Monday, March 20, 2006

reader-response theory

We heard a sermon yesterday about sin and grace, appropriate topics for Lent. Or, really, any time. So the preacher told a story about when he was a kid and stole comic books from the corner drugstore/soda fountain. ("Must have been the olden days," Nick later commented. Ouch. That hurt.) Nick, who was not sitting with me but was in fact up front, buried in his own comic book (actually an anthology of Superman comics from the library) looked up when he heard the word comic book, and seemed to be paying close attention throughout this part of the sermon. The preacher went on to say his dad caught him with his stash, and marched him back down to the drugstore to confess to the owner. "Longest walk of my life," the preacher said. The drugstore owner, as expected, gave him a little talking-to about stealing. But then he asked him "what's your favorite kind of sundae?" The preacher said he didn't really understand the question, but finally admitted that yes, he loved hot fudge sundaes. So the drugstore owner proceeded to make him a hot fudge sundae: "the sundae of grace," the preacher said, "the sundae of redemption, the sundae of forgiveness." He can still taste it now.

I asked Nick later what he thought the story was about. "It's about how it's bad to steal," he said promptly. He knows how sermons are supposed to work, after all. Then he thought for a minute. "But you could say it's good to steal, because when he did, he got a hot fudge sundae."

This is why I tell my students authorial intention is only part of the story; once the reader/listener gets involved, all bets are off.

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