With a suddenness that no one could have predicted, courses in the Bible as literature have become common in high schools and colleges during the past five years. Each year more publishers add anthologies of biblical literature to their offerings. Two years ago one textbook publisher found through market research that the literature of the Bible was one of the three areas of greatest demand in high school literature, and since then the demand has greatly increased.

The literary study of the Bible is currently a leading subject on the programs at teachers’ conventions. For the past two years, for the first time, the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association included a section on teaching the Bible as literature. The Indiana University Summer Institute on Teaching the Bible in Secondary English, designed for high school teachers, has completed its fifth year and has attracted wide attention. A national clearinghouse called the Public Education Religion Studies Center (Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio 45431) has devoted a major part of its program to promoting the literary study of the Bible in public schools.

This trend has obvious implications for evangelical Christians. Interest in the Bible goes far beyond the academic world, where the revival of interest began. Reading the Bible as literature is something that involves parents (especially those whose children are enrolled in courses in biblical literature), biblical scholars, ministers, Bible study leaders, and anyone else who reads the Bible.

There has long been a latent, half-articulate resistance among evangelical Christians to the idea of the Bible as literature. One of the most frequently quoted statements on the subject is this one by C. S. Lewis:

[The Bible is] not merely a sacred book but a book so remorselessly and continuously sacred that it does not invite, it excludes or repels, the merely aesthetic approach. You can read it as literature only by a tour de force. You are cutting wood against the grain, using the tool for a purpose it was not intended to serve [The Literary Impact of the Authorized Version].

People who cite this against the practice of reading the Bible as literature overlook the fact that Lewis intended his stricture against reading the Bible only as literature, that is, without believing its doctrinal content. That Lewis recognized the need for a literary approach to the Bible is evident from his introductory remarks in Reflections on the Psalms, where he writes, “There is a … sense in which the Bible, since it is after all literature, cannot properly be read except as literature; and the different parts of it as the different sorts of literature they are.”

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Evangelicals who resist the idea of reading the Bible as literature do so for two chief reasons. First, belief in the Bible as the inspired Word of God has led Christians to place it in a different category from other books; some are wary of applying ordinary literary terms to the Bible on the assumption that to do this would put it on a level with the works of uninspired and even unchristian writers. Secondly, to speak of the Bible as literature implies to many people that it is being treated “only” as literature and that its religious content is ignored. At best this is frivolous, some have concluded, and at worst it destroys the real purpose of reading the Bible, namely, attaining belief in God and his truth.

These objections are unwarranted. They arise mainly from a misunderstanding. And so, any defense of reading the Bible as literature might profitably begin with an explanation of what is not meant by the phrase.

To say that much of the Bible is literary in no way casts a shadow over its truth content. Nor does it imply that the Bible is fictional rather than historical; literature can be either. Even where it is fictional, the fictionality does not detract from its truthfulness, as is evident in the parables of Scripture, for example. To say that the Bible must be approached as literature does not imply a preoccupation with matters of style. It does not even have to imply a disregard for theological analysis or practical application.

What does it mean to read the Bible as literature? I wish to suggest two answers. First of all, reading the Bible as literature means approaching a given part by asking the questions that are appropriate to its literary form. The Bible is full of conventional literary forms or genres, including narrative or story, epic, tragedy, satire, lyric poetry, epithalamion, elegy, encomium, proverb, parable, pastoral, prophecy, gospel, epistle, oratory, and apocalypse. Every literary form has its conventions or principles. To read the Bible as literature is to ask the questions that are appropriate to its literary forms.

Take the story, for example, a literary form that is particularly important in biblical literature. If every part of the Bible were an expository essay, the right question to ask about any passage would be, What is the writer’s thesis and how does he develop his argument? This is how many people read the entire Bible, including the stories. But a storyteller has no thesis to develop—he has a story to tell. The appropriate questions to ask of a story are different from those we ask of an expository essay or a sermon. Among them are these: How is the story structured and unified? What are the plot conflicts, and how are they resolved? How do individual episodes relate to the overriding framework? How are the characters described, and how do they develop as the story unfolds? How is the setting of the story important? What use does the writer make of narrative devices such as dramatic irony, foreshadowing, climax, symbolism, and allusion? Eventually a literary analysis of a story will ask what themes are embodied in the story. It is important to realize, however, that the thematic question, What is the writer’s message?, can be answered only if we first ask the narrative question, What happens to the characters in the story? Until we scrutinize the story as a series of events involving characters, we cannot make propositional statements about the content. Acceptance of this principle is part of what is meant by reading the Bible as literature.

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Satires, such as the book of Jonah and Christ’s parable of the pharisee and publican, should be approached with the questions, What is the object of attack? What historical particulars occasioned the attack? What literary ingredients (such as characters, action, setting, imagery) make up the vehicle by which the satire is presented? Is the satiric tone laughing or bitter?

