Imagining the Other
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Imagining the Other:  The Use of Narrative as an Empowering Practice

Lisa Onbelet


            What is Otherness?  A friend of mine, I think came up with the simplest definition of Otherness as being anyone or anything that is not me.  However, most often when I have thought of what Otherness means, I typically thought within the context of literary theory, particularly feminist and post-Colonial discourse.  In this context, otherness is defined by difference, typically difference marked by outward signs like race and gender.  As such, otherness has also been associated predominantly with marginalized people, those who by virtue of their difference from the dominant group, have been disempowered, robbed of a voice in the social, religious, and political world.  Difference, in literature is often articulated as either some kind of weakness or superior strength or intellect depending on the sympathies of the dominant cultural voice.  For example, (and as a generalization) in Colonial literature the native is either portrayed as the innocent Noble Savage or the barbaric cannibal. 

            Without the permission from the dominant social group to speak, marginalized people cannot tell their own story, cannot define themselves, but rather, must submit to the descriptions assigned to them by the dominant group.  So not only are they robbed of their voice, they are also robbed of their identity, their sense of self, and their sense of value.  Yet, continental philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas, argues that the self cannot exist, cannot have a concept of itself as self, without the other. “I am defined as a subjectivity, as a singular person, as an ‘I’, precisely because I am exposed to the other.  It is my inescapable and incontrovertible answerability to the other that make me an individual ‘I’” (Dialogues 62).


            Levinas even goes so far as to state that the value of the other must exceed the value of the self.  “In ethics, the other’s right to exist has primacy over my own, a primacy epitomized in the ethical edict:  you shall not kill...” (60).  The implications of my understanding of Levinas is that difference forms the foundation of ethics since the self requires the other to bring meaning to its existence.  “My ethical relation of love for the other stems from the fact that the self cannot survive by itself alone, cannot find meaning within its own being-in-the-world, within the ontology of sameness” (60).  The self needs the face of the other, the face of difference to tell it what or who it is not.  Conversely, the other also requires the self to find meaning.

            The self and the other are in some sense mirror images of each other, each different yet somehow the same and, therefore, connected by their reflection. The image that I think best describes the interrelationship of self to other is one I have borrowed from Richard Kearney: the “labyrinth of looking-glasses” (Kearney 17). The tension between the self and other is most predominant when the other lives outside the dominant social group. In this case, the other often needs to be recognized.  It is on this basis that I agree with Levinas that the self is ethically obligated to the other.

            While the discourse I have just described caused me to be concerned for those on or in the margins, I did not typically think of myself as situated in the discourse.  Otherness theory was an intellectual pursuit that seemed to have little to do with my daily life, other than being situated in the context of my academic study of English literature. I knew about the Other (with a capital ‘O’), I just did not see her.  Presented to me in theoretical terms, I remained unmoved, though intellectually engaged.

            Narrative, the telling of stories, however, helps me imagine the other in a way that theory cannot.  Theory helps to explain something but uses an intellectual language that remains distant from me.  Narrative, however, uses a language that seems more intimate and draws me nearer to the dialogue. The telling of stories creates in me a space for imagination, recognition (of both self and other), and empathy.  It is also seems to be the preferred medium of expression of those who have been marginalized, or those seeking to give form and meaning to the events of their life.   On this basis, I want to argue that imagination expressed in/through narrative is an essential component to understanding others and otherness, and that the use of narrative either by self or the other is an empowering practice.

            One example of how narrative functions as an empowering practice I have found in Luke 7:36-50.  While other gospel writers have also presented the same story, the Lukan version is unique in two ways.   First, it is unique in terms of its placement early into the gospel, at the beginning of Christ’s ministry. The gospels of Matthew and Mark place it toward the end of Christ’s ministry. Second, and the main concern here, the Lukan version is the only one to include a parable. It is this inclusion of the parable, particularly its function within this portion of the Lukan narrative that is of interest here.

            Luke 7:36-50 is a story within a story; a narrative which contains a parable followed by its explication, framed by the narration of the events taking place around it.  We begin with Jesus reclining at the table of Simon the Pharisee.  For what reason Simon invited him to his house the text does not directly make clear.  Most likely he was aware of Jesus’ popularity with the people and perhaps he was curious to know more of Jesus’ teachings on religious matters or he may have invited Jesus there to test him out.  Either way, Jesus could not have entered Simon’s house unless Simon considered him somewhat of an equal in intellect.

