New Lenses for the Text
Curriculum – Lesson Plan #2
Lisle Gwynn Garrity
What Do Texts Mean?
Exploring Reception History
Concept: In his lead essay, Breed argues for a biblical approach that incorporates all of Ricoeur’s three “worlds.” He proposes that biblical scholars become “nomadologists” who follow and study texts in various contexts, from the ancient world to the present day. Instead of asking, “What do texts mean?” Breed asks, “How has this text functioned? What can it do? Of what is it capable? What capacities does it have, and how might these capacities reveal themselves in a variety of contexts?” In this lesson, participants will build on what they learned in the first lesson in order to explore Breed’s proposition.
Setting: Intended for an adult education class, this lesson is set to run for about 60 minutes, though it can be adjusted for shorter or longer timeframes. This class is part of a four-part series on biblical interpretation. Participants are encouraged to attend all four sessions.
In this lesson, participants will:
- Discuss the method of reception history and compare Breed’s proposal to other methodologies such as Ricoeur’s “three worlds.”
- Analyze and interpret visual representations of the prophet Amos from different time periods and contexts.
- Articulate benefits and limitations of using reception history to interpret and study scripture.
- Participants are encouraged to read Breed’s lead essay, though it is not required.
- Arrange three tables so that 5-8 people can sit at each table for small group discussion.
- Have resources (collected for previous lesson) at-hand in case needed. Gather commentaries, biblical encyclopedias, concordances, Greek/Hebrew dictionaries, and any other educational resources helpful for studying scripture texts.
- Place bibles (multiple translations, if possible), scrap paper and pencils on the three tables.
- Print color visuals of Amos and the descriptions that go with them (offered below). You will distribute three visuals per table during the exploring section.
- Print excerpts (below) from Breed’s article so that each table group has multiple copies.
Opening (5 min):
As people gather, invite them to sit at a different table than where they sat last week. Encourage participants to sit so that all of the tables have equal numbers.
Open with prayer:
O gracious and holy God,
give us diligence to seek you,
wisdom to perceive you,
and patience to wait for you.
Grant us, O God,
a mind to meditate on you;
eyes to behold you;
ears to listen for your word;
a heart to love you;
and a life to proclaim you;
through the power of the Spirit
of Jesus Christ. Amen.2
Once everyone is seated, spend a few minutes recapping the previous lesson to catch-up any new participants. Invite individuals to share what was explored and studied in the previous lesson, describing to any newcomers Ricoeur’s three worlds of the text.
Exploring Part 1 (10 min):
In his lead essay, Breed argues that discoveries, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran, expose a “pluriformity” of scriptural texts, making it difficult—or impossible—to define an original text or an original context. Because of this, he proposes we study biblical texts wherever they go, seeking how these texts function in different cultures and contexts throughout time.
Briefly introduce the topic of reception history. At each of the tables, distribute the following printed excerpts from Breed’s essay:
There are multiple, irreducibly different versions of the texts as far back as we can discover. Particular communities of faith, of course, have their commitments to particular canons and particular versions of texts. Now we know, however, that at the dawn of both Christianity and Judaism there was not a pristine text, but rather a general acceptance of pluriformity. Canonical and versional preferences are later developments. Thus, the “text itself” is not simply one version of a text; rather, the text itself is the totality of the various forms that a text has taken. [ Breed p. 9-10 ]
Perhaps we should no longer ask, “What does this text mean,” or “How should we read this text” – but rather, “How has this text functioned? What can it do? Of what is it capable? What capacities does it have, and how might these capacities reveal themselves in a variety of contexts?” [Breed p. 15]
In short, I propose that biblical scholarship re-imagine itself not as an updated historical-critical enterprise, or as a society of close readers, or as a guild of cultural critics, but rather as a group of nomadologists. We study the text wherever it goes, from the ancient Near East to the present day, as it moves through a myriad of contexts, both at home everywhere and ultimately at home nowhere, with this question always in mind: What can these texts do? [Breed p. 16]
Invite the groups to read these excerpts together and discuss the following questions within their group:
How does Breed’s proposition for reception history compare to Ricoeur’s three worlds? Do you agree or disagree with Breed’s approach? What are the possible benefits and limitations of this approach? What questions are you left with?
Exploring Part 2 (20 min):
Once the groups have had time to discuss, explain that reception history utilizes many different mediums including art, music, popular culture, news journals, etc., to study how texts are received and interpreted in different contexts. In other words, reception history doesn’t just study the writings of theologians and biblical scholars, but instead surveys all the documents that evidence how the bible is received and interpreted within a certain context.
Explain that, using visual art, you will briefly explore together the visual reception history of the prophet Amos.
Before distributing the images, take about 5 minutes to ask the group what they know about Amos. Who is he? What kind of prophet was he? Can you recall bible studies or sermons on the book of Amos? Can you think of any cultural references? What descriptors, words, or phrases come to mind? What sorts of messages did he deliver? As the group responds, write words and phrases on a whiteboard or graffiti sheet for all to see.
The groups will each be given three pieces of art depicting the prophet Amos. Each visual will come with a short description about the art. Invite the groups to study their images and how they correspond to specific passages in the book of Amos. Encourage them to discuss the following questions: What do you see? How is Amos portrayed? What is he wearing? What objects are included in the image? How does this image correspond to the scripture? What does this image say about how Amos was received in this particular context? Does he appear as a doomsday preacher? Revered prophet? Social justice-minded whistleblower? How do the three images compare and contrast? What do these images do?
[Click on “Visual” headings for links to the corresponding images.]
