Positioning Readers with Perspective (Acts 13:4–12)

Gary Yamasaki’s model of perspective criticism consists of six planes of point of view, one of which is the “informational plane" (Perspective Criticism, 54–68). Building on the work of Sternberg's Poetics, Yamasaki argues that when the information database of a reader and the information database of a character “converge" on the “informational axis"—i.e., reader and character have the same information about the context of the scene portrayed in the narrative—the implied reader is more apt to “merge" or feel a sense of empathy with a character or characters in the scene (Perspective Criticism, 55). Conversely, when the implied reader knows more or less information than a character, the result is “divergence," and the implied reader would feel “a sense of distance from the character" and would be less likely to align with that character (Perspective Criticism, 55).
One of my research interests as a discourse analyst is how language users—for this discussion, narrators—utilize the information plane both to express her or his own “stance(s)" and, as a consequence of that expression, to sway others to take up the same position. “Stance," as used here, is about “bonding," about creating community around a set or sets of shared values by means of investing attitude in activities and things (cf. Martin and White, Language of Evaluation, 211). Expressions of stance, although often projected without much calculated thought, are intended to generate a “sympathetic resonance" (an analogy from the physics of sound) among an intended audience, in which case the readers/hearers, because the stance “resonates with them," align with or adopt the same stance the language user has expressed. Of course, attitudinal reverberations sometimes result in antipathy rather than sympathy or empathy, as when sound waves of different frequencies can “crash" into one another resulting in dissonance. In such cases a narrator’s stance may be rejected by the actual hearers/readers.
One way narrators utilize the information plane to position readers is by supplying bits of information about a character that may positively or negatively bias a reader’s evaluation of that character. Doing so typically creates in the mind of the implied reader(s) a certain expectation(s) regarding the character’s actions and motives as the scene unfolds (cf. Perspective Criticism, 56–57). Consider, for example, Acts 13:4–12. Saul/Paul (hereafter, Paul) and Barnabas (don’t forget “John"!) have traveled to the Island of Cyprus and, starting at Salamis, have journeyed through the entire island proclaiming the word of God (vv. 4–6a). The missionaries eventually arrive at Paphos (v. 6b), at which point the narrator slows the story by introducing two additional characters, Bar-Jesus/Elymas (hereafter Elymas [cf. v. 8] and Sergius Paulus (vv. 6b, 7).
The latter character, Sergius Paulus, is identified as the proconsul (ἀνθύπατος) and is appraised as “an intelligent man" (ἀνδρὶ συνετῷ) (v. 7). He summons Paul and Barnabas because “he sought to hear the word of God" (v. 7). Despite its brevity, this information, an action that betokens an appraisal and evokes among the implied readers a positive view of the character, sets an expectation among the readers that he will be receptive to the word of God. I find more interesting and important, however, the way Elymas is presented because he is both more prominent and a more central a character in the story than the proconsul. The narrator provides the readers with information that, as far as one can tell, Paul and Barnabas did not know: Elymas is both a sorcerer (μάγον) and a Jewish false prophet (ψευδοπροφήτην Ἰουδαῖον) (v. 6). Both of these epithets are likely to have carried a negative connotation from the perspective of a Jesus-follower (cf. Malina and Pilch, Social-Science Commentary on the Book of Acts, 90). Being privy to this information creates the expectation that conflict will likely arise between Elymas and Paul, and that Elymas will likely turn out to be utterly powerless over against Paul, who is empowered by the Holy Spirit (v. 9). This information also provides a glimpse of the narrator’s stance. As the story moves on, the readers’ expectations are confirmed. At v. 8, Elymas is said to have resisted (ἀνθίστατο) Paul and Barnabas, “trying to detract the proconsul from [the] faith" (ζητῶν διαστρέψαι τὸν ἀνθύπατον ἀπὸ τῆς πίστεως). Because of the negative epithets in v. 6 (and in light of Luke’s positive view of conversion to “the faith" to this point in Acts), Elymas’s action would likely evoke negative judgment among the implied readers.
Any negative judgment of Elymas among the readers is legitimated by Paul’s quite strong denunciation of Elymas at v. 10:
Ὦ πλήρης παντὸς δόλου καὶ πάσης ῥᾳδιουργίας, υἱὲ διαβόλου, ἐχθρὲ πάσης δικαιοσύνης, οὐ παύσῃ διαστρέφων τὰς ὁδοὺς [τοῦ] κυρίου τὰς εὐθείας;
O son of the devil who is full of every kind of treachery and every kind of unscrupulous behavior, enemy of everything that is just, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord? (my translation)
Here Paul launches into a bout of social name-calling for the purpose of degrading the social status of Elymas to that of a deviant (cf. Malina and Neyrey, “Conflict in Luke–Acts," 107 [more on this in a future blog post]). For our purpose here, it is interesting to note that just before Paul verbally berates Elymas, the narrator gives the reader a bit more information: Paul speaks (εἶπεν [v. 10]) while (because? as a result? [the circumstantial participle πλησθείς could be interpreted as indicating cause or result]) “being full of the Holy Spirit" (πλησθεὶς πνεύματος ἁγίου). This accomplishes at least two things in terms of reader positioning. First, it positions readers so that they will not negatively judge Paul’s berating speech. In a way, it is the Holy Spirit (i.e., God) who judges Elymas and not Paul as is confirmed by Elymas being struck blind (v. 11). In fact, Paul may have experienced an alternate state of consciousness here (note the use of ἀτενίζω in v. 9 [cf. Malina and Pilch, *Social-Science Commentary on the Book of Acts*, 90–91]) and, thus, coming completely under the control of the Spirit. This is difficult to prove, however.
A second thing this information does is to prepare the readers to interpret Elymas in a particularly negative way. Knowing that Paul is full of the Holy Spirit predisposes readers to think that Elymas will be devoid of the Holy Spirit. In an interesting and powerful twist, rather than contrasting Paul and Elymas the narrator compares the two characters. That is, both Paul and Elymas are described as being full of something rather than Paul being full and Elymas being empty. Moreover, the narrator leaves it to Paul (or the Holy Spirit) to say what Elymas is full of—and it is not good: “every kind of treachery and every kind of unscrupulous behavior" (παντὸς δόλου καὶ πάσης ῥᾳδιουργίας). The result of the readers being given this tidbit from the information plane is that, in a manner of speaking, the narrator protects Paul from any negative judgment from the readers, but Elymas is set up to receive the readers’ negative criticism (assuming compliant readers [cf. Martin, “Reading Positions/Positioning Readers"]).
As always, there is much more that could be said about this text and the models used to interpret it, but, alas!, this post is getting a little on the long side. Nevertheless, I hope you have seen the value of discourse analysis that is grounded on Systemic-Functional Linguistics and informed by Perspective Criticism. I welcome your feedback; use the comment section below to post your thoughts and/or questions.
Blessings . . .
[Many thanks to two of my colleagues at Oklahoma Christian University, Mr. Mark Thompson, instructor of Physics and Astronomy, and Chris Rosser, Theological Librarian, for proofing this post before I posted it. They helped me make the post much better!]
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