            As a pharisee, Simon is part of the dominant religious culture.  Part of the Jewish elite, in a position of power and influence as a religious leader, Simon stands in the place of judge, determining the worth of those around him.  It is into this context that the Other, the nameless woman, enters.  As she enters, with the goal to pour perfume on Jesus’ feet, she is overcome with emotion and begins to weep on his feet and kiss them while drying her tears with her hair. 

The tension in the text is set up first by this woman’s presence.  She has a reputation as a sinner (v.37).  Whether or not she was a prostitute is a matter for exegesis and really is not relevant here.  The main point is that Simon identifies her as an a-typical sinner, as evidenced by his self-commentary:  “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him--that she is a sinner (v.39)”.  However, it is not her reputation alone that creates the tension in the text.  It is also because she touches Jesus with her loosened hair, a cultural gesture of moral depravity (Caird 114), that Simon is scandalized. As a woman, and as a sinner this woman has and can have no value, no voice, in Simon’s eyes or in the eyes of his Jewish culture. She exists only on the margins, shunned by her own ethnic group.

            According to Post-Colonial theorist, Abdul R. Jan Mohamed, “[g]enuine and thorough comprehension of Otherness is possible only if the self can somehow negate or at least severely bracket the values, assumptions and ideologies of his culture” (84).  JanMohamed goes on to argue that such a negation or bracketing is really impossible because we are all culturally formed. We cannot negate ourselves.  I think that narrative, however, opens up that space for us to bring our biases to the foreground for inquiry.

 In an interview with Richard Kearney, another continental philosopher, Jacques Derrida, talks about the need for a “pure” space to be created in which the foundations of Western philosophy can be interrogated.  While he does not believe that there is any space, any discipline, which has not been affected by Western philosophy, he does state that literature is useful in critiquing its foundations. 


“In literature, . . ., philosophical language is still present in some sense; but it produces and presents itself as alienated from itself, at a remove, at a distance.  This distance provides the necessary free space from which to interrogate philosophy anew. . . .” (Dialogues 109)


So literature, or, in the case of the Luke 7:36-50, narrative provides a space for reflection, for allowing in different ways of thinking.   It is a critical space.  Narrative also accesses our imagination and enables us to see the face of the other and turn the Other’s gaze toward ourselves and toward our biases.  

JanMohamed also notes that the assumption of moral superiority of the one in power “means that he will rarely question the validity of either his own or his society’s formation and that he will not be inclined to expend any energy in understanding the worthless alterity of the [Other]” (84).  This is the position where Simon begins, the place from which he must be moved, by Jesus, in order to see the woman.

 In vv.  41-42, what Christ does, then, is use a narrative (the story of two men who owe different sums of money and have their debts forgiven by their creditor), to open a space for Simon to enable him to critique his own position, his own ethnocentrically influenced judgment of the woman and Jesus.  It is a space where the privileged discourse of the Pharisees is de-centered so that the face of the Other can be recognized.  However, though de-centering the privileged discourse, Jesus still maintains a sense of respect for Simon.

            Education philosopher Maria Harris, commenting on Kierkegaard’s notion of intention notes that “...when the communicator faces the hearer, the communicator’s purpose or intent must be to confront the hearer in a way that enables the hearer to discover that a rigorous demand is set before her or him” (97).   This invitation to the hearer to choose to respond either positively or negatively is considered by Harris to be an ethical capacity (67) precisely because it is a freedom to choose.  The hearer is engaged on an “equal” ground.  He matters.  Therefore, when Jesus says to Simon in verse 40, “Simon I have something to say to you”, he is inviting Simon to enter into the process of interpreting the narrative, rather than have him remain a passive listener or learner. 

            The story that Jesus tells, accompanied by the contrasts he makes between Simon’s actions and the woman’s, then, is not meant to humiliate Simon in front of his guests. Rather, Christ is respecting Simon, while challenging him to re-think his position and re­imagine the Other.  It is interesting to note that the story Jesus uses is in the third person voice.  Education professor, Madeleine Grumet in her article on writing autobiographies, “The Politics of Personal Knowledge” notes that “it seems natural to assume that the first person is closer to us than the third” (68).  So by using a third person narrative, Jesus distances Simon from the storys and takes his focus away from the woman and the question of who Jesus is.   It is a kind of removal without bracketing personal experience, since in order to judge correctly (and he does judge correctly) Simon needs to rely on that experience.  He brings it to the story.  Only after the distancing has happened can Jesus move Simon back in to the “real” world of the banquet hall, making the narrative personal. 