The literary conventions of a tragedy, such as the story of Saul, should lead us to ask, How is the tragic hero characterized? What is the hero’s predicament? What is the nature of the hero’s tragic choice? Is there a flaw of character evident in his tragic choice? What form does his catastrophe and suffering take? Does the hero attain perception?

When we come to lyric poetry, our narrative questions will not help us, because a lyric poet does not aim to tell a story. His intention is to express the reflective and emotional side of human experience. The important questions here become, What emotional or reflective experience is being presented? What elements of pattern and unity and artistic design does the poem have? What meanings are embodied in the images and figures of speech? What feelings does the poet communicate with his exclamation, hyperboles, allusions, personifications, and rhetorical questions?

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To summarize, reading the Bible as literature means first of all paying close attention to the characteristics inherent in the various literary forms. This is simply a way of saying that to read the Bible as literature we must learn to ask the right questions of the biblical text. The usual theological categories are not the only ones necessary for understanding the Bible.

Reading the Bible as literature also means reading it with a keen appreciation for the experiential, as distinct from abstract reasoning or propositional discourse. There is no necessary quarrel between the literary and propositional modes of discouse. The Bible contains an abundance of both forms, and all literature, no matter how concrete, embodies themes and ultimately a world view. It remains true, however, that literature tends to avoid the propositional in favor of immediate, concrete experience. Literature presents human experience. The literary impulse leads a writer to present an evil character in action instead of discoursing abstractly about vice, for example.

The usual way of reading and discussing the Bible leans decidedly toward theological abstraction. The basic vocabulary consists of such terms as creation, providence, sin, salvation, faith, love, and obedience. Reading the Bible as literature is necessary to balance the picture toward the experiential. The stories of the Bible are about providence, redemption, and judgment, but they are also full of adventure, mystery, rescue, suspense, courageous heroes, beautiful heroines, villains who get their comeuppance, boy heroes, pageantry, and celebration. Similarly, the Psalms are, on the one side, theological in content; yet they are also about the weather, trees, crops, lions, hunters, rocks of refuge, and human feelings such as terror and trust and joy. The book of Job is thematically about the philosophical problem of why the righteous suffer, but on another level it is about an ash heap, physical pain, psychological alienation and despair and anger, snow, hail, mountain goats, the ostrich, and the horse.

Perhaps we might say that to read the Bible as literature we must recover our ability to respond to biblical literature with a child’s sense of wonder. Certainly it requires a greater responsiveness to the immediate, experiential aspect of biblical literature than our theological bent has encouraged.

Why is a literary approach to the Bible necessary, especially since we seem to have gotten along without it for so long? I have already said that it is needed as an aid to understanding what the Bible says. Any piece of writing must be read in terms of what it is. A reader of Scripture is opening the door to misunderstanding whenever he ignores the literary principles of various literary forms. When he fails to ask literary questions he will go astray, interpreting figurative expressions as if they were intended literally, looking for theological propositions in a lyric poem that contains mainly an outpouring of human emotion or in a story that is mainly a record of events, allegorizing the Song of Solomon because he does not know how to respond to love poetry, turning Jonah into a model prophet because he fails to understand how satire works, regarding Ecclesiastes as wholly pessimistic because he overlooks its dialectical pattern and its quest structure, and so forth. Belief in the authority of the Bible will not by itself be sufficient for understanding if the reader ignores the literary principles that underlie the Bible and determine much of its meaning.

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A second reason why we should read the Bible as literature is that this is how we appreciate its artistic beauty. Not much can be said to commend biblical scholars and preachers on this score. They have taught us a great deal about the Bible as a repository of truth and a guide to righteous conduct, but where do we learn about the Bible as an object of beauty and a source of artistic enrichment? Any consciously artistic work of literature has an aesthetic dimension that exists quite apart from the content. This purely artistic residue, made up of the usual elements of artistic form such as unity, progression, design, balance, contrast, repetition, and variation, is part of the beauty that every writer of literature communicates through his form, whatever his subject matter may be. It is this beauty that gets short-changed in the usual treatments of the Bible.

The parts of the Bible that are the most artistically wrought are sometimes relatively short on theological material or homiletic potential. The story of Ruth, for example, lends itself to much literary discussion, while commentaries on the book are short and sermons rare. The story of David and Goliath is full of narrative technique but by itself light in theological material. Psalm 23 possesses a wealth of poetic technique and artistry all out of proportion to what it says theologically about providence. If we continue to think only in theological categories we will slight works that are both important and high in their human appeal. What is needed is a set of literary terms and expectations and responses that will do justice to the artistic beauty of these works.

