Bakhtin and Preaching

The following essay emerged from my oral exams in my PhD program.

The Various Uses of Bakhtin’s Theories in Contemporary Analyses of the Pedagogy of Preaching

I did not find any articles relating to the pedagogy of preaching as it relates to Bakhtin.  Stern (1995) reports that little has been written on the pedagogy of preaching under any category.  In my experience, teachers of preaching are often selected because they happen to be good preachers in the pulpit.  Often these professors have been trained in another field (e.g., communications, New Testament, Systematic Doctrine, etc.).  The following essay relates an embryonic understanding of Bakhtin.  Much of the discussion is the third part of Question 3.  I offer these utterances as a beginning of a grounded theory that will set a conceptual framework for future reflection and research.

Bakhtin lived his life in opposition to the notion of a single truth.  He employs dialogue as a key to understanding our world.  Everyone is engaged in a dialogue with the voices of the past and the voices of the future.  Clark & Holquist (1984) demonstrate how this dialogic concept has been adopted by many ideologies and perspectives.  Bakhtin has become the endorser, father, and advocate of various competing and contrary ideologies.

Language is not understood in a general, singular or unitary sense; it is always defined in terms of diversity and change-ability: languages, multiple voices, heteroglossia.  Language is never unity, says Bakhtin; actual social life and historical becoming create a multitude of concrete worlds, a multitude of bounded verbalideological and social belief systems (Casey, 1993).

The plurality of social situations creates a multiplicity of languages.  Like society, a language is stratified not only into dialects in the strict sense of the word, but also into professions or generations.  This stratification and diversity of speech will spread wider and penetrate to even deeper levels as long as a language is alive and still in the process of becoming.

The meaning of meaning finds many definitions.  Some desire to locate meaning in the author and authorial intent (Hirsch, 1967).  Others choose different paths such as deconstruction or reader response where meaning is located in the reader.  Some choose middle ground in the text.  Bakhtin engages all these paths at different points desiring to have a conversation.  He gives primacy of the utterance in context and focuses on the intentional negotiation of meaning and interpretation between author and reader.  For Bakhtin, criticism must maintain that the meaning of literary works depends on the historical situation of the text, the social situation of the reader, and the complex interaction generated by the act of reading (Bizzell & Herzberg, 1990).  These authors suggest that dialogue is the “real” location of meaning for Bakhtin.  Although Bakhtin places great emphasis on linguistic meaning as the sphere of our existence, I wonder about the use of the word “real” in Bakhtin’s vocabulary.  Bakhtin mediates the formal restriction of language with the freedom and openness found in the context of communication.  Therefore, Bakhtin recognizes the speaker’s or writer’s rhetorical intention to move the audience to action while maintaining the audience’s active role in interpreting utterances in order to reply.  This interchange is seen in the speaker’s or writer’s awareness of the audience’s role in reading or hearing.

There are no isolated individuals, for the continual constitution and reconstitution of any world-view is inextricably bound up with its relationship to other world-views, (in a system of intertextuality); all language is essentially social.  Each word tastes of the context and contexts in which it has lived in its socially charged life.”  The living utterance, having taken meaning and shape at a particular historical moment in a socially specific environment, cannot fail to brush up against thousands of living dialogic threads, woven by socio-ideological consciousness around the given object of an utterance; it cannot fail to become an active participant in social dialogue.  Must understand texts in terms of their immediate context.  No utterance in general can be attributed to the speaker exclusively; it is the product of the interactions of the interlocution, and broadly speaking, the product of the whole complex social situation in which it occurred.   Within such a community there are words only known to those who belong to the same social horizon and are termed, “passwords.”  Passwords are common verbal patterns within narratives of each particular social group (Casey, 1994).

Intersections of discourses occur between differing interpretive communities.  Bakhtin calls this a social dialect (Popular Memory Group¾general cultural repertoire; West¾discourse; Gramsci¾collective subjective; Fish¾interpretive community).  In his relational analysis, however, while various social discourses have areas of divergence, they do not exclude, but rather intersect with each other, as they encounter each other in small and larger scale social interactions, and as they struggle over meaning (Casey, 1996).

Ugolnik (1990) states the multiple layers of the discourse found in the novel is also found in narratives.  “In the cacophony and intersection of voices is the raw material of the artist.  The diglossia or ‘man-languaged’ nature of humanity, is the medium of the artist in modernity out of our multiple pluralism, the novelist draws voices and enlists them in the act of dialogic ‘becoming’” (143).  See intertextuality in question 4.

