vernon k. robbins, exploring the texture of texts

by Robert Brow   (web site -

(This is a review of Vernon K. Robbins, Exploring the Texture of Texts: A Guide to Socio-Rhetorical Interpretation. Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1996.)

Robbins uses the analogy of "thickly textured tapestry" (see Vernon K. Robbins, The Tapestry of Early Christian Discourse: Rhetoric, Society and Ideology. London: Routledge, 1996). The Bayeux tapestry, for example, was 231 feet long and portrayed 72 fascinating scenes in honour of William the Conqueror's invasion of England. Here, in a user-friendly book Robbins shows how the analogy can illuminate a book like Mark's Gospel.

A previous generation of New Testament scholars worked interminably at the background materials, the sources of the threads, the chemistry of the dyes, the groupings of those who stitched, and the sequence in which the components were assembled. But that method was frustrating for students who wanted to know what the tapestry was about and to commend it in their preaching.

Robbins offers us a radical model shift to look at the tapestry (in this case, the Gospel of Mark) as a work of art. What was in the mind of the artist can be looked at from various points of view. Robbins suggests we explore :

Each of these five headings is filled out in chapters that suggest how the text can be looked at from many different creative angles.

To see how Robbins method might work out in a class on Mark's Gospel there is a complete course outline, assignments, and grading system, posted on Professor Greg Bloomquist's web site <>.

The first set of assignments (by students willing to go public in digital -- others can present traditional hardcopy papers as usual) are posted for all the world to read. It must be awesome for those who for the first time see themselves in print and compared with the assignments of others! I was fascinated to read how 20 students had benefited from the method and in some cases given very helpful insights of their own -- I can't think why I never saw these things in Mark before! When I did NT studies the only importance of that Gospel was how it was used as a source for Luke and Matthew.

Every New Testament professor would do her/himself a favour by checking this out for a few minutes on the web site. If this model shift occurred in our seminaries, long suffering students would breathe a sigh of relief: "Now I see how I can work at my sermons every week. All I have to do is notice the multi-faceted riches of the tapestry of the Word of God."

Where do we go on from Robbins' book? He quotes David Davis' definition of ideology as "an integrated system of beliefs, assumptions, and values." But Robbins points out that ideology is not individual idiosyncrasy: "A person's ideology concerns his or her conscious or unconscious enactment of presuppositions, dispositions, and values held in common with other people." Presumably, the artist of the tapestry in Mark's Gospel shared an ideology in that sense.

As a preacher my interest is in commending a vision of Trinitarian Theism, and I assume that the artists who created the Gospels shared that vision (as opposed to commending, for example, original Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism, or Zen). That is why I preach from those Gospels and not from some Buddhist text or from the Bhagavad Gita. I admit I go further and also assume that the Bible is God's vast tapestry of books with that in mind.

Whether we survey the whole tapestry, or focus on one book, such as Mark's Gospel, I imagine that it is important to ask what effect this book has on the millions of people who read it and hear it in every country of the world. It is usually the first book translated by Wycliffe Bible translators. We would fault someone who read the Qur'an, or Mein Kampf, or the Communist Manifesto, or Ayn Rand's early books, and missed the fact that they each communicated an ideological vision. To explain such books without asking why they have a powerful effect would seem myopic. I hope Robbins and those who will develop this exciting model shift in New Testament studies will help students ask those questions.


SRA is the new word in New Testament studies. Socio relates to people in relationship to one another and to God. Rhetorical means using words to communicate. Analysis is breaking down an ancient text into smaller parts to bring out its meaning.

As stated previously Vernon Robbins has given us the fruitful image of "a thickly textured tapestry" (Exploring the Texture of Texts: A Guide to Socio-Rhetorical Interpretation, Valley Forge: Trinity Press, 1996). We view an ancient text, in our case one of the Gospels, as a tapestry.  Vernon Robbins gave us a method for interpreting the tapestry by paying attention to five kinds of texture : Inner Texture, Intertexture, Social and Cultural Texture, Ideological Texture and Social Texture.