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Reading the Bible as literature offers a third benefit, in addition to being an aid to understanding and artistic enrichment: the possibility of recovering and sustaining the wonder and delight of Bible reading. Our tendency has been to bury the Bible under too much abstract theology and historical background, failing to respond to its wealth of stories and characters and poems. A person who reads the Bible regularly needs variety. Many readers have discovered that reading the Bible as literature is a revitalizing practice. What is true of these readers can be true of ministers, Sunday-school teachers, and discussion leaders as well.

The literary approach to the Bible has large implications for biblical scholarship. For one thing, it is one of the best correctives to some of the abuses of negatively critical biblical scholarship. In particular, a genuinely literary approach to the Bible can counteract the tendency to reduce the biblical text to a series of fragments, the obsession with sources (real and imagined), the speculation about how many redactors worked on a text, an overemphasis on historical and linguistic background, and a disparagement of the supernatural element in biblical literature. On the other side, conservative biblical scholarship has neglected questions of literary form almost entirely. It, too, has been absorbed with questions of historicity, authorship, and theology to the neglect of biblical works as finished literary products. Surely the time has come for biblical scholars to move beyond the highly specialized study of what lies behind the Bible to a consideration of the text as a literary whole that communicates its message through literary forms.

How should we view the literary study of the Bible in the school classroom, where the current interest seems to have begun? I suggest that evangelical Christians affirm such study of the Bible in principle, while being critical of certain forms the movement has taken to date. The impetus for studying the Bible in public schools came with the Supreme Court’s Schempp decision of 1963, which stated, “It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities.” In principle the teaching of the Bible as literature is something that Christians should welcome. The initiative is currently in public education, and Christian schools should follow their lead. The argument that Christian schools, with their abundance of Bible courses, do not need a literature-of-the-Bible course taught by the English department is invalid, since the approaches taken by biblical scholars and literary critics are very different.

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Although courses in the literature of the Bible are good in principle, in practice they often fail both academically and in acceptability to evangelical Christians. The chief problem is that the approach has not been genuinely literary. Sensing a lack of helpful literary criticism, teachers have taken biblical scholarship as their model instead of relying on their own knowledge of literature and literary criticism. Instead of asking literary questions of the text, many teachers have talked instead about sources, the documentary hypothesis, and historical background. This procedure has erred academically because the theories of the prevailing biblical scholarship have been presented as facts. Non-evangelical scholarship is so solidly entrenched that it is often regarded as factual, while the evangelical position is relegated to the status of a mere bias or theory.

In this climate of opinion, evangelicals cannot be expected to endorse what is taught in courses on the literature of the Bible. The solution to the problem is to insist that such courses be truly literary in nature. If the biblical text is approached as a work of literature, people of all religious persuasions can meet on a common ground in studying it. Literary discussions of the Bible are beginning to appear in print, with the result that teachers of biblical literature should find it increasingly easy to escape the problems posed by following the model of biblical scholarship.

Reading the Bible as literature is not simply a new fad. It is actually a heritage from the Reformation and Renaissance. Renaissance poets and rhetoricians showed a high regard for the literary dimension of the Bible. Such major English poets as Wyatt, Surrey, Sidney, and Milton paraphrased the Psalms in English, partly as a kind of poetic apprenticeship. This practice attests the acceptance of biblical poetry as a model of poetic form and style. The noblest monument of Renaissance literary theory, Sir Philip Sidney’s Apology For Poesy, repeatedly draws upon the Bible for illustrations of literary forms. Petrarch wrote that “to call Christ now a lion, now a lamb, now a worm, what pray is that if not poetical? And you will find thousands of such things in the Scriptures, so very many that I cannot attempt to enumerate them.” During the Renaissance, moreover, English grammar schools gave considerable attention to the rhetorical style of the Bible, and at least five books of rhetoric were based mainly or solely on biblical examples. The author of one of these manuals of composition wrote regarding the Bible, “The Figurative … Elegancies of that blessed Book … abound with the most excellent and divinest eloquence.”

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Most instructive of all is the example of the greatest English poet, John Milton. When writing a poem, Milton used biblical as well as classical models as guides. He speaks of the book of Job as a brief epic, the Song of Solomon as a pastoral drama, Revelation as a “tragedy,” by which he meant drama, and biblical lyrics as songs. It is obvious that Milton was accustomed to looking at the Bible in terms of literary forms. An early biographer of Milton tells us that when the blind poet was working on Paradise Lost he would daily listen to readings from the Bible as well as other literature. “David’s Psalms,” writes the biographer, “were in esteem with him above all poetry.” That this esteem was literary and artistic as well as doctrinal is evident from Milton’s own statement that the lyric poems of the Bible, “not in their divine argument alone, but in the very critical art of composition, may be easily made appear over all the kinds of lyric poesy to be incomparable.”

I urge a recovery of this kind of view of Scripture.

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