The Bible: it’s not what you think it is

It’s quiz time again. I promise this one is easier than the Shakespeare quiz from the Reading the Bible as Literature post.Bashaw

Identify the type of literature from which each of the following are excerpted:

1) Pierce squash 5 to 6 times with tip of a sharp knife.  Place on a paper towel in microwave oven; microwave at High for 10 minutes or until soft, rotating once.  Let stand until cool enough to handle.  Cut in half lengthwise; scoop out seeds.  Scrape strands of squash with a fork into a bowl.  Keep warm.

2)  It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness…

3) Hope” is the thing with feathers -

      That perches in the soul -

      And sings the tune without the words -

     And never stops – at all –

4) Oeuvre — (noun) The total output of a writer or artist (or a substantial part of it). Synonyms: body of work. Usage: The musicologist studied the entire Wagnerian oeuvre.

I assume it was fairly simple to identify the kind of writing each of these represents, even if you were not familiar with the exact work.  Cookbooks, novels, poetry, and dictionary entries represent just a small portion of the many kinds, or genres, of writing we encounter every day.

We are socially conditioned and taught in school to read each of these genres of literature differently. Each genre has its own set of rules and expectations to which we adapt when reading.

In a cookbook, we expect measurement short hand like tsp. and we anticipate direct and terse descriptions.

In a novel, we unconsciously translate metaphors and other figures of speech and we are trained to notice plot, characterization, and irony.

In a poem, we look for rhyme and rhythm and meter we often enounter purposeful brevity.

In a dictionary article, we read bare facts, synonyms and antonyms, and do not read expecting to be moved emotionally or challenged ethically.

As 21st century readers we have become experts in interpreting a wide variety of genres with their separate rules and expectations.

If that is the case, then why do 21st century readers tend to read and interpret the Bible without distinguishing between the various genres found within it?

I think it is because we have been neither socially conditioned nor taught in our churches to read the Bible for what it is–a collection of many types of genres, each with their own rules and expectations.

For example:

Genesis is an ancient narrative that makes use of several sub-genres such as genealogy, mythology (before you stone me, note that mythology need not imply fiction or falsehood!), and short story (Joseph’s narrative is one of the earliest examples of a well-crafted short story)

Exodus is a mixture of the genres of law, narrative, and poetry

Proverbs, Psalms, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, and Job are wisdom literature fused with bits of poetry and song

The rest of the Old Testament is an amalgamation of prophecy, history, and narrative

The New Testament includes the diverse genres of gospel (which is a unique genre in literary history), epistle, homily, and apocalyptic literature.

Sadly, though, when the typical Christian sits down to read the Bible or hears it read in church, he or she has no clue what genre they are reading, much less which rules or expectations to apply in interpreting it. We display more literary intelligence while reading a cookbook with all its specialty terms and abbreviations, than we show when reading the word of God, the collection of books we claim as authoritative in the life of the Church.

Donald Miller, in a recent blog post, describes our contemporary misuse and misreading of the Bible in this way:

“Imagine reading a newspaper article from a century ago, bound with a series of love letters and the score of a musical and then trying to interpret that compilation as a comprehensive guide for living life, studying science and establishing a democracy. That’s what we tend to do with scripture but that’s not what God intended for the book.”

Miller gets to the heart of the matter—we are not reading the Bible for what it is. Instead, we cram this multi-faceted, multi-cultural, multi-voice symphony of writings into whatever little box gives us the most peace of mind.

  • Those who want to live their lives (or want others to live their lives) adhering to a strict, black-and-white set of do’s and don’ts…read the Bible as a rule book, ignoring the rich stories depicting the complicated relationship between God and humanity.
  • Those who would like to experience clarity in the practical, everyday matters of life…read the Bible as a self-help book or a how-to manual, ignoring the fact that the Bible does not address every problem known to humanity and is not designed to be handy guide to life.
  • Those who would like to have univocal answers to every theological question we ask today… read the Bible as a propositional treatise that lays out a philosophy of Christianity, ignoring the fact that very few of the biblical authors intended to explicate theology and those that did wrote to a particular audience at a particular time addressing their particular problems.
  • Those who want to feel warm fuzzies about God and people and the church…read it like a “Chicken Soup for the Soul” book, searching for nuggets of “feel good” wisdom and ignoring the laments and clear promises of persecution in the Psalms, the Prophets, the Gospels and the Epistles.

The Bible is not any of these things we make it out to be. It is something wholly other, something we do not expect it to be, something we could never dream up on our own. It is so complex and so diverse that it can speak to people living in any time in history and any place in this world. It is a messy, human-narrated, human-tarnished, living, God-breathed, God-designed, masterpiece of mismatched literature.

