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The Bible as Literature?

February 23, 2009

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The Bible is a multi-faceted text.  In between its covers lives a wealth of knowledge and wisdom, truth and inspiration the equal of which cannot be found in the whole of human-kind’s literary attempts.  The Bible’s greatest strength is its authorship by Almighty God which produces a work perfect in form and meaning, inerrant and forever applicable to the reader irregardless of age or level of scholarship.  The smallest of literate children can find truth in its pages, and the most astute scholars can lose lifetimes of hours in its pages and still fail to plum its depths.  God in His infinite grace and mercy has given the world this Word that by it humanity may be born-again. (I Peter 1:23)  The manor in which God has communicated his word is the subject of Leland Ryken’s How to Read the Bible as Literature.  As the title implies, this heavenly text has been codified to us through earthly means, by the use of writers.  These writers have written using the tools and styles of literature.  Ryken argues that the Bible is not, “a theological out line with proof texts attached.”  It is, however, a text about which its human writers were “preoccupied with artistry, verbal craftsmanship and aesthetic beauty.” (Ryken9)  The Bible is in form and, in part function, the use of literature to communicate God’s truth to man “appealing to his understanding through the imagination.”(20)  Ryken spends 208 pages defining this literature and defending its study as “it demands a literary approach in addition to the historical and theological approaches.  Our tasks in this review are to examine some of the literary forms Ryken highlights, how they are utilized and how their utility affects interpretation; moreover, we will critique the good and bad of his approach.

            Ryken lists and describes a number of literary genres that appear in the Bible, among these are: narrative or story, poetry, proverb, and visionary writing. (26)  That these forms appear in scripture is not in dispute, rather Ryken’s focus is on how the understanding of these forms aids in the interpretation of the texts.  The first of these to be illuminated is narrative.

            Stories or “narrative forms” pervade the Bible, yet “not every sequence of events in the Bible is a story in the literary sense of the term.”(33)  Stories use specific components to accomplish a range of ends.  Narratives must have as ingredients: settings, characters, and a plot or action, all of which work on the reader to communicate a meaning intended by the author.  Ryken outlines three rules for reading and understanding biblical stories: One, “look upon biblical stories as an invitation to share an experience as vividly and concretely as possible, with the characters in the story.”(32) Two, “pay close attention to every detail of setting… and if setting has an important role analyze how it contributes to the story.”(37)  Finally, “use every relevant detail in a story to get to know the characters as fully as possible.” (40)  The existence of settings in stories aid the reader in understanding how and why characters react the way that they do.  Moses did not lead the Israelites out of Egypt in a vacuum; they endured plagues, crossed a sea, followed pillars of fire and smoke and received God’s law at the foot of His mountain.  In Ryken’s view, these details are a gift to the reader in that examining these settings both geographical and cultural we gain a greater understanding of the characters, their actions and how both advance the plot.

            Stories as they are found in the Bible generally make assertions about “three great issues of life;” reality, morality, and/or values. (58)  Instead of making propositional statements about these issues, stories make these lessons an inference, the result of interpretation by the reader, often allowing the lessons to become memorable and impressive.(59)  The plot and characters don’t speak to the plot or characters but something greater, in need of interpretation.  Ryken gives the example of Gideon from Judges 6-7, rather than the face-value account given of his actions his story is not a story about his acted feelings of inadequacy but rather what “God did with a reluctant hero suffering from insecurity.”(60)  Stories allow the reader to identify with the actions, feelings, settings of the characters and thus make the main point of the story far more communicable.  Details matter in a story and are best served by the readers avid attention and respect, for each part ads to the importance of the whole.

            The second major genre of literature Ryken addresses is “the most prevalent type of writing in the Bible,” that of poetry. (87)  Four books in scripture are “entirety poetic in form, Psalms, Song of Solomon, Proverbs and Lamentations.”(87)  The presence of poetry proliferates every other book in the Bible, in some form, either as quotation, lament, worship, lyric or praise.  And these forms find construction in figures of speech like simile, metaphor, allusion, hyperbole, symbolism, and personification. (100)  Scriptural poetry as a language of images serves the same purpose of poetry in general.(88)  Poetic language is freed from the bonds of literal description and allow the writer and the reader to transcend face value meanings and find meaning in the abstract.  According to Ryken, poetry is inherently fictional, stating things that are not literally true but using images to draw comparison often through parallelism, necessitating imagination on the part of the reader for understanding. (89)  Ryken ably maintains that poetry is heightened speech (107); it calls the reader to greater levels of effort in interpreting ideas and finding truths that are both simple and extremely nuanced.  Its prevalence throughout scripture attests to the importance of understanding its rules and uses.

