Scripture and Literature

Before I get too far I should say to any former student who reads this that I might well be talking about the text of your portfolio’s introductory essay (quite a few people make the categorical division that I’m going to write about in their reflective essays) but that I don’t hold it against you; I probably just didn’t teach these concepts that well.

For the last three spring semesters I’ve taught a special topics composition course at the University of Georgia called Hebrew Bible and/as Literature.  (The link takes you to the spring 2007 syllabus, as I have not updated my professional page very recently.)  The course is not a Bible survey but primarily a writing-about-lit course in which students tackle Genesis and Job and 2 Samuel and Psalms alongside J.B. and Morte D’Arthur and some Donne and Herbert poems instead of random samplings from an overpriced lit anthology.  I enjoy teaching it a great deal, and part of the class’s charm is the fact that I get a good mix of Christians, Jews, agnostics, atheists, and various vaguely-spiritual people in almost every class.

That said, one text that I assign the class early every semester is a .pdf version (password protected, in accordance with copyright law) of the first chapter of Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative in which he argues thus:

This kind of critical discussion, I would contend, far from neglecting the Bible’s religious character, focuses attention on it in a more nuanced way.  The implicit theology of the Hebrew Bible dictates a complex moral and psychological realism in biblical narrative because God’s purposes are always entrammeled in history, dependent on the acts of individual men and women for their continuing realization.  To scrutinize biblical personages as fictional characters is to see them more sharply in the multifaceted, contradictory aspects of their human individuality, which is the biblical God’s chosen medium for His experiment with Israel and history.  Such scrutiny, however [… ] cannot be based merely on an imaginative impression of the story but must be undertaken through minute critical attention to the biblical writer’s articulations of narrative form. (12)

In other words, my students who hold the Bible to be in some sense God’s book should look upon our project in the class at least in part as discerning what kind of book God has given, as God has given it.  Yet in introductory essay after introductory essay, I read my Christian students’ assertions that they learned in my class to read the Bible as “literature instead of Scripture.”

I think I might cross-post this on CRM and see what the folks there think.  I don’t have time right now to theorize at length, but my instincts tell me that I’m seeing some fallout from the late, polite phases of the culture wars, and I imagine that a youth minister or somebody at some point has told these folks that there would be menacing figures in the universities that tell them that the Bible is “just” literature.  (As an English teacher I’m somewhat offended by the derogatory qualifier, but that’s for another day.)  So even as Alter proposes that a literary consciousness heightens, not diminishes, the experience of reading holy text, their reflexes tell them that we must be taking something away from the experience.



Filed under Bible, Kids These Days, teaching

8 responses to “Scripture and Literature

  1. I’ve always had trouble with the idea that the Bible was inherently in a different category from other books, for aren’t all texts at least descriptive and, often, prescriptive as well? And if one weren’t trained to read analytically, how would one get through the Song of Solomon?

    It sounds to me like these students–some of them, at least–have been told that the Bible occupies a different space on the shelf, to be read with both eyebrows raised in awe, not with one cocked in contemplation.

    How is what one does in a Bible study class any different? Certainly, the perspective and language one uses differs, but does the actual method of analysis?

  2. El Ick,

    In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Bible is a book in a different category. Most Christians believe that God himself had a role in writing it in a way unlike any other work of literature. Christians differ in opinion as to what that role was/is in producing the Bible, but most believe that the Bible is the “Word of God” in a sense that other religious documents are not. Certainly this a priori assumption is open to criticism, but it is one of those things that has been handed down from generation to generation within the tribe.

    I would argue that the Bible should be read on its own terms and that no foreign method should be imposed on it. I think the way that the spiritual community has revered the Bible throughout time testifies to the fact that it is intended to be read as “sacred literature.” If we want to be fair to the text, this affects the way we read/interpret it.

    At the same time, I would say that most American evangelicals do not appreciate the literary character of the Bible. Even if the Bible is literature in a category of its own, that does not mean that it is free from the literary techniques of the ages in which it was written. Understanding these techniques can help you understand the message of the Scriptures. Sadly, many pastors/youth pastors do indeed teach that any reading of the Scriptures beyond the superficial is inherently dangerous to one’s faith. This relates to the deeper issue that the evangelical community is largely anti-intellectual. (That is not true across the board, of course, but I think it is a fair assessment of many.)


    I think you hit the nail on the head with regard to one of the major issues in evangelical hermeneutics–“The Bible is God’s book, but what kind of book is it?”

  3. Howdy, Matt. I’m glad you’ve made the trip from CRM land. Out of curiosity (and this is only partly a trick question), how would one be able to tell if this or that reading of a Biblical episode (or Psalm or oracle or proverb or whatever genre) was free from “foreign method[s]”? I might concede that such is a worthy goal if I could even imagine what it would look like.

  4. Well, that’s the rub, isn’t it?

    In some ways, it’s an impossible task. We cannot escape the fact that we are 21st century English-speaking Americans. Since we cannot go back in time and get into the heads of the original authors/readers, we will always in some way impose our methods on the text.

    At the same time, I don’t think we are completely ignorant of the literary techniques of ancient authors. Where there is extra-biblical literature produced by the same or similar communities, the task is a bit easier.

    But that’s the way all communication works. Having never met you face-to-face, I am not familiar with your beliefs, dialect, word choice, etc. In some ways, I will read your posts as if I had written them myself. At the same time, I can take the pieces that I do have (you are an English professor, you live in Georgia, you blog, etc.) and try to put the puzzle together. I still might misunderstand you, but we can communicate meaningfully. Even with my wife, whom I do know and see every day, I read into her speech what I would mean by certain words. But the more I know a person and their way of communicating, the better chance I have of understanding their intent.

    Back to biblical interpretation, I will give you a gross example of what I think we shouldn’t do. Many 20th century biblical scholars rejected miracle stories a priori because of a modernist belief that miracles can’t and don’t happen. In my opinion that is imposing an alien worldview on the text. The ancients believed that miracles can and did happen. We need to read with minds open to the fact that perhaps Jesus did actually walk on water and raise from the dead. In the end, we still might dismiss those things as rubbish, but we need to be careful not to do so a priori because of our own belief set.

    But in other instances the issue is more complex. Take the story of Jonah, for instance. Did the author of Jonah intend the original recipients to believe that Jonah was actually swallowed by a fish, or was it understood that the story as a literary fiction illustrating God’s sovereignty over both Israel and the Gentiles? I don’t know.

    There is a never-ending dialogue in biblical interpretation about how the ancients communicated and how we can read their communication as they intended. Again, the Bible is God’s book, but what kind of book is it?

  5. Matt,

    I wasn’t making a claim regarding the Bible’s origins. Instead, I was referring to exactly that which you point out with your Jonah example: how could one recognize that that story can be symbolic if one has never been taught to read stories allegorically? That’s the overlap between reading the Bible and secular texts: the ability to look at a narrative for its multiple possible interpretations instead of the most superficial one.

    It’s troubling to me that so many within the evangelical movement–many that I’ve encountered, anyway–discourage looking into scripture more deeply–and by “deeply,” I mean engaging the ambiguity/multiple interpretations of some passages–apparently because ambiguity or complexity=weakness. Never got that.

  6. I wonder how many of your Christian students who are aghast that you have them read the Bible as literature are more than happy to read it as a scientific or historical textbook.

  7. John B

    With all the hussel and bussel in life, sitting down and analyzing different interpretations always left me feeling quite unaware, anxious, and existential. Though I still feel that it should not just be read lightly, I was more than happy to read The Bible as scientific literature.

  8. Bennewitz, is that you?

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