An alternative model for grasping the meaning of a Gospel tapestry is suggested by Wittgenstein's explanation of how language works.


A tapestry consists of stitches.                             A gospel consists of words.
Stitches have no meaning.                                    Words have no inherent meaning.
The meaning of a stitch is its use.                          The meaning of a word is its use.
(Wittgenstein Investigations 43)
Stitches can have dozens of uses.                         Words can have dozens of uses.
Their meaning is in a pattern.                                Word meaning is in a language-game.
Patterns yield a motif.                                           Words describe or work in a form of life.
A big tapestry has many motifs.                            A Gospel pictures many forms of life.

In an ancient tapestry there will be various motifs such as a king receiving homage, knights fighting, flags, a marriage, a banquet, gifts being given. Similarly in the first chapter of Mark various forms of life are depicted such as baptizing, disciples being enrolled, teaching, healing, and demons being cast out.

If we are to understand a particular baptism form of life we need to learn the language games that the author takes for granted. Words such as water, repentance, sins, forgiveness, Spirit each have a different meaning

depending on the language-game in which they are used. Is it literal or metaphorical washing? Does repentance mean deep contrition, or a resolve to change, or turning to God for Him to do the changing?

But we also need to grasp why Mark chose to include that particular form of life in his Gospel. With a good writer the art is to include what is needed, and only what is needed, to make the point. In the case of the Gospels the point is to clarify what the good news is about, and elicit a response to that good news by the readers or hearers.

Every religious text has some kind of good news to communicate. But the intended response is very different in each kind of religion. An original Buddhist wants you to lose all desire. A Hindu Monist hopes you will learn to merge with the Absolute. A Confucian text require you to submit to tradition. A Taoist text frees you from tradition. An Islamic text demands your unquestioning submission to Allah.

To understand the Gospels we need to adopt (at least for the purpose of understanding) a Trinitarian Theistic way of thinking. In the Apostles' Creed for example we have God as our Fatherly Creator. The eternal Son of God, who lived among us for thirty years, died on the cross and was resurrected. The Holy Spirit is also God as he animates the Church, creates loving fellowship, and eventually resurrects us for eternal life.

Some critics deny that Mark, or the final author of the other three Gospels, had that kind of religious model in mind. In that case the critic should explain what other form of religious model might have moved the writer. Discussing a Gospel without answering that question is like discussing a blueprint without asking if it is for a plane, or a car, or a submarine.

But assuming that Mark, and the other Gospel writers, and Paul, and most of the early Christians were Trinitarian Theists, then we should expect that particular kind of religious model to govern the choice and arrangement of every form of life that is described. And if we are in doubt about the meaning of words we should choose a language game that fits that overarching literary goal.

Does that make our exegesis circular ? Yes, inevitably, because every part of a good model is explained by its place in what the model is intended to achieve. Or we can say that careful study of the parts will usually suggest what the author of the model designed it for.


I will assume that a preacher is preaching from one section of a Gospel (say the reading assigned in a lectionary). The first task is to note every word that might need to be clarified. Most people in the pews complain that boring preachers mouth words which are not at all clear to the hearers.

Next we need to identify the various forms of life that appear in that reading. What is going on by way of enrolling disciples, healing, spiritual warfare, eating, parable telling and teaching, eating, etc.? Why should these be chosen in view of the good news the Gospel writer wants to communicate? Are there any similar forms of life in the experience of the intended hearers of the sermon?

Already there will be far more material than can be used effectively in fifteen or twenty minutes (the maximum attention span in a Sunday morning sermon). So the preacher must seek the wisdom of the Holy Spirit to choose say three points that he or she needs to clarify, touch hearts, and persuade the hearers to live by. Again the preacher should check that the language game for each difficult word is picked up by at least one example. The conclusion is supremely important. "What do I want the hearers to do by way of responding to God as Father, to God the Son, or to God the Holy Spirit?"

If the Gospel sermon is true to the Gospel, the message will correspond to what Christians like Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John, or Paul would have wanted to communicate.
October 1998

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