            At the end of the story, in verse 42, Jesus poses the question to Simon, “who will love the creditor more?”.  The implication of this is that it is up to Simon to be the literary critic, since the question is the equivalent to “what does the story mean?”.  Jesus, as storyteller, is not immediately forthcoming with any interpretations because it is necessary for Simon to reach the conclusion himself.   By turning the making of meaning over to Simon, Jesus accomplishes two things.  First, he maintains Simon’s integrity as an individual.  To have the freedom to determine meaning for oneself can be an empowering practice.  Second, by establishing points of agreement, Jesus can continue to be near Simon though different, and thereby also draw Simon near the woman.  Jesus needs Simon to move to where Jesus is in order to proceed to re-imagine the woman.

            After Simon determines the "proper" meaning of the story, Jesus then asks him, “Do you see this woman?” (v.44).  At this point, Simon has not yet “seen” the other.  The story Jesus told has merely prepared Simon to encounter the woman anew.  Without the story, his own assumptions would not be challenged, disabling him to imagine the Other.  Here I am working on Harris’s theory that “[i]magination characteristically looks at reality from the reversed, unnoticed side. . . ” (9).

            In using the story Jesus enables Simon to “see” the woman from the reversed side, establishing an element of sameness; they are both sinners.   Yet the story also serves to maintain the woman’s alterity. In the verses following the parable, Jesus reiterates the woman’s alterity but this time, on the basis of her love for him, demonstrated bodily, rather than on the basis of her sin.  The touch that was perceived as a transgression is now perceived as a sign of reverential love.  The implication of the story, and the explication of it, is that the woman loves or will love Jesus more, since she has a greater debt to be forgiven.   So Simon is both right and wrong about the woman.  His original premise was correct: she has committed great sins.  But his mistake was seeing only her sin and not her.  Her sin became the basis of the story Simon wrote for her.  What Jesus has done is to open up the possibility of writing a new narrative for both her and Simon.

            In structuralist terms, if we were to suppose the woman to be the binary opposite of Simon, and thus of lesser value, we could also see this story as a challenge to Simon’s positioning of her in his moral scale.  The story Jesus uses would thus seek to invert the scale, placing Simon on the bottom and the woman at the top.  Verses 44 to 47 would seem to support such an interpretation, as Christ goes on to compare the woman’s actions to those of Simon.  She washes his feet with her tears and her hair while Simon, the host, had failed to provide Jesus with a basin and towel as he entered the banquet hall and so on.  Some exegetical readings of the text have implied that this could be perceived as a failure of Simon as a host in his culture.  If this is so, then the scale has been inverted and the woman takes on more value than Simon, by virtue of loving more, a thought actually articulated by Jesus in v. 47:   “But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”  This drawing attention to difference between the woman’s love and Simon’s,` would then indicate that Simon has suffered some kind of humiliation. 

            However, there were no real rules saying that Simon had to do for Jesus what the woman has done (Hendriksen 407).  Though Simon has made Jesus welcome, he has not gone out of his way to give Jesus any special treatment (Marshall 311).  So Jesus is not necessarily making a poor or unfair judgment of Simon.  Accordingly, I would interpret this rather as a leveling of the scale, with neither the woman nor Simon taking precedence and Christ mediating the space between them.  Indeed, the text indicates that spatially, this interpretation works.  As the narrative opens, the woman enters behind Jesus (v.38).  Even if Simon is sitting next to Jesus, his view of the woman is obstructed.

            The position of the woman in the text is a problematic one to understand. In the deconstruction literary theory of Derrida, the reader of any text will typically seek out what has been excluded to demonstrate the illusion of completeness within a system.  “To deconstruct is to identify points of failure in a system, points at which it is able to feign coherence only by excluding and forgetting that which it cannot assimilate, that which is ‘other’ to it.” (Postmodern Bible 120).  Up to this point it in my analysis, I have focussed primarily on Simon and the story Jesus tells.   This has been based on my assumption that in order to be an empowering practice, part of the conditions for narrative is that the voice of the other be heard.

