Tag Archives: narrative criticism

The Brothers Grimm: Storytellers and Scholar-Activists

A short fairytale that may or may not be based on a true story: There once was an eight-year old boy who grew up to have a couple of brothers. This was the time before he was have a sister as well. First his birthday, he and a family member went to see Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Later that year, he and one of his brothers joined a group of kids to take a trip to the same movie theater. It was there, that the decision was between Babe Ruth (1991) or Beauty and the Beast again. The boys’ parents had told the two brothers to stay together and go to see the same film. One was interested in Babe Ruth’s story; the other, wanted to see B&B again. The boys went their separate ways, and when the parents’ found out, the brothers were reprimanded. Years later, one boy became a bandwagon Yankee fan, and the other, an aspiring scholar obsessed with story, fantasy and a strong critic of Disney movies.

Who were the Brothers’ Grimm? What was their inspiration? Were their stories original? For a few years now, there have been “re-tellings” of familiar fairytales, Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella. NBC’s new drama GRIMM began to pique my curiosity for the source of the stories. When I Googled “The Brothers’ Grimm” and religion, I found some perplexing answers. So, I decided during the Thanksgiving holiday break to do some research.

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were born in Hanau, Germany in 1785 and 1786, nearly a century before the unification of the Prussian provinces. The boys had come from a long line of German Protestant clergy; this is why in the Grimm household, education was of the utmost importance. School for Jacob was much easier than for Wilhelm, but both boys were studious. Their lessons included logic, ethics, French, Greek, Latin, and philosophy by the time what is now considered to be junior high in contemporary U.S. American culture. They attended the University of Marburg, tuition free, despite the fact that they were the sons of a city administrative official all because their mother wrote a letter for an exemption. (See, higher education has always had class barriers). Jacob became renowned for studying Germanic law and comparative linguistics, Wilhelm for his contribution to literature from the Medieval Ages. The Brothers Grimm, originally employed at a library, eventually were hired at the University of Gottingen. Ernst August of Cumberland took over Gottigen, and with one move, dissolved the Constitution, depriving professors of their rights to academic freedom and free speech. Inspired by none other than Martin Luther, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm make political speeches in front of students protesting this tyrannical act. Their reward? Along with 7 other professors, they were canned! The Grimms felt it was their Christian duty to speak for human rights, even if it was contrary to the will of the king.

While the Grimms’ were fascinated with democracy and German Romanticism, they were more interested in the culture of the Volk (pop culture, if you will). The German masses passed down wisdom through the ages, and the Grimms, with a team of writers went from village to village (at times) record fairy tales to have them published. According to certain accounts, the Grimm Brothers’ preferred variation, for not each fairytale was told the same way. Also, Jacob, ever the cultural linguist, desired to have editions of fairy tales from other cultures as well (the Scottish version of Cinderella, the French, etc.). Folk tale traditions did not stop at German borders. Some folk tales were based off true crimes and stories. Others found their inspiration from Norse Mythology. It is this connection with the Nordic past that the folk community fell prey to Nazi propaganda. The Grimm Brothers’ legacy, unfortunately, has been soiled by Disney and Hitler. Each of the heroes from the Grimm Brothers’ tales were converted into loyal Germans to the Third Reich. The Brothers Grimm dreamed of a day when all cultures everywhere could share their stories with other cultures, a dialogical approach to national cultures if you will. The Nazis would have none of the Grimms’ virtue ethic, one of empathy, kindness, gentility, and charity.

Someday, one can hope, the legacy of the Brothers Grimm will be recovered. Someday, when we no longer have Nazis or Disney telling their stories.

For more information on the Brothers Grimm, I would see, The Brothers Grimm and Their Critics by Christa Kamenetsky.

Recapitulation in the Hebrew Bible: Esther & King Saul

It’s so funny how details get in the way of our traditional readings of Scripture sometimes. Especially those annoying books (not to me) like Judges.

Anyhow, I have been reading theological works that have begun a turn back to Irenaeus of Lyons’ doctrine of recapitulation. Literally, the word comes from a Greek term, meaning to finish an argument, sort of like a lawyer giving her closing arguments. Irenaeus meant to use this term for Jesus and Mary, his mother, who recapitulate the story of creation and Israel in their bodies– an excellent work on this is J. Kameron Carter’s “Prelude on Christology and Race” in his Race: A Theological Account.

Anyhow, rather than going to straight narrative interpretations of Scripture which falls into the trap of ideology occasionally, I thought to do an experiment with recapitulation in the Old Testament minus the Christo-centrisim (Hey, I love Jesus, don’t worry my Barthian friends).

For starters, if we look on a superficial level, the Masoteric (Hebrew) text for Esther does not mention God at all. On the other hand, 1st Samuel chapters 10-15, contain numerous references to God and YHWH. In the Septuagint, however, Esther LXX has a number of references to God (see, I told you all we need to bring back the LXX if we know what’s good for us).

However get this:

First of all, Saul and Esther are from the same tribe of Israel–1st Samuel 9:1-2 & Esther 2:5-7

Saul is chosen in scandal–Recall the horrific last chapter in Judges 21; the tribe of Benjamin is “saved” from extinction because the men are allowed to rape and force marriage upon the single women from Jabesh-Gilead.

Fast forward to how Esther was chosen as queen: basically the same thing, only in the form of a “beauty pageant” (2:12-14).

In this way, Esther is continuing the shameful legacy of the Benjaminite men. However, the story does not end there.

Saul offends YHWH with his heretical worship practices and therefore brings destruction on both himself and Israel (1st Samuel 13:13) while Esther and her fellow exiled Jews’ prayers please God as they (it is assumed but not clear in the MT) are saved by YHWH from destruction.

Destruction from whom you may ask? Haman, a descendent of the Amalekites who Saul spares (1st Samuel 15:8-9).

I think in this instance, without getting into Zionism, Christology or supersessionism, the theory of recapitulation can work in the instance of Esther and Saul, given the details we have of the stories.

Go figure! Leave it to a woman to redeem a tribe who had to bear that awful history of near extinction and rape/forced marriages.

Oh and let’s not forget in the least, that Saul and Esther come from a long line of werewolves (Genesis 49:27 NRSV)–okay, that was a joke, people.

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Sugi on Narrative Crticism

Recent trends on both the progressive and conservative side of Christian theology have pointed toward a tendency to time and again claim that Scripture is a grand story, and that should only be identified as such.  This claim tends be invoked uncritically with a Western gaze, and while I do not deny that much of the Christian canon has narrative elements in it, there are also laws, regulations, as well as real, historical persons who do not think and act like us.  The other day I came across a quote from R. S. Sugitharajah, a scholar of biblical studies who has retired in the U.K. in hisPostcolonial Reconfigurations: An Alternative Way of Reading the Bible and Doing Theology. From the essay, “Marketing the Testaments: Canongate and Their Pocket-sized Bibles”

“Is a literary approach really an important hermeneutical device or has it become a counterpart of the heritage industry,  an escapist activity which replaces an historical and praxilogical engagement with nostalgia? It may serve as a stimulus not for critical engagement but for luring readers into dreaming for a long lost imaginary idyllic past.”