Adele Berlin on “Perceptibility” of Parallelism

I haven’t posted in a while – partly due to my little jaunt to Kauai and back – so I thought I’d dive back in with a great paragraph I read by Adele Berlin in her book The Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism. In her linguistic description of the phenomena of parallelism in poetry Berlin notes a problem: “In order for parallelism to serve the poetic function – to focus on the message for its own sake – it must be perceptible. . . . But since perceptibility is to some extent subjective, it is never easy to decide what is perceptible and why or how it is perceived” (Dynamics, pg. 130).

Berlin then has a very intriguing paragraph on “perceptibility” and how it relates to interest and informativity. While I haven’t thought too much about how this might tie in with the perspicuity of scripture, there might be something to tease out in this regard.

Here’s the quote:

I have used “perceptibility” as a rough equivalent of “ease of processing,” that is, ease in recognizing the existence of a parallelism. But east of cognitive processing is not always the highest desideratum of literature, especially poetry. For, as textlinguists have noted, something processed easily, which matches the reader’s knowledge or expectation perfectly, possesses low “informativity” and is therefore devoid of “interest”. . . . Informativity may relate to factual knowledge of the world or to linguistic expectation. When a poem reverses normal syntax, its level of informativity rises, and it becomes correspondingly more interesting. If we apply this to parallelism we see that, for instance, changing the surface structure of a parallel line makes it more interesting, so that while Ps 61:2 may be more perceptible, Ps 102:2 is more interesting. For this reason the principles that I have enunciated here are often violated: exact repetition and identical surface structure are avoided in favor of a variety of equivalent forms of expression. In the most interesting parallelisms even the deep structure of the lines may be different. It is also my feeling that the lack of correspondence among aspects of parallelism . . . and the resulting tension is calculated to raise the level of interest. The extra bit of effort required to process such parallelisms is rewarded by their higher level of interest. A text must create a balance between informativity and ease of processing.

Dynamics, pgs. 134-35.

This interesting tension between interest and ease of understanding seems like it can reach far beyond parallelism in poetry and can extend into entire genres of the Biblical text. What might this do with some of the more difficult passages in Paul or even the book of Revelation? How about the creation account? Just because a text is interpreted in a more “difficult” way (sort of like the lectio difficilior applied beyond text criticism into hermeneutics!) does not in and of itself mean that it is interpreted in the wrong way. Though we prefer to assume that writers have the most simple meaning in mind (after all, that makes the interpretive task easier), Berlin’s approach seems to indicate that our assumptions are wrong if we apply this across the board. After all, ambiguity is a proper prosodic and poetic tool, used by writers to heighten interest. Prov 1.6 even tells us that it is wisdom that will help us to understand the enigmas and riddles that are in Proverbs; enigmas and riddles that can also be found elsewhere in God’s word! I’m struck that critical scholars so often miss the boat here in their haste to label as “error” or “contradiction” what might instead be an intentionally challenging (and therefore more interesting) reading!

Following E.J. Young, we do well to not downplay the interpretive difficulties that particular passages pose. But rather than throwing up our hands in despair, we can embrace some of these things noting the delight that “wrestling” with the ambiguities given to us – a delight that is missed if the text is too easily processed!

R. Andrew Compton
Christ Reformed Church (URCNA)
Anaheim, CA