Those disempowered people in society have a language and a voice that is often silenced by the elite.  This group needs to have a voice for their perspective is essential for us to have an awareness of reality.  They are equal speakers and interpreters alongside the dominate culture.   The ruling class has a vested interest in maintaining univocity and the appearance of univocity as a naturally occurring phenomenon.  Struggles between two or more social languages are often muted, obscured, or even censored.  Casaregola and Farrar (1996) emphasize the social implications and moral consequences of all discourse in Bakhtin’s perspective.  Bakhtin encourages the one who utters to take responsibility for the utterance as it engages a context in dialogue.  This perspective gives rise to using Bakhtin in the sphere of Christian ethics (seen below).

Lindsey (1993) connects Bakhtin to Liberation Theology.  The carnival of words serves as a social critical voice to turn the dominant religious discourse upside down.  He notes that not every discourse is equal, but every view does have a point of view.  Just because one voice is louder, does not mean it needs to be heard above others.

Language in the ordinary dialogue of the day is overpopulated with the intentions of others, expropriating it, forcing it to submit to one’s own intentions and accents is a difficult and complicated process.  Dominate culture steals words and uses them for their own devices¾ a co-opting language (Casey, 1994).  Bakhtin uses the word “carnival” to characterize the reversal that language can create in the world.  Meaning can be turned on its head by polyphony.  This will be illustrated below in the African American use of signifying.   Carnival is the dynamic of the unpredictable way an utterance interacts with readers.  The social carnival surrounding textual reception must be part of the interpretive act.  The upheaval occurs due to the heteroglossic nature of the text and the phenomenon that readers are constructed out of many contending and overlapping communities of belief, education, politics, occupations, etc.

Bakhtin’s prosaics focuses on the chaos of life and the appreciation of disorder.  Bakhtin was suspicious of systems that would impose hierarchy and organizational order.  Totalitarian systems monologically endeavored to organize and explain reality by one system.  Bizzell & Herzberg (1990) contend that since Hegel, influential theological and philosophical schemas have tried to create unity, universality, and identity.  Plurality and difference was considered second class.  Bakhtin, however, desired to mediate otherness and difference through the act of dialogue.  Bakhtin explored the territory between addresser and addressee.  An example of this latter mediation is seen in Ugolnik (1984) where the author confesses his own alienation toward orthodox religion and his attraction to Marxism.  He uses Bakhtin to mediate Christianity and Marxism.  He states that wholeness in incomplete in the self.  Dialogue creates the dynamic of belonging and community which can be realized on a global scale.

There is no closure nor a first word or a last word in dialogue.  Even meanings in dialogues of the remotest past will never be finally grasped once and for all, for they will always be renewed in later dialogue.  Subsequently, there is no closure in the past or the future.  Monologue, on the other hand, is bi-modal.  Everything is right or wrong, left or right, innocent or guilty.  The destruction of the opponent becomes the task of monologue.  A singular voice will reflect the ideology of the individual or society.  The speaker and the text are found in isolation.  Meaning is found in an independent system.  Utterances are pure symbols simply reflecting something else (Bizzell & Herzberg, 1990).  Dialogue honors the other.  Destruction of the opponent will also destroy the place where the word lives.  Multiple voices need to be heard.  We can only live and grow as we learn to listen to diverse voices and to engage in discourse with others.  Our purpose is not to control or conquer but to engage in joint inquiry.  Diverse and competing voices engaging in a polyphonic dialogue will form a complex yet growing community.

There has been much written on Bakhtin’s connections with the Russian Orthodox Church, Christianity, and God (Bizzell & Herzberg, 1990; Emerson, 1990; Morson & Emerson, 1990; Clark & Holquist, 1984; Lock, 1991; Lindsey, 1993).  Uglnik (1990) argues forcefully that all of Bakhtin can be understood in terms of his Christian faith.  Another example of an ideology drafting Bakhtin to serve personal aims.  Lindsey cautions readers of seeing too much in the connections made about Bakhtin and religion because so many see Bakhtin only through their own personal lens.

Ugolnik notes, “how crucial the silences are in our lives¾how crucial the censor and the lapses and to the meaning that emerges.  Bakhtin’s early discourse was explicitly Christian in it terms, unabashedly theological in its assertions” (135).  He contends the silences in Bakhtin’s later career are due to the dominant discourse prevalent in Russia at the time.  Therefore, Bakhtin exiled God from his discourse, becoming secular in his writings, ever realizing God cannot be so easily suppressed.