            In the narrative of vv. 36-50 as a whole, it has been the woman who has drawn attention to herself.  and then draws Jesus into this centre by touching him.  She sets up the tension in the text.  As the marginalized other, she is the reason, the origin of the narrative. However, when Jesus tells the story of the two debtors, the woman disappears momentarily from the narrative, only reappearing later to be used as an object of comparison in vv. 40-47. It is interesting to note that throughout the entire narrative her voice is never heard.  It seems to be obscured by Christ’s.  She is not even addressed personally until the last two verses of the narrative.  Yet, all the time Jesus is speaking, this woman is at his feet weeping.  If this narrative is to be an illustration of how the position of the other or the experience of the other is to be imagined, then I have a problem if the other remains elusive and distant.

            However, if we follow Christ’s gaze through the movement of the text we can indeed see the woman.  In verse 44, specifically, Jesus turns directly toward the woman.  Looking at her, he calls Simon, and therefore us as the readers of the text, to “see” her.  The oppositions set up between her actions and Simon’s heighten our awareness, as recipients of the narrative, of her presence, drawing attention to her embodied voice.  She speaks through her tears, her kissing of Christ’s feet and her anointing him with oil.  Her voice is not lost.  Rather it is intensified through the comparison of her actions to Simon’s.  She becomes real for me.

            This past summer, I told a friend that for me, reading and interpreting literature was more than just an intellectual pursuit.  It was also about redeeming voices, redeeming people. In order to be empowered, to practice empowerment for the self and the other, you not only need the freedom to speak, the ability to speak, you also need to be heard.  Frantz Fanon’s Black Skins, White Masks would have had no effect on the white Western world if, first of all, conditions were not reasonably free/right for him to write it and, secondly, if no one read it and thus in the reading gave it value.  I am, of course, assuming that reading and listening places value on what the other has to say and therefore, places value on the other. 

            In the context of Luke 7:36-50, then, what I have tried to show is how the story Jesus uses prepares a space for the woman to appear and be recognized and heard for who she "really" is, or could become, rather than the construct prepared for her by Simon.  Whether or not Simon truly “sees” her is a question that the text does not clearly answer, which brings me to my final point about the use of narrative as an empowering practice.  While stories have the capacity through their use of imagination to move their audience toward seeing and empathizing with the other, they may not always be successful.  Some will “get it”, some will not.  Some will not want to get it because in seeing the other they may feel like they are being compelled to give up too much.  However, though narratives may not change how we see others, they can at least ensure that the other will not be ignored.  By creating tension between the self and other, stories draw attention to the other’s existence, demanding a response, good or bad.  Stories are a way of keeping the other in our face and maintaining “the sense, the belief, and awareness that at some fundamental level, everyone and everything is related to everyone and everything else” (Harris 15).




Works Cited


The Bible and Culture Collective. The Postmodern Bible. New Haven: Yale UP, 1995.

Caird, G. B. The Gospel of Luke. New York: Seabury Press, 1963.

Grumet, Madeleine. "The Politics of Personal Knowledge." In Stories Lives Tell: Narrative and Dialogue in Education.   Carol Witherell and Nel Noddings, Ed. New York: Teachers College Press, 1991. 67-77.

Harris, Maria. Teaching and Religious Imagination: An Essay in the Theology of Teaching. New York: Harper                 SanFrancisco, 1991.

Hendriksen, William. New Testament Commentary: The Gospel of Luke. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1978.

JanMohamed, Abdul R. "The Economy of Manichean Allegory: The Function of Racial Difference in Colonialist Literature. " In Race, Writing, and Difference. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Ed. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1985. 78-106.

Kearney, Richard, ed. "Jacques Derrida. " Dialogues With Contemporary Continental Thinkers: The Phenomenological Heritage. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1984. 105-126.

Kearney, Richard, ed. "Emmanuel Levinas. " Dialogues With Contemporary Continental Thinkers: The Phenomenological Heritage. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1984. 47-70.

Kearney, Richard. The Wake of the Imagination: Toward a Postmodern Culture. Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 1998.

Marshall, I. Howard. The Gospel of Luke: A Commentary on the Greek Text. Exeter: The Paternoster Press, 1978.