Review of Stock on Textentfaltungen

by Vern S. Poythress

[Published in the Westminster Theological Journal 43/1 (Fall 1980): 189. Used with permission.]

Alex Stock: Textentfaltungen. Semiotische Experimente mit einer biblischen Geschichte. Düsseldorf: Patmos Verlag, 1978. 174. DM 25.


Alex Stock’s book conducts an experimental investigation of a multitude of “unfoldings” of the text Luke 15:11–32, the Parable of the Lost Son. In his exploration Stock uses a creative fusion of insights from structural semiotics, hermeneutical theory, and literary theory. The title of the book would suggest a dominant interest in a structuralist approach to narrative. But Stock’s use of structuralist theory is neither mechanical nor wooden. It is stimulating and flexible, tempered by artistic sensitivity. Discussions of theoretical distinctions alternate with applications. The applications concern not only the original text of the Parable but what later preachers and expositors do with the Parable (retellings of the Parable). The resulting exposition is stimulating and suggestive, but difficult to imitate.

One striking feature of Stock’s approach is his decision to treat the original text Luke 15:11–32 on a common level with later “retellings” of the story. He asks, for instance, what happens when the context indicated in Luke 15:1–2 is omitted from a retelling, or when the part about the elder brother in 15:23–32 is omitted. What kind of “transformations” are taking place when the story is alluded to in prayer (pp. 81-91), when it is converted into the artistic form of a drama (pp. 91-107), when it is retold with a shift in the coloring, the identity, or the circumstances of the characters (pp. 107-116)? What happens when the story is depicted in visual form (pp. 119-150) ? Examples illustrate each of these questions.

In Stock’s view, the full significance of the story is to be seen in comparing it not only with its retellings, but also with other stories of departures, of returns, of murmurings, of finds, and of resurrections (pp. 153-171). As in some other twentieth-century hermeneutical approaches, the meaning of Luke 15:11–32, it appears, dissolves itself into a star-like network of relationships to other homologous stories. Each new retelling unfolds the significance in a different direction. The book thus raises a pointed question for the conventional interpreter: can he acknowledge and appreciate the insights Stock provides, and still hold on to a stable “given” grammatical-historical meaning?

Vern Sheridan Poythress
Westminster Theological Seminary,

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