Saturday, September 5, 2009

Historical Criticism meets "Panda in the Park"

I am currently reading Craig Keener's commentary on the book of John. More accurately, I am reading the INTRODUCTION to his commentary on John - all 363 pages of it. How is it possible, you ask (at least I did!), to write that much without getting to the text itself? Allow me to illustrate with one of Easton's current favorites, Panda in the Park. It does not contain the usual authorial designation on the cover, which raises a number of questions. Was this book written anonymously? Was the text of the book merely generated by the publisher, indicating that readers should not expect a high degree of rhetorical style? Was the author's name accidentally excised from the original manuscript? Do we have access to other surviving copies of this work? Are those copies similarly anonymous? An important preliminary question, of course is the nature of literature from the period in which we assume this book to have been written. Did children's books from this period normally indicate authorship? If we can ascertain the location of the publishing house, this too could shed light on our project. Perhaps a regional preference for anonymity in children's literature could be demonstrated. Better yet, have any subsequent works quoted from this book? Do those works give us any ideas about who the original readers assumed the author to have been?

In the course of our very exhaustive analysis of every available source of information about this book and others written in its time, we make a startling discovery. The BACK cover of this book includes the following designation: "Written by Anna Milbourne". We find this fascinating. Now we have a hypothesis which we can test. How reliable is this designation? That remains to be seen. In the absence of any other specific proof of authorship (either internal or external), we must return to hypothetical reconstruction of the milieu in which the book was written. We are aware of the possibility of ghostwriting and even pseudonymity. To what degree was either practiced during this period? We find that ghostwritten books did account for a surprising percentage of sales during this book's publication, but in every case the author listed on the cover was well known. This spawns a host of other questions. Have any other works been attributed to Anna Milbourne? Were they widely distributed? Would the average reader have recognized her name as an author? Does the genre, vocabulary and style of this book significantly overlap other works proportedly written by Anna Milbourne? Can we verify that she was even alive when this book was published? If not, is there a plausible explanation for its posthumous publication?

As you can see, writing an introduction which well exceeds the length of the work itself (in our case 49 words exclusive of the title) without actually commenting on the text is not as difficult as it may sound. And these are merely the questions which need to be addressed; we haven't even hinted at the answers! However, in the absence of any strong supporting evidence to the contrary, we will probably conclude that Anna did, indeed, write the book entitled, Panda in the Park, as John likely wrote the gospel that bears his name. As Keener thoroughly demonstrates, no compelling evidence exists to exclude the possibility that he was the author. And the best evidence we do have points to him.

By now it should be abundantly clear how much this reading of Keener has enhanced my role as reader of bedtime stories to my little ones. In case it's not obvious, I will put it plainly. A book which for years has brought delight to my children, now intrigues me as well. As I recite its lines over and over from memory, my mind can engage with more fascinating questions which previously did not occur to me. And such a small price to pay!

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