And until we learn to read it for what it is, learn recognize the variety of genres and know what rules and expectations to have for each, we will continue to miss the prismatic beauty of its truth.

jgb

Reading the Bible as Literature

photo (2)I have an exercise for all of you today. Read the following quotes from Shakespeare and try to determine what the phrase means in the play, using your memory of the literary context. I tried to pick plays that have been made into movies so even if you have not read them, you may be familiar with the context.

 “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.”

                                                                          From Hamlet (V, i, 203-204)

“Then must you speak
Of One that lov’d not wisely but too well.”

                                                                          From Othello (V, ii, 343-344)

“Out, damned spot! out, I say!”

                                                                          From Macbeth (V, i, 38)

“Oh, I am fortune’s fool!”

                                                                          From Romeo and Juliet (III, i, 141)

If you were familiar with even a few of these quotes, you probably realized that the literary context is a vital key for determining what the phrase means. In the Othello quote, you may be able to ascertain that the speaker had trouble in his love life, but without the full story, you miss the anguish and irony in the statement Othello makes before he kills himself in guilt because he has suffocated his innocent wife Desdemona. We lose much of the artistry and significance of the lines without a clear idea of the overarching story and context.

The same is true of reading the Bible without paying attention to the literary context.

In the last 30 years, many Bible scholars have begun to realize the value of applying the principles and  methods typically used on literature to the study of the Bible. It makes sense that the Bible, which is a collection of various types of literature, should be studied as literature. There is much to gain from this enterprise. Literary criticism of the Bible (or studying the Bible as literature) makes many positive contributions to our understanding of the biblical text:

  •  Literary criticism takes seriously the narrative qualities of the biblical literature, which is especially helpful in the Gospels because each author narrates the life of Jesus using  various literary styles and unique story-telling techniques.
  • Literary criticism pays attention to the author and audience of each book, which help us to better appreciate the writer’s message and the situation of the first recipients. For example, when reading Philippians, it is important to note the tone that Paul uses because it alerts us to the strong, long-standing relationship he has enjoyed with that church and further deepens our understanding of his message to them.
  • Literary criticism appreciates the creativity and skill of the human author. As Christians, we recognize the divine and human authorship of the Bible. As a rule, we tend to emphasize the divine part of the authorship (“What is God saying?”) and ignore the human part (“How is the author saying this?). But the fact is that God chose some very talented communicators to pen the Scriptures and when we appreciate the artistry of an author, we can discover new and exciting dimensions to the biblical narrative. How many of us notice that Matthew brilliantly structures his Gospel in five sections in order to make a connection between Jesus’ teaching and the five books of Moses (the Pentateuch)? Only those who pay attention to that literary technique.
  • Literary criticism emphasizes the importance of reading a book as a whole unit rather than dissecting it into pieces. Understanding the themes, plot, characters, and structure of a book highlights an author’s overarching message, which is key to understanding the separate parts! In the church, however, we tend to miss the themes and structure of a book because we like to rip Bible verses out of their context. How many plaques have you seen with verses like, “For I know the plans I have for you…” and “I can do all things through Christ…”? We love our biblical sound bites! However, we are in great danger of biblical misinterpretation when we divorce a verse from the paragraph it appears in or the book in which it is found.

Clearly, studying the Bible as literature can introduce a world of new meaning and application into our study of the Bible. But recognizing this fact is only the first step. In order to begin practicing literary criticism, we have to dust off skills we learned in high school English. Here are a few of my own practical strategies that may help you start reading the Bible as literature:

1. Keep the themes of the book in mind when studying a passage (for example, as you read the Gospel of John, you will notice that he uses the themes of light/darkness, life/death, belief/unbelief, and blindness/seeing)

2. Look at people in the story as characters, formed and described with a purpose (one good place to start is to look at the disciples in the Gospel of Mark—how does the author describe them?)

3. Pay attention to the immediate and overall context of a passage— What comes before? What comes after? Where does it fit in the larger context of the book?

4. Put yourself in the place of the first-century reader and try to notice devices like conflict, irony, and point of view.

5. Look for symbols, patterns, and references to culture or other literature of the time (this is called intertextuality)

My challenge for you is to read a passage of Scripture this week and try to read it using  some of the strategies I described above. For some, this will be difficult because it is not how many of us were taught to read the Bible. For others, who enjoy literature and have practiced this on Shakespeare or American novels, it will be easier. But try it and let me know how it goes.

If you are interested in reading more about literary criticism, here are some good sources:

Mark Allan Powell. What is Narrative Criticism? Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990.

Joel B. Green, ed. Hearing the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 1995

David Alan Black and David S. Dockery, eds. Interpreting the New Testament. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2001.

David Rhoads and Donald Michie. Mark as Story. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982.

R. Alan Culpepper. Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983.

Jack Dean Kingsbury. Matthew as Story. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986.

Robert C. Tannehill. The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts: a literary interpretation. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986.