The Bible is a work of literature. That’s a relatively uncontentious statement, but one which has made a major impact on the way we read the Bible over the last couple of hundred years. The general acceptance that the Biblical books are “literature” as well as “Scripture” has enabled (or accompanied) a more nuanced reading of them, bringing to light insights which would not have been possible otherwise. The generic characteristics of various forms of ancient writing, such as vassalage treaties or biography, have given us a stronger sense of the meanings of these texts, by allowing us to see how they engage with the expectations readers would associate with these genres.
It also foregrounds the aesthetic, narrative and dramatic qualities of the Biblical books. When you can read a text as a narrative, rather than assuming it will consist of a set of rules, new possibilities emerge. You might find yourself identifying with characters, or noticing the ironies of the plot. When you can approach a text as a poem, you’re more alert to the repetition of symbols, and more inclined to let the meaning develop through them. The emphasis on aesthetic characteristics allows us to engage with the Bible in all sorts of ways which don’t involve taking it as a set of logical propositions about the nature of God, or of religious instructions on how to live.
It’s an extremely valuable approach to the Bible in many ways. But I’ve noticed that sometimes the “literary” approach to discussing the Bible develops some unhelpful quirks. I came across two examples in recent months, in books I was reading for review. One is by an internationally famous Christian author, and the other by a much less well-known writer, but both are concerned with the literary qualities of the Bible. (I’m not mentioning their titles because this isn’t a criticism of the authors, nor particularly of these books in question. It’s a general discussion of a trend in Christian writing.) I’ll cite some passages, and suggest why I think something has gone wrong here.
Suppose the Psalms had been lost and had never been printed in any Bibles or prayer books. Suppose they turned up in a faded but still legible scroll, discovered by archaeologists in the sands of Jordan or Egypt. What would happen? When deciphered and translated, they would be on the front page of every newspaper in the world. Many scholars from many disciplines would marvel at the beauty and content of these ancient worship songs and poems.
The issue I have with this passage is it seems to be disconnected from real life. Poetry hasn’t been particularly big news in this country for centuries. New poetry that no-one has yet read is even less likely to set news desks afire. How often do you see the most recent work of Geoffrey Hill reported as a hot story? And he’s one of the English language’s most famous living poets, who provides a steady stream of work to discuss. Carol Ann Duffy sometimes merits a few lines in the broadsheets because of her job, or because the Daily Mail doesn’t think she respects the royal family enough.
How many poets appear on the front pages in every country in the world? I can’t think of any. The British press is certainly not about to give blanket coverage to an anonymous collection of poetry in translation. My point in this rather pedantic objection is that this quotation treats the Psalms as inspired Scripture, whose force would compel everyone in the world to treat them as a revelation which demanded their attention. But that has little to do with their status as poetry. If we take the Bible seriously as poetry, we have to take poetry seriously as a category.
I’m made slightly uncomfortable by this slippage because I don’t like literature and literary criticism being hijacked to make other points. In the quotation above, it is suggested that “many scholas from many disciplines would marvel at the beauty and content” of the Psalms. That’s not really what scholars do. We might be in the business of literary criticism because we love literature, but we don’t spend our time marvelling to each other about beauty and “content”. A quotation from the other, less famous, book strikes the same note:
The Psalms are among the oldest poems in the world, and they still rank with any poetry in any culture, ancient or modern, from anywhere in the world.
This is not really the way literary studies treat poetry. We don’t “rank” the poetic productions of cultures against each other. When I hear this sort of language, I feel there is an agenda behind the discussion which has little to do with literary studies. I get the distinct feeling that this is another way of insisting that the Biblical text is somehow just better than every other book.
It’s a sort of aesthetic inerrancy: the Bible is in the form of literature, therefore the Bible must be the most literary literature in literary history. It uses the idea of “literature” as just another way to imply that the Bible is the only book really worth reading. The Bible is best, other books aren’t as good, even “secular” literary scholars would agree if they weren’t biased. It has a faint flavour of the popular Christian writers whom James Barr criticises for telling their readership that “the academy” has given up on historical-critical scholarship and has now come round to Biblicist notions.
The contradictions in this approach become even more obvious with a few more quotations from the second book:
We need to recover the truth that the Bible is a lively, dynamic book that is just as interesting to read as the latest travel narrative or a well-written novel. The Bible contains essays, epigrams, treatises, histories, sermons, legal documents, dramas, love songs, national anthems, war ballads, letters, orations, hymns of defeat and triumph, pilgrim songs, chants, riddles, fanciful acrostics, and indeed every other form of literary expression.
I don’t like to sound nit-picking about this (especially when I’m being exactly that), but the Bible does not contain “every other form of literary expression”. There is no drawing-room comedy in the Bible (though there is certainly social comedy), there is no film noir, there are no limericks, no graphic novels, no midcentury women’s fiction, no problem plays, no science fiction, etc, etc. I’m labouring this point because the significance of the Bible in literary terms depends upon it not containing these genres.
Literary texts operate by exclusion, by definition and by demarcation as much as by inclusion. A revenge tragedy is a revenge tragedy partly because it is not a city comedy or a sonnet. The meaning which an epic poem constructs is different from that produced by a sestina, in ways that are connected to their difference from each other.
The “horizon of expectation” which a genre sets up, in Stanley Fish’s term, depends on it being a particular kind of work and not another. So, for example, if we find a hero discovering a body in the library, we might suspect we are in a detective novel. That gives us certain expectations about the direction the story will go in, what sort of events are possible, and how the narrative will end.
If the dead body gets up and bites a chunk out of the hero’s shoulder, we realize the novelist has tricked us and in fact we’re reading a horror story. A new set of expectations suddenly replace those of the traditional detective novel. But if those expectations didn’t exist, there would be no framework through which we could understand what was going on. A book that contained every genre would – in literary terms – rapidly approach meaninglessness.
In fact, this very contradiction nearly becomes visible in a later passage from the same book:
The most distinctive characteristics of the writers of the Bible were their naturalness and simplicity. They were not following any rules of literary composition. With the possible exception of the poets, they were not trying to conform to the principles of literary construction that had been established for them by their predecessors. The most casual reader of the Bible will be impressed that these biblical writers were not straining to create certain moods or feelings.
Confusingly, the Bible now turns out to contain every single form of literary expression, whilst also not being in any form of literary expression. Whilst I don’t think the writer is necessarily a fan of Stanley Fish and his theory of genre and expectations, I suspect they have an instinctive grasp of the same sort of idea. A book that’s in every genre isn’t actually in any genre; and so it turns out to be, according to this quotation. So the Bible isn’t actually literature.
This is a major problem with the approach to “the Bible as literature” which simply wants to trumpet how much better the Bible is than anything else. It is logically incoherent. Reading the Bible as a set of literary texts involves careful comparison with other works in the same genre, examining their conventions, themes, symbols and narrative devices. It places the Bible alongside other books in order to deepen our understanding of the Biblical texts.
If we’re not honest about literature, if we rush to make statements about the Bible which ignore the facts of literary history or literary structure, this kind of reading will become impossible. Putting the Bible back into its historical and literary context will be self-defeating if we’re then so eager to explain how much better the Bible is than anything else that we render ourselves unable to see how it is like other things. This would blot out all the fascinating insights of the last centuries in a narrow and defensive blare of insisting that the Bible is the only book. If it was, we would not be able to make any sense of it. If we want to be true to the Bible, we need to be honest about literature, and not get carried away in insisting that our book is all that matters.