Commentary: Reading the Bible as Literature

My all-time favorite BYU class was Steve Walker’s The Bible as Literature. It was the best of both worlds ““ it had the spirit of the very best religion classes and the stimulation of the best literature classes. What was particularly impressive about the class, though, was not that we covered so much material, but that we covered so little. Throughout the entire semester, I don’t think we covered more than 20 pages of text. The class was two and a half hours a session, once a week. And in each class period we discussed only a single passage, such as Gen. 22: 1-8, Psalms 102: 1-21, Luke 15: 11-32, and the single chapter Book of Susanna from the Apocrypha. I think the most text we covered in a single class was the four chapter Book of Jonah.

Our discussion rarely, if ever, delved into a Nibley-esque historical exegeses, nor did it include the many of the trite, personal comments the likes of which are often found in Sunday School. We discussed the text itself. Every week I would go into the class not believing that we could possible spend the entire period discussing the small excerpt presented before us, and invariably feeling like we were just beginning to get our feet wet at the end of the class. Steve Walker performed the miracle of the loaves and fishes every week.

I was so impressed that I began to wonder if our success in class was due to Walker’s genius or if the Bible really was that good. By all means, I must give credit to Steve Walker and his superhuman ability to read with a thousand eyes, but I actually ended up believing that the Bible really is that good.

When I say “good”, I mean that there’s more than meets the eye. As believers, we read our scriptures like non-fiction ““ which is a good thing, because I think they are non-fiction. At least most of it, anyway. But part of the problem with reading the scriptures as non-fiction is that when we think we understand what a verse means, we move onto the next one. When we come back to the scriptures after having read them before, we are really just becoming more familiar with what we already think is there.

But I think there’s great value to reading the Bible as fiction ““ as literature. I think the greater variety of ways we can interpret the scriptures, the better. Granted, if you come up with 10 readings of a passage, seven of them may be ridiculous. But if it leaves you with three plausible interpretations, that’s two more than you had before. Christ’s parables all had a central purpose, but they are imbedded with innumerable lessons directed at multiple audiences. I think much of the Bible is the same way. The more we can mine out of the text, the richer our experiences will be.

In one class period, we must have spent at least a half an hour furiously debating Sarah’s role in Genesis 22, which is remarkable considering Sarah is not even mentioned in Genesis 22. But I don’t think our discussion was merely an exercise in speculative theology or history. The ways in which Sarah fits into the narrative creates a number of variants in the way we interpret the story. I think those variants are a good thing, and that, even if not historically correct, they increase our understanding of the stories and their potential lessons.

The scriptures, and I think the Bible in particular, are written in extreme understatement. We are so used to a world of overstatement everywhere we turn, that I think we overlook much of the depth and power in the greatly understated Bible. When we start actually paying attention to the subtleties of the text, we quickly discover a world of possibilities. If we will read them with open minds and open hearts, I believe our scripture reading experience will go from black and white to Technicolor.

5 thoughts on “Commentary: Reading the Bible as Literature”

  1. Not wanting to nitpick, but using the term literature does not necessarily imply fiction.But I agree, there can be a distinction of attitude between our views of scripture and literature, and that can effect the way we read the text.. 

    Posted by MahNahvu

  2. The issue about whether interesting literary criticism discussions entails that the underlying literature be good “as literature” is an interesting one. Probably undermined by the issue of what being good as literature means. It can’t mean readability. Otherwise Joyce wouldn’t be included, even though he’s considered to have produced some of the great literature of the 20th century. Good literature seems tied to good (or at least interesting) criticism in many ways.

    It’s an interesting question. On AML we had a debate about whether believers simply took their sacred texts to be good literature precisely because of their belief. Yet, the Bible clearly is studied in literature classes by the typically unbelieving academy. I’m told that if you read the Koran in Arabic rather than a translation that it reads much better and is interesting as literature.

    So what about the Book of Mormon? 

    Posted by clark

  3. Listen to The Man!

    If your only experience with scripture has been the sort of thing found in the traditional LDS approach, you are missing some great stuff.

  4. Nice post Eric.

    If we read the story of Judah and Tamar as scripture, most of us would miss out on the irresistable charm and magical quality where the tricky lady playes the harlot. Usually church members are more concerned whether Judah and Tamar were in some kind of transgression, or how the entire episode can be swept under the rug. But when read as literature, the tale is entirely delightful.

    If we read the book of Job as a morality play, instead of as scripture, the entire procession of characters makes a lot more sense and has a much more vivid, heightened unfolding. And it looses none of the message, and still has a place in sacred writ.

    When we focus some attention upon how the words are put together in the poetic portions of the Bible and on the rich imagery and lofty spirit of those passages, rather than merely attempt to interpret the meaning, then we can experience a sense of the beauty and richness of the Bible as literature. The words can distill upon our souls at much deeper levels, and the entire experience can be far more satisfying.


    Posted by MahNahvu

  5. Clark, I’m still out on The Book of Mormon. I could be wrong, but it seems to me that it’s written much more simply and more straightforward. There definitely literary value to it, and it certainly rewards a close reading, but I don’t see it on the same literary level as the Bible.

    MahNahu, good points. And those are some great Bible stories. I think there’s value to the current approach Sunday School takes on teaching the Bible, but I think it’s unfortunate that more of theses stories aren’t taught as narrative stories.

    Posted by Eric Russell

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