Bible as Literature (plus Theologians)

I’ve been a little busy, (see here) so I’m late coming to this excellent post (that nevertheless I have some disagreements with) by Matthew entitled God too Important to be Left to Theologians. Since I’m studying theology let me defend their role for a second. [If the meaning is God Too Important to only be left to theologians, I actually agree quite strongly.]

This is a longish quotation from the piece but it spells out nicely the key stance:

What is consistent about both of these formal Bible as Literature experiences was the transparent and granular sensation that the books read of the Holy Bible were at least as profound about the human condition as any of the other literary masterpieces on encounters as a Literature major, and many times, much more profound than anything else. Why? I think once all of the institutional nonsense that Big Church brings to bear upon the stories in the Holy Bible goes away, the literary and philosophical devices inherent in Genesis, Job, Matthew, Ecclesiastes, etc., shine through unimpeded. The words of the stories are allowed to do the imaginative and intellectual work upon the brain unfiltered and unpressurized. Moments of strange characterization — such as almost every time the character of “God” makes an appearance in the Literature — are not “explained” by a minister or pastor according to the company line of his or her institutional seminary training. No, instead the strangeness is simply accepted as one would accept the same in Shakespeare or Milton. By accepting the strangeness, the dissonance, we agree to meditate and ruminate upon it, over time. By accepting the strangeness, we in fact start to live with it.

But living with the stories of the Holy Bible does not mean fully understanding the stories, seeing them as simplistic “cultural artifacts” of human evolution equivalent to some five-year-old. Nor does living with the Holy Bible mean one becomes a Jew or a Christian, necessarily. Human institutions that are the ingredients of Big Church come and go. But the stories of Great Literature never die, as long as the stories are somewhere in print, or can be told mouth to ear as so many stories used to be told. It is obvious that while Big Church has its grips on societies around the globe, seminal works of Literature like the Holy Bible will be forever contorted for institutional gain. But while that all transpires, we can choose a different path. We can simply read the stories — privately and to our children being my two current preferred activities — and if we are artists, we can allow the insights within the stories to seep into our creative work. No church. No pastor. No congregation. Just the stories, ma’am. You, the pages, your imagination.

This way is often termed The Bible as Literature which is really shorthand for The Bible Read (Only) as Literature. I put only in parenthesis because I don’t like the implication that literature is “only” something. Literature is as transformative and profound as Matthew says it, including the Bible, and more so. And from vantage point it helps emphasis how we read, how we approach a text is part of the process and as a result there is more than one way to read.

Writing for artists as Matthew is, I think what he lays out is perfectly correct. Even for non-artists (if that is the right term) as I’ve said before The Bible as Literature is a profound way of reading. The best book on the subject, the best read of the Bible as Literature (imo) is Jack A. Miles’ book God: A Biography.

But there still is this looming question of other reads/other ways especially for non-artists that I want to hold up as equally valid contra (I think) Matthew.

Let me use an analogy from another great work of Literature, the Divine Comedy of Dante.

Dante’s Divine Comedy is built upon a three-tiered cosmological schema. Hell (with Purgatorio in between), Earth, and Heaven. The Bible, similarly, holds a three-tier wedding-cake like cosmology. And that cosmology is literally believed. That was the actual universe in which the Biblical authors and Dante wrote. And they had no other scientific information to tell them otherwise (as we do today). Now of course the cosmology could also be used as metaphor–e..g The Kingdom of Heaven meaning the rule of God but also meaning actually the Rule of the place actually above the sky. Or similarly with Datne, midway along life’s journey (metaphor for being midway between the journey of life/death and eternal happiness). But in that case it’s metaphor on top of actual view of things.

Similarly the Bible as well as Dante accepted (or rather never questioned) human slavery. Dante like those of his age accepted as proper torture and execution for religious heretics as well as their burning in hell. All of which contemporary individuals in the West schooled in the tradition of religious pluralism, secular governance, and abolitionism correctly identify as backwards culturally and politically as well as immoral. Not to mention that we understand that the universe is not a three tier structure with Heaven, Earth, and Hell. But rather Earth and more space above and below and all around.

In other words, those aspects of a text that involve cosmology, social structure, economics, are open to criticism in light of later developments. Those pieces of information are discovered via a different process than reading the Bible as Literature. They are simply running on parallel non-intersecting dimensional tracks. Something I would characterize as more subtle than an unpacked dismissive reference to “five year olds.”

Another example. Reading for the original historical context and original authorial intention (as much as that can be reconstructed by us today). In Matthew’s schema there are artists/Bible as literature readers and then theologians propping up Big Church. He unfortunately leaves out an entire other class of individuals relevant to this context, namely Biblical Scholars, some of whom are theologians, many of whom are not.

Biblical scholars study for example the historical context that a piece of literature, like the Bible, responds to. Again using the Dante analogy, knowing something about the Guelph-Ghibelline Civil War and the later White/Black Guelph split illuminates a great deal of the Divine Comedy. Dante stood in Florentine politics against Papal Intervention and has within the Realms of Hell, Popes. Which of course you can read in the Bible as Literature only department as part of the story, but on what I might call a historical-ethical read, knowing that history which is not found in the text itself but which he is clearly referencing because he like all authors would rightly have assumed his audience would have understood what he meant without having to explicate everything, opens up a great deal of room for thought and reflection…just so with the Bible. e.g. How the reader needs to know something concerning the post-Alexander the Great Syrian Greek empire’s rule over Palestine to understand the Biblical text of Daniel. Or the Roman patronage system for the Letter to Philemon.

In this way, the reader tries to understood what the author originally meant to his/her audience, then thinks about how our day and age is similar or dissimilar to our own. Whether what Dante (in this example) said in his day and age politically, ethically, etc still applies. Does the reader think Dante was right in his day much less our own?

So again for an artist, for a literature reading this isn’t necessary. I agree with that. I think Matthew is right that certain key elements shine through with or without this learning. Other elements do not. And those other elements (however we want to call them) I think possess an enormous value if not for say in an artistic context.

But outside those bounds, other ways are necessary, nay crucial. Each path is whole unto itself. And yet there are multiple wholes if you will.

All of which need not be an arm of Big Church–in fact often these types of reading help subvert the influence of Big Church whether from within or without. As someone who is within a Church but tries to reform from within, these other methods are immensely crucial to help evoke change and even the desire for change which is often just as important.

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Published in: on May 20, 2008 at 6:33 pm  Leave a Comment  
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