The primary connection for Uglnik between Bakhtin and Christian discourse is found in Russian liturgy.  At the heart of this liturgy is a communal language that has always been opposed to the privatization and individuation of religion.  The communal language can be illustrated by the relational aspect of the trinity that becomes a model of the self that is not autonomous.  Consciousness should be seen as a social phenomenon that takes shape and being in the material of signs created by an organized group in the process of social intercourse.  In the past, the Russian formalists had sought for the uniqueness of insight of the author of a text.   They desired to isolate the text from context.  They separated literary language from ordinary language.  However, Bakhtin finds meaning as a process that is perpetually in a state of becoming.  Meaning does not find full realization in the text nor outside the text.  Closure does not come at the beginning nor the end.  Also the text is not self-contained in the reader.  Dialogue is a continuing process.  When dialogue ceases, so too existence.  Bakhtin argues for a plurality of voices that continually shape and alter the perception of others.  Language can only be understood as dialogue.  Structural linguistics and literary stylistics fail to account for the roles of intention, interpretation, context, etc. in the creation of meaning (Bizzell & Herzberg, 1990).

Examples of using Bakhtin in biblical studies:

It was just a matter of time before Bakhtin’s theories would be applied to the Bible.  Bakhtin is primarily used in biblical studies as just one more source for a hermeneutical tool.  The most comprehensive text to date is Reed’s text which follows the shift from poetry to narrative in literary studies of the Bible.  The traditional narrative research emphasized a univocal structure in the text.  A single authorial consciousness presided over the text with specific purpose and intent.  Each passage contained a plot with a definite beginning, middle, and end (rooted in Phaedrus where Socrates calls for closure at both ends of the time continuum).  The text also will contain characters whose individual fates, whether realistic or symbolic, are freely chosen or predetermined, and are primary determinants of the action of the text as a whole.  McCracken (1993) finds the key of dialogism in what happens between characters.  Often, the action is unresolved and the reader does not find closure in the text.

Consequently, Reed can be seen as a mediator between the fragmentary approaches of the historical method and the thematizing of the theological approach.  Reed interrogates both tendencies.  The centrifugal tendencies (univocal) of historical analysis disseminates meaning outward into a multiplicity of isolated centers.  The centripetal tendencies (polyvocal) of theological interpretation seeks to bring unity of voice and theme by gathering meaning into a univocal core even when difference is damaged by exposing a single more powerful and louder voice.  Bakhtin sees these tendencies in all texts (the tension between unity and diversity).

Reed proposes to utilize Bakhtin’s dialogic techniques to see familiar stories from another perspective.   The Bible is seen as a variety of dialogues formally encoded in the scriptures in a canonical state.  Previously, opposing monologic forces were one-sided and incapable of grasping the radically dialogic nature of all human utterance.  These past methods of interpretation created opposing traditional approaches to interpretation.  Accepting Bakhtin’s dialogue as a linguistic precondition of all communication, Reed demonstrates that there is a dialogue between stories rather than any archetype narrative structure.  He contends the heterogeneous textuality of the different genre forms in the Bible is better served by a model of dialogue or story and counter-story.   Therefore, the Bible provides an example of the way discourse arises and takes its meaning from the intersecting of contextual and linguistic boundaries.

Bakhtin’s approach negotiates between unity and multiplicity.  Reed discerns that throughout the Bible there are recurrent forms and coherent patterns in conversations between God and his people.

Reed’s approach provides a reader of the Bible with several advantages.  To see the different voices in the text as a symptom of struggles acted out within the text brings new perspectives to age old questions.  When the interpreter acknowledges different historical layers, different voices, the living tradition of the canon becomes apparent.  Stories are retold, reframed, and redeployed.   Different layers of tradition are dialogic revoicing of the present concerns of the people of God.  Stories are repeated, but with a difference.    Therefore, Reed brings the entire Bible under the umbrella of God having a dialogue with his people.

Reed uses the stories of Abraham and Isaac as a point of comparison with Ishmael.  Both stories speak of sacrificing a son.  How do these stories, often taken in isolation, engage each other in dialogue.  The approach of dialogue between stories sets Reed’s approach apart from the narrative criticism that insists on a univocal structure.  Therefore, by juxtaposition of story with story provides new insights.  Other chapters deal with the primeval prologue, Gospels, law, prophesy, wisdom, Job, and Revelation.

Polzin (1984) and Levine (1992) do similar type hermeneutical analysis of Psalms and 1 Samuel respectively.

Bakhtin is also used in Christian ethics.  An example of this category is clearly seen in Cartwright’s work (1992).  Cartwright identifies two approaches to ethics: formalists and particularists.  He contends that both approaches are unable to address the questions of historical interpretation and modern culture as they relate to ideology.  Bakhtin’s dialogic methods provides Cartwright with a framework to mediate these positions.

