Reading the Bible as a Literary Person
Yesterday I wrote a post describing the differences between the literary and unliterary person. Gleaning from C.S. Lewis’ work An Experiment in Criticism I noted several differences between these two types of people. As I wrote, the main difference between the literary and the unliterary person can be seen in their approach to a great work of literature.
When a literary person approaches a work of literature they approach the work on its own terms. They will come to Chaucer’s The Miller’s Tale expecting to laugh and they will come to Oedipus expecting to cry. A literary person sees literature as a gift to be received and shaped by rather than a resources to be exploited.
Contrarily, the unliterary person approaches literature in one of two ways. Most commonly, the unliterary person approaches reading in an apathetic manner. Reading is a last resort to stymie boredom and not something to be pursued outright. But there is another type of unliterary person to which I just alluded to in the last sentence of the previous paragraph. This person sees literature as a tool to be used or a resource to be exploited.
As I wrote yesterday, this type of unliterary person is always seeking out the “moral of the story.” They are always trying to figure out what it was the author was really trying to say. This type of unliterary person believes that there is a reality hidden beneath the pages and behind the words of a story that must be understood in order to “get something out” of the text.
Unfortunately, it is this type of pragmatic unliterariness that so pervades many Christians’ approach to the Bible. By and large, the modern Christian church has become a temple to the gods of pragmatism. More often than not, your typical non-denominational worship box has just started a new series on “9 Steps to a Gospel Centered Marriage” or a “Kingdom Finances Series.” The hidden message behind these texts is that Christianity can solve your problems.
But this is a poor approach to the Christian faith. First and foremost, the Christian faith is a story. This makes people uncomfortable at first, but a cursory overview of the literary genres employed in Christianity’s sacred text (the Bible) should quell such notions. Only a very small portion of the Bible would be placed in the “Non-fiction” section of Barnes and Noble. Now, before you blow up the comments claiming that I don’t believe the Bible is true, let me go ahead and stop you right there.
What I’m saying is that we, as Moderns, are obsessed with a form of communication that is strictly proposition based. As Moderns, when we want to communicate an idea we (typically) don’t tell stories or parables. Instead we write op-ed pieces or blogs (like this one). 90% of the Bible is not like that, and even the 10% of the Bible that is like that really isn’t.
The Bible is mostly made up of a dramatically constructed history (Genesis – Esther), passionate and figurative poetry (Job – Song of Solomon), and mysterious and powerful prophetic writings (Isaiah – Malachi). Then, when we get to the New Testament (the part that we tend to think is more straight forward), we mostly have more history (Matthew – Acts) and prophecy (Revelation). Only a small sliver of the Bible makes us comfortable in its form (the New Testament Epistles).
If you were to go up to a typical protestant and ask them to explain the Gospel to you in one minute they would most likely give you three propositions: 1) Everyone has sinned and is justly condemned by God, 2) Jesus died for our sins to take away our condemnation, & 3) if you believe in Jesus you can be accepted by God and go to heaven. Essentially, if you ask someone what they Gospel is they will tell you a propositional form of Justification by faith alone.
Ironically, they think they get this definition from Paul. But if someone were to ask Paul what the Gospel is he would give a very different answer:
“Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believe in vain.
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” (1 Corinthians 15:1-8)
When Paul wanted to encapsulate “the Gospel” to the Christians in Corinth he told them a story.
Much of our problem as Modern Christians is that we do not treat the Christian faith as a story. We treat it like a number of propositions in order to solve our problems. Because of this we are prone to read the Bible in an exploitative manner rather than a receptive manner. Many Christians attempt to “study” the Bible like they are attempting to obtain a doctorate degree in Biblical exegesis.
While there certainly are advantages to those who are properly trained in the original languages, much of this attempt to strain gnats from every verse of scripture is a poor approach for Christian laity. The reason this is a poor approach is because many Christians have little understanding of the Biblical story as a whole when they are trying to “understand” every little thing they read.
We must learn from Lewis as I advised we all do in my post yesterday. To be literary Christians we must sit under the story of Scripture in a receptive posture. Firstly, we are not present to get the moral of the Biblical story. This is not because there are no morals in the Bible, there are. But we must first receive the story before we do anything else.
I’ve made the argument elsewhere that we, as Christians, should approach the Bible with an aim to be saturated by the text rather than to “understand” the text. Again, this does not mean that I am against us “understanding” Scripture, we must understand Scripture. However, what I believe is of greater importance is to be saturated by the Biblical story.
When we are saturated by the story of the Bible we begin to see the deep contours of Scripture. We begin to see how the story fits into place and how God has worked certain themes, motifs, and symbols subtly throughout the entirety of His great work of salvation.
Too often Christians will open to Genesis 1 and try to figure everything out as they go. They get bogged down in commentaries and details. This is like a novice in Shakespearean literature attempting to “interpret” The Tempest on their first read through the play. This person would be better served to have never had the notion of “interpretation” in his mind in the first place. He would be better served to go see The Tempest acted out four or five times by different directors and then to read the play for himself. Then it would be better for him to go and read other works of Shakespeare before coming back to “interpret” The Tempest.
Christians must approach the Bible similarly. There is no way to “understand” the Gospels and Jesus’ parables unless one is already keenly intimate with the story of Israel throughout the entire Old Testament. In order for Christians to be “literary” people when it comes to the Bible, we must first take a step back and simply read the story. Read it over and over. Once the story becomes a part of you then interpretation and understanding will be less of a burden and more of a joy.
Food for thought.