Friday, January 20, 2023
As I have plied my trade as a spokesman for the Bible as literature for half a century, I have adopted a strategy of first clearing the ground of misconceptions and then making the positive case for the importance of reading and interpreting the Bible in keeping with its literary nature. Because the phrase the Bible as literature came on the scene in the middle of the twentieth century, it is understandable that evangelicals might be suspicious of the idea. But such towering theological stalwarts from the past as Augustine, Luther, and Calvin did not doubt that the Bible has literary qualities.
Because liberal biblical scholars have been more inclined than conservative ones to practice literary approaches to the Bible, it is easy to associate those approaches with theological liberalism, but there is no necessary connection between them. I begin my course in the literature of the Bible by reading ten claims by biblical authors about the unique nature of the Bible—its inspiration, its infallibility, and so forth. Then I say that for me a literary study of the Bible begins where any other study of it begins—by affirming as true everything that the Bible claims about itself. I find no discord between what I believe theologically about the Bible and my literary study of it.
Most literature is fictional at some level, but fictionality is not a defining trait of literature. A piece of writing is literary whenever authors employ literary techniques, regardless of whether they record what really happened or made it up.
To people unfamiliar with the literary approach to the Bible, it may seem that literary scholars are adding something to the Bible, but this is a false impression. When we interact with the Bible using literary tools of analysis, we are not adding something but are discovering what is already in the text. We could not treat the story of Samson as a literary tragedy if it did not possess the qualities of that genre.
It is the writers of the Bible who gave us a literary Bible, so the origin of the concept can be traced back to them. We catch a hint of this from the way in which some biblical authors speak with technical precision about the literary genres in which they wrote—psalm, chronicle, song, parable, epistle, apocalypse, and others. But the chief evidence is the literary nature of what they wrote. Every page of the Bible contains at least some incidence of literary technique, and many pages are completely filled with it.
Several qualities make a text literary, and it is easy to overlook the most basic and universal principle of literature. That principle concerns the content of literature. Literature takes human experience as its subject. When we read a work of literature, we share an experience. Literature is truthful to life and experience and is not primarily a delivery system for an idea. A literary approach to the Bible identifies and relives the human experiences that are portrayed and avoids reducing the Bible to a set of ideas.
Professors who teach literature and creative writing claim that literature shows rather than tells. To “show” is to embody concretely; to “tell” is to express an abstraction or idea. The sixth commandment tells us “you shall not murder.” The story of Cain and Abel (Gen. 4:1-16) shows and embodies that truth, and it does so without using the abstraction murder and without commanding us to refrain from it. When the rich young ruler asked Jesus to define neighbor, Jesus instead told a story (the parable of the good Samaritan) that shows us what neighborly behavior looks like. A literary approach to the Bible interacts with the embodied experiences that biblical authors place before us.
God did not neglect beauty when he created the world, and he did not neglect it when he superintended the composition of the Bible. The literary parts of the Bible are replete with artistry, and to pay attention to it and unfold it through analysis is an important part of a literary approach to the Bible. Doing so can add a whole new dimension and level of enjoyment to our reading and study of the Bible. Additionally, we need to operate on the premise that biblical authors regarded everything that they put into their works as important and worthy of our attention, including artistic aspects.
Three types of writing converge in the Bible—the theological, the historical, and the literary. Most passages are a combination of them. We need to observe all three ingredients when we read and interpret the Bible. Nonetheless, in the overwhelming preponderance of cases, the theology and history of the Bible are embodied in literary forms such as story and poetry. The literary approach, so regularly neglected in evangelical circles, needs to be given the importance that it requires.
For a very long time, the cornerstone of evangelical hermeneutics has been authorial intention—the need to interpret a passage in keeping with an author’s inferred intention. It is time that we put the literary approach to the Bible under that rubric. It stands to reason that if a biblical author entrusted his message to literary forms and techniques, he intended that we apply ordinary methods of literary analysis to the text.
Because most evangelicals pay scant attention to the literary nature of the Bible, the misconception gets perpetuated that the literary approach is specialized and technical. In fact all it requires is that we carry over what we know about literature generally to the Bible. We have all had high school and college literature courses in which we learned that plot, setting, and character are the elements of a story, and that poets think in images and figures of speech. All we need to do is put what we already know into practice when we read and interpret the Bible.
The Bible is “the light to our paths, the key of the kingdom of heaven, our comfort in affliction, our shield and sword against Satan, the school of all wisdom, the [mirror] in which we behold God’s face, the testimony of his favor, and the only food and nourishment of our souls.”—Preface to The Geneva Bible
Leland wants to see people growing and reading the Bible as literature. He has been a college teacher of literature for over half a century, authored some sixty books, and now continues to bless the Church through his resources made freely available on this site.
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