Peterson (1993) explores the double voicedness of Black American writing and demonstrates how the utterances of this cultural group exhibits Bakhtin’s dialogic framework.  Language, discourses, and narratives are culturally produced.  Many voices share together a common story of a people.  Furthermore, the story is contextually interpreted by community.  Meaning can neither be created, understood, or presented except within community.  L. Gates is the primary example of Peterson.

Hale (1994) uses DuBois as an example of dialogic discourse in the African American setting.  He maintains you cannot abstract language from the social matrix that produced the utterance.  Language exhibits a double consciousness that is socially constructed.  Bakhtin parallels a social constructionist view where knowledge is socially constructed.  Discourse communities (e.g., African Americans) will, in Bakhtin’s sphere, construct a reality and knowledge system that is their own.  Groups will draw upon the linguistic resources available with their culture in order to constitute localized realities.  Because all discourse is rhetorical in nature, the way we validate statements is in the persuasiveness of statements within a particular community (opposed to individuals who claim to encounter the world directly and use language to describe their encounter).  Therefore, reality is not seen in the correspondence of ideas to objects and events or in the faculties of the mind or in some set of natural laws.  Plato attacked the sophists for similar views.  The language also displays a socialized ambivalence as it is employed.  Connections are made by Hale to Bakhtin in understanding Black identity as determined by social identity.  Knowledge, therefore, is intersubjective (contra Aristotle).

Both Hale and Peterson can serve as conceptual frameworks for my dissertation.  I am desiring to explore the pedagogy of preaching among African Americans.  Although these articles did not directly address preaching, their contribution to an emerging theory is valuable.  I would suggest that a possible direction is to see how the black community understands preaching as an utterance of the community and not the individual.  Preaching the shared story by saying what others have said, will say, or wish they could say.

Although I discovered other articles that indirectly related Bakhtin to religious studies, none directly addressed preaching.  There were articles that addressed the pedagogy of Bakhtin which I included in the discussion of question 2.  Again, these articles on pedagogy suggest possible frames for an emerging theory that could be overheard in my dissertation.

Works Cited

Bizzell, P. & Herzberg, B.  (1990).  The rhetorical tradition: Readings from classical times to the present.  Boston: Bedford Books.

Cartwright, M. G.  (1992).  The uses of Scripture in Christian ethics¾after Bakhtin.  The Annual of the Society of Christian Ethics.  Washington: Georgetown University Press.

Casey, K.  (1993).  I answer with my life: Life histories of women teachers working for social change.  New York: Routledge.

Casey, K.  (1996).  Class notes.

Clark, K. & Holquist, M.  (1984). Mikhail Bakhtin.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Emerson, C.  (1990).  Russian Orthodoxy and the early Bakhtin.  Religion and Literature, 22, 109-131.

Enos, T.  (1996).  Encyclopedia of rhetoric and composition: Communication from ancient times to the information age.  New York: Garland.

Hale, D. J.  (1994).  Bakhtin in African American literary theory.  ELH, 61, 445-471.

Hirsch, E. D. Jr. (1967).  Validity in interpretation. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Klancher, J.  (1989).  Bakhtin’s rhetoric.  In Reclaiming pedagogy: The rhetoric of the classroom.  Edited by P. Donahue.  Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

Levine, H.  (1992).  The dialogic discourse of Psalms.  In Hermeneutics, the Bible and literary criticism. Edited by A. Loades.

Lindsey, W. D.  (1993).  “The problem of great time”: A Bakhtinian ethics of discourse.  Journal of Religion, 73, 311-328.

Lock, C.  (1991).  Carnival and incarnation: Bakhtin and orthodox theology.  Literature and Theology, 5, 68-82.

McCracken, D.  (1993).  Character in the boundary: Bakhtin’s interdividuality in biblical narratives.  Semeia, 63, 29-42.

Morson, G. S. & Emerson, C.  (1990).  Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a prosaics.  Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Morson, G. S. & Emerson, C.  (eds.).  (1989).  Rethinking Bakhtin: Extensions and challenges.  Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Peterson, D. E.  (1993).  Response and call? The African American dialogue with Bakhtin.  American Literature, 65, 761-775.

Polzin, R.  (1985).  The speaking person and his voice in 1 Samuel.  Salamanca.. Edited by J. Emerton.

Reed, W. L.  Dialogues of the Word: The Bible as literature according to Bakhtin.

Stern, R. (1995).  The pedagogy of preaching.  Concise encyclopedia of preaching.  Edited by W. H. Willimon & R. Lischer.  Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press.

Ugolnik, A.  (1984).  The art of belonging.  Religion and Intellectual Life, 1, 113-127.

Ugolnik, A.  (1990).  Textual liturgics: Russian orthodoxy and recent literary criticism.  Religion and Literature, 22, 133-154.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.