Visual #1: Amos on the western exterior of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, Amiens, France. 1200s, Gothic style. Depicts Amos as a herdsman and a dresser of the sycamore tree (Amos 7:14). Background: Amos was more likely to have been a herdsman or sheep-breeder than a shepherd, meaning that he owned sheep instead of tending to them. Amos describes himself as a pruner or trimmer of sycamore trees. Some scholars think he may have pioneered a new method, in which he pierced or slashed the fruit, to induce ripening. If this is true, he may have been a wealthy man for developing a new technology.
Visual #2: Amos on the western exterior of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, Amiens, France. 1200’s, Gothic style. Depicts Amos’ vision of God constructing a wall or plumb line (Amos 7: 7). Background: During the Middle Ages, Amos began to be aligned with Jesus, due to his vision of the plumb line. The plumb line, as an instrument of judgment, linked Amos to Jesus as the judge of souls.
Visual #3: Amos with ram’s horn to alarm Israel. From a manuscript in the British library, 1148. Background: Shofar (horn) blown to initiate war, typically in the temple. Carrying a club. How does this visual compare to Amos as the shepherd/herdsman?
Visual #4: “Amos and the European Sibyl.” Bernardo Pinturicchio: 1492, Fresco. Background: Sibyls were considered prophetesses in ancient Greece, Italy, and Asia Minor; they wandered from place to place prophesying at holy sites under greek deities. Michelangelo’s frescoes at the Sistine Chapel depict many sibyls with prophets. During the Renaissance, due to increased fascination with ancient Greece, there was more interest in sibyls. There are no mentions of scrolls in the book of Amos, yet, Amos is portrayed as a pensive, wise scribe.
Visual #5: “Amos the Prophet,” by Salvador Dali (1964-67), Spanish Surrealist painter (Amos 7:7). Background: The plumb line, as an instrument of judgment, aligned Amos with God as the judge of souls. How does this dark, shadowy figure compare to the image of Amos as the wise scribe?
Visual #6: “Amos and the Angel holding the pincers of the passion of Christ.” From the cupola of the Sacristy of St. Mark, 1477. Fresco. Loreto, Italy. Background: Pincers part of the “weapons of Christ” and used as symbols in Christian art. These “weapons” refer to what Jesus used to gain victory over Satan. The pincers were used to remove the nails. Amos sits beneath an angel holding the pincers of the passion. In this image, Amos is aligned with Jesus’ passion and resurrection. What might it mean for Amos to be connected to Jesus’ death and resurrection?
Visual #7: “Twelve prophets” by Aleijadinho in Brazil: soapstone, completed in 1805. Located in the Brazilian municipality of Congonhas do Campo, where they adorn the forecourt of the Santuário do Bom Jesus de Matosinhos (Basilica). Background: Amos portrayed totally differently from the other sculptures. He has a broad face, no beard, and calm expressions. His garments are made of sheepskin for a shepherd, and he wears a hat commonly used by Portuguese farmers in the region. Some people think the statues are a call to political freedom for both African slaves and native Brazilians who wanted independence from Portugal. On Amos’ Shield: “At first I am a shepherd and a prophet, and I am against fat cows and the rulers of Israel.”
Visual #8: Batik, “Thirst for Justice,” by Solomon Raj, Indian Christian theologian and artist. 2001. Background: Meditation cloth (to be placed over the Eucharist during Lent–a tradition developed in the Middle Ages to emphasize the sacredness of the Eucharist) inspired by Amos 5:24: “Let justice roll down like the waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Batik commissioned by Bread for the World to focus on the right of every person to have access to clean drinking water. Includes imagery of India: cattle and women carrying loads, a refugee family, a man pulling a rickshaw. At the top right, God’s hand reaches out of a cloud pointing to the fiery wheel (symbolizing God’s coming justice). The upside-down tree represents Raj’s perspective that Christians are to live rooted in God in heaven, but offering their fruit to the earth. The blue river contrasts with the dryness of the yellow and red land. The cry for water in a desert area is like the cry for justice in desperate situations.
Visual #9 on our Columbia Connections blog: “Hear this, you that trample on the needy,” banner installation planned by Rev. Ann Laird Jones and executed by artist Johanna Garrity. Installed in Anderson Auditorium, Montreat Conference Center, NC, summer 2012. Background: Banners created for Sunday worship when guest preacher, Rev. Paul T. Roberts, Sr. (president of Johnson C. Smith Seminary, Atlanta, GA), preached on Amos 8: 4-6. Banners 14 feet tall, painted with acrylic paint on newspaper and brown craft paper.
Presenting (8 min):
Invite each group to briefly present their three visuals to the other groups, providing details about the art and what the group discussed. After each group presents, tape or pin their visuals on a board or wall in the room. Hang or pin the images so that they are all visible together.
Responding (15 min):
Once every group has presented their art, ask the group the following questions:
Looking back at our own preconceptions and ideas about Amos before we began our visual research (point to whiteboard or graffiti sheet), how do these visual representations compare? What did you learn about Amos? What did you learn from the other groups? Which visuals do you find surprising or unexpected? What was challenging about this exercise? How do these visuals reflect changing interpretations of Amos’ message? What do these images do? What do these images teach us about Amos’ message for us today?
Closing (2 min):
Close with your own prayer, or read the opening words of John 1 from the VOICE bible for a closing prayer/meditation:
1 Before time itself was measured, the Voice was speaking.
The Voice was and is God.
2 This celestial Word remained ever present with the Creator;
3 His speech shaped the entire cosmos.
Immersed in the practice of creating,
all things that exist were birthed in Him.
4 His breath filled all things
with a living, breathing light—
5 A light that thrives in the depths of darkness,
blazes through murky bottoms.
It cannot and will not be quenched.
(John 1: 1-5, The Voice)
2. Attributed to Benedict of Nursia (c. 480-547), in Book of Common Worship: Presbyterian Church (USA), 24.