Tag Archives: Wayne Booth

Wayne Booth on appealing to the authority of “WE”

CON: Against the use of “WE”

Something is wrong in these confident “we’s,” something worse than a mere stylistic tic. I am shocked at the confidence my younger self sometimes shows in reporting how “we” respond. Who are we, here? “We” flesh-and-blood readers are unpredictable, and no one can speak with high reliability about us.

The book [The Rhetoric of Fiction, 1st ed.] often sounds as if its author did not know about that. Yet every classroom and every staffroom debate had taught me differently, as had my own readings when they proved unstable over time. I had noted — and perhaps should have mentioned — the changes the years had produced in my reading of Anna Karenina. At eighteen I had found the courtship and marriage of the thirty-two-year-old Levin and that lovely teenager, Kitty (just my age!), a rather regrettable matching of January and June. Why should she throw herself away on a fussy old man? When I reread and taught the book at thirty-two, the marriage seemed, in contrast, a rather fortunate break for Kitty: “He’ll help her mature!” (And now, at sixty-one: “What are those two children doing, behaving like that?”) Yet I allowed myself frequently to talk as if “we” — the flesh-and-blood readers — do have or ought to have only one response, “ours.”

from “Afterword to the Second Edition,” In The Rhetoric of Fiction, 2nd Ed., (UChicago Pr, 1983), 420.

PRO: In defense of a different sense of “WE”

The author makes his readers. If he makes them badly – that is, if he simply waits, in all purity, for the occasional reader whose perceptions and norms happen to match his own, then his conception must be lofty indeed if we are to forgive him for his bad craftsmanship. But if he makes them well—that is, makes them see what they have never seen before, moves them into a new order of perception and experience altogether—he finds his reward in the peers he has created.

from Ibid, 397-8.

On reading the gospels

A. Ludwig Wittgenstein

“Kierkegaard writes: If Christianity were so easy and cosy, why should God in his Scriptures have set Heaven and Earth in motion and threatened eternal punishments? — Question: But in that case why is this Scripture so unclear? If we want to warn someone of a terrible danger, do we go about it by telling him a riddle whose solution will be the warning? — But who is to say that the Scripture really is unclear? Isn’t it possible that it was essential in this case to ‘tell a riddle’? And that, on the other hand, giving a more direct warning would necessarily have had the wrong effect? God has four people recount the life of his incarnate Son, in each case differently and with inconsistencies — but might we not say: It is important that this narrative should not be more than quite averagely historically plausible just so that this should not be taken as the essential, decisive thing? So that the letter should not be believed more strongly than is proper and the spirit may receive its due. I.e. what you are supposed to see cannot be communicated even by the best and most accurate historian; and therefore a mediocre account suffices, is even to be preferred. For that too can tell you what you are supposed to be told. (Roughly in the way a mediocre stage set can be better than a sophisticated one, painted trees better than real ones, — because these might distract attention from what matters.)

“The Spirit puts what is essential, essential for your life into these words. The point is precisely that you are only supposed to see clearly what appears clearly even in this representation.  (I am not sure how far all this is exactly in the spirit of Kierkegaard.)”

from Culture and Value, Ed. G.H. von Wright, Trans. Peter Winch, (University of Chicago Press, 1980), 31e-32e.

B. Wayne Booth

“At a bear minimum, the Gospels demonstrate that some men — in fact, many men indeed — have been able to believe these strange beliefs. Their historical weaknesses — even if taken to the extreme of arguing that no such figure as Jesus ever existed — could not entirely destroy their power as a rhetoric for one view of how man can or should live in the world.”

from Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent, (University of Notre Dame Press, 1974), 155.

On theological judgment

A. Wayne Booth

“It is true that ‘gut reactions’ can be very bad reasons for action. But so can logical proofs. The real art lies in the proper weighing—and what is proper is a matter finally of shared norms, discovered and applied in the experience of individuals whose very individuality is forged from other selves.”

from Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent, (University of Notre Dame Press, 1974), 164.

B. Kathryn Tanner

“Everyday theological investigation … is not often directed by the entertainment of general principles. Making a decision about proper action or belief seems less a matter of application of explicit precept and more a matter of tact and good timing – knowing when and where a certain affirmation or deed is called for, knowing what affirmation or action to add to a situation so that its various elements form some sort of agreeable balance or harmony. […]

“The basic operations that theologians perform have a twofold character. First, theologians show an artisanlike inventiveness in the way they work on a variety of materials that do not dictate of themselves what theologians should do with them. Second, theologians exhibit a tactical cleverness with respect to other interpretations and organizations of such materials that are already on the ground. […]

“Judgments between competing theological proposals are rarely cinched by outright evidence of fallacious inferences, inconsistency, or unclarity on some party’s part. Instead, the issue of whose theological position is most compelling is decided by judgments of an aesthetic sort, ones like those used to determine, say, the best interpretation of a poem. […]

“When engaging theologies already on the ground – and, as we have suggested, this is almost all the time – theologians use a kind of tact requiring numerous ad hoc and situation-specific adjustments. In contrast to what the values of clarity, consistency, and systematicity might suggest of themselves, even academic theologians do not simply follow logical deductions where they lead or the dictates of abstract principles when arriving at their conclusions.”

from Theories of Culture, (Fortress Press, 1997), 81, 87, 91, 92.

C. John Webster

“The most illuminating systematic theologies are often characterized by (1) conceptual ingenuity, resourcefulness, and suppleness, which enable a projection of Christian claims suitable to draw attention to their richness and complexity; (2) conceptual transparency, which enables a more penetrating understanding of the primary modes of Christian articulation of the gospel; and (3) broad knowledge and sensitive and creative deployment of concepts inherited from the Christian theological tradition. By contrast, systematic theologies are less successful if they are conceptually monotonous or stiff, if concepts threaten to overwhelm or replace that which they are intended to represent, or if the concepts do not have a discernible relation to well-seated theological usage. […]

‘System’ ought not to be confused with ‘deductive system,’ fully elaborated more geometrico. The criteria for appropriate systematic construction might then be as follows: (1) the systematic character of the schema should not be imposed by analytical reason but should emerge from attention to the subject matter’s self-unfolding; (2) systems must retain provisionality and openness to revision from sources which cannot be given exhaustive description within the system; (3) systems must be indicative of, not a replacement for, the persons, events, and acts which form the substance of Christian teaching; (4) formal, systematic coordination must serve material scope and coherence.”

from “Introduction: Systematic Theology,” from The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology, Eds. John Webster, Kathryn Tanner, and Iain Torrance, (OUP, 2007), 10, 14.