`…And all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death…’
The story of Jesus meeting a Samaritan woman by a well is one of the more famous stories from the gospel of John. Artists and filmmakers have poured color and light into its outlines. Social science analysts have attempted to lift the corner of the story’s surface in order to show us something of the social and cultural complexities seething beneath it. Biblical scholars have attempted to unpack hidden elements of this narrative for us by moving behind text and background and dipping into the dynamics of storytelling, poetics, and literary theory.
That’s what I want to begin to explore here…Ever wanted to be a writer or storyteller?….Ever wonder how the really good ones do it?
One of the mechanics of storytelling that you might have run across as you studied the works of novelists, or considered learning more about the creative writing process is called `foreshadowing’
Wikipedia helpfully points out
Foreshadowing is a literary device in which a writer gives an advance hint of what is to come later in the story. Foreshadowing often appears at the beginning of a story, or a chapter, and it helps the reader develop expectations about the upcoming events.
So, (you ask, breathlessly) what does `foreshadowing’ have to do with this story about Jesus and the woman at the well? I suggest we turn back a couple of pages, or scroll up a bit and look at the story that closes out the third chapter of John’s Gospel.
In this story the ambivalent or hostile religious authorities are attempting to engineer a bit of tension between the followers of john the Baptist and those now `going over’ to his cousin, Jesus. The storyteller helpfully supplies some chronology. All this happened before John went to prison….for making critical remarks about someone’s marriage (btw).
So, we have the narrative seedlings of intergroup rivalry and tension and the faint reminder of the reasons for John’s exit stage left. In his reported responses, he rejoices that Jesus is growing in popularity and likens his own role to that of a `best man’ at a wedding. There has been another wedding story, not too long ago, in this gospel . In THAT story , Jesus miraculously provided a large amount of wine. John’s remarks not only implicitly link the actions of Jesus to this earlier story they also prepare the ground for what lies ahead.
In order to dig a little deeper into that we need to unpack another literary/cultural device….that of the allusive echo.
ALL OUR YESTERDAYS?
Some of you will recall this as the title of a Startrek episode from the late 1960s….or perhaps the novel by Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg. Others will recall that it was the tile of a British TV series in the early 1960s that explored the causes leading to the Second World War.
I am confident that the writers of the British TV series intended that their use of the phrase `all our yesterdays’ echo a line from Macbeth’s last soliloquy in Act five of the famous Shakespeare play. `Star trek’….um, not so much. In at least one of these cases, the writers imagined that an exposure to the works of Shakespeare created a `shared cultural context’ for both storyteller and (British) audience. They hoped that this audience would `get’ a nod towards the original narrative, imagery, or character and see something echoed, however faint, in the contemporary story being presented to them. Such an echo might be more allusive, or even somewhat faint or ambient. It will not offer a point-by-point linear correspondence with its source material. But it will occur in a shared frame of reference.
Switch gears, here. If we allow that John’s audience `grew up’ under a hearing of the Old Testament stories accompanied by additional elaboration and commentary, then we might allow that they have a dynamic cultural memory potentially more attuned to allusions and echoes drawn from this source material. Biblical Scholar Richard Hays has profitably/ explored this idea in his books `Echoes of Scripture in the letters of Paul’ and `Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels’ Hays acknowledges his own study of literary theory and poetics as a basis for his ideas in this regard. He specifically mentions John Hollander’s book `Figure of Echo: A Mode of Allusion in Milton and After’
At the site that makes `Figure of Echo’ FREELY AVAILABLE to read online, I found this helpful description.
`Looking at echo in its literal, acoustic sense, echo in myth, and echo as literary allusion, Mr. Hollander concludes with a study of the rhetorical status of the figure of echo, and the ancient and newly interesting trope of metalepsis, or transumption, which it appears to embody. Centered on ways by which Milton’s poetry echoes, and is echoed by, other texts, The Figure of Echo deals well with Spencer and other Renaissance writers, with romantic poets such as Keats, Shelley, and Wordsworth, and with echoes of their nineteenth-century forebears in such modern poets as Hardy, Eliot, Stevens, Frost, Williams and Hart Crane.”
`Trope?’ Wikpedia to the rescue….
A literary trope is the use of figurative language, via word, phrase or an image, for artistic effect such as using a figure of speech. The word trope has also come to be used for describing commonly recurring literary and rhetorical devices, motifs or clichés in creative works.
Metalepsis is a figure of speech in which reference is made to something by means of another thing that is remotely related to it, either through a causal relationship, or through another figure of speech.
Of course, for some this is all going to sound a little too Dead, White and European……a far cry from the Gospel of John. But similar ideas about literature and poetry exist elsewhere(Asia, for example) ….and, thanks to the scholarship of Richard Hays and others we can pick up on this dynamic in the play of echoes in Biblical texts and stories.
Here is what John leaves us with at the end of in three
He foreshadows group tension as a theme with a story of smaller intergroup rivalry
We are reminded of John the Baptist’s secondary and diminishing role. John’s `moment in the sun/graceful exit stage left’ comes to us via a speech that includes references to weddings and property transfer.
We will see how all this connects to the story of Jesus meeting the woman by the well.