one way or another.

If you can work your way through the details, handle the Greek texts and the citations of numerous manuscripts, you will find this little book worth they time to read its 201 pages. Just make sure that you really want the kernel, else you’ll feel somewhat put upon by the effort required.

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