            The next genre Ryken briefly addresses is the proverb or aphorism.  Ryken describes the Bible as the “most aphoristic book in the world.”(121)  Proverbial statements are just that, brief memorable axioms stated in scripture.  Proverbs are often both simple and profound (122) general and specific, occasionally take the form of poetry and offer prescriptive direction for life activities. (123)  While located throughout scripture, two books can be describes as proverbial anthologies Ecclesiastes and Proverbs, both fit Ryken’s criteria for literature that they are a form of verbal art and that its content “comes from close observation of life.”(128).

            The Gospels provide an excellent venue to describe the remaining literary forms which Ryken singles out.  The Gospels are truly a hybrid literary genre. (132)  Ryken notes that they are themselves narratives, but they are also composed of parables (short stories, similes or analogies told by Jesus) (139), visionary literature (prophetic genre), and poetry.  The Gospels provide a sampling of many literary genres all of which work to tell the overarching narrative of Jesus, His life, His ministry, His death and resurrection.  The epistles are a natural extension of the Gospel narrative, inasmuch as they use continue the broader themes in a form that is both literary and expositional. 

            Ryken’s handling of these varied forms and his argument for the importance of understanding them is worth discussing.  As stated from the outset, one can not deny that the Bible is a work of literature, existing in many forms which accomplish as many different purposes.  There should be a space afforded in this discussion, though it was not in the book, to address some concerns and provide some cautions for the reader embarking to understand the Bible as literature.  Readers of Ryken’s work should pay close attention to Chapter 12 The Literary Unity of the Bible.  In fact one could make a successful argument to place this chapter in the front of the book rather than the end.

            The Bible is not just any literary work, it is nothing less than God breathed wisdom which attests to His glory and communicates His story and love for his creation.  One risks cheapening this by describing the Bible and its literary elements as anything less than divine revelation in which every “jot and tittle” has a purpose.  Ryken dances close to this at times and would have crossed the line had it not been for Chapter 12. 

            In describing narrative, Ryken speaks to authorial selectivity and arrangement of details.  That these “lie behind every story in the Bible.” He describes the fact that story tellers “control what we see and don’t see.”(63)  While this is true, it must be remembered that the director of “authorial selectivity” and “what one sees and or doesn’t see is God Almighty.  Failure to see this could result in a tendency to believe that the writers of scripture could have had a greater hand in what landed on the page than they did, and that selectivity that does exist in scripture could be as a result of their design and not God’s providential plan for his word.

             Important to note as well is that God is not bound by any literary device or rule.  For example, one such rule could be found in the discussion of poetic genre, and the use of “apostrophes” (direct address to someone absent and incapable of hearing in person).(98)  Ryken mentions several Psalms one of which is Ps. 103, “bless the Lord O my Soul and all that is within me…”  One could form the opinion that poetic verses such as this while not explicitly directed to God, do proclaim His glory and he is ever-present and always listening, we can do nothing in secret or apart from his knowledge. (Ps.44:21)  So while literary rules can be universal, it is important to remember that the divine nature of God does not have to bound by the same rules.

            Ryken’s treatment of the Bible is helpful for those who wish to gain insight into this greatest of books.  Ryken consistently maintains the importance that every literary detail has in interpreting scripture and that is both worthy and efficacious for the reader to remember.  The Book does possess a unity that is nothing less than supernatural; comprised of so many characters the God represents the central character, and his unfolding purposes throughout history and for history.  Ryken rightly asserts that this is a religious book, no matter how artistic or entertaining.(180)  More could have been said that above being simply religious this compilation of literary genres is nothing short of perfect, as it came from the very  Author of perfection.  And while it occupies the similar rules and verbiage as other literary and religious works, it stands apart in that when those pass away this one will remain and endure forever.(Isa 40:6-8)  It is worthy of Study now and always, and to what end Ryken calls the reader to that, he should be commended.        

(Copyright2009)

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One comment

  1. […] Bible.  (You can read my review of Ryken’s “How to read the Bible as Literature” here.)  Out this year is his latest contribution, “The Legacy of the King James Bible” […]



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