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How to Read the Bible as Literature
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Rachel Kilgore

I am neither a philosopher nor a theologian, yet as a professor at Saint Constantine College and TSCS' High School, I frequently teach books of the Bible. Have we made some mistake? Ought I to stick to (the divine) Jane Austen and (the inimitable) John Donne, leaving the more serious texts for those properly trained? Of course, we at Saint Constantine think not. I am not a theologian, but I am a professor of literature. And the Bible, before it is anything else, is a work of literature.

And now that you are concerned (as, properly, you should be!) at my calling the Bible literature, I shall pause to define a “professor of literature.” I am a Philomyth – a lover, student, and scholar of story.  Theologians, Historians, Philosophers, and Philomyths all study the same works, but at different levels in the reading process. We all begin at the initial reading with a childlike wonder and curiosity, and we must all stop at the second level, home of the literary, for some time. Here, we do the slow and attentive exercise of noticing patterns, connecting ideas within the work, and generally recreating the world of the story in our imagination. The third stage belongs to the philosopher and theologian, who develop the slow literary reading into principles that may applied to the world outside of the text. Though good readers travel through all the levels, specialists make their home at different points and then collaborate. My own tent is pitched at the later end of the second level; I deal in theory, but not philosophy or theology. A literature professor, then, is one who professes a love of story and poetry, and who has therefore become a student and scholar of literature. And if the Bible is literature, then it should yield its riches (as does every story) to the Philomyth.

For those of us living close to the church, it can be easy to forget that the Bible, while a primary source for theology, is not, itself, a book of theology. It is a story. It begins with God calling into a void for a light that would shine on a perfect world. It introduces a problem when God’s arch-enemy tempts the king and queen of that perfect world into treason, and, to the ruin of all, he triumphs. But a Champion is promised, and through pages and pages of war, promise, hymns of hope and lament, journeys of exile and return, the world waits for this Victor who finally arrives, but as a commoner. In a hero-in-disguise narrative, he surprises every expectation for a Champion, but ultimately succeeds in the battle of temptation where the first parents failed, swallowing the curse whole, then rising in victory first from death, then from earth. The story then works through a long denouement as the curse’s slow unraveling spreads through the earth. It ends with the great Enemy’s final exile from the new-won world where the Victor reigns with his kings and queens for all eternity in the ultimate happily-ever-after. That, my friends, is a story.

Of course, there is some theologizing in the epistles, but it develops out of second-level readings of the Bible's narrative. And of course, there is also history, but what is “a history” except a narrated story of something that really happened. There’s poetry too, but these are situated within the narrative as laments, rejoicing, and prophecies at particular moments of the narrative. The largest collection of these, The Psalms, are meant to help the Israelites find their identity after the exile. 

If the Bible is literature, is it not actually unethical and even unchristian not to treat it as such? True, C. S. Lewis does caution against teaching a “Bible as Literature” course at a secular university, since scholars may be tempted to treat it as nothing more than literature. But Lewis himself (not a theologian, nor even a Hebrew scholar) wrote a commentary on The Psalms on his credentials as a scholar of Literature.  So long as we don’t go posing new theologies, and so long as we remember that theologies are necessary, we should be not only safe, but morally bound, to enter the world of the Bible as readers at the literary level.

Since we are so out of practice in this exercise, here are a few rules that we generally apply to other books, but have forgotten when it comes to the Bible:


Rule 1: Abstain from theologizing for a time. I know it’s not quite possible (and more than half of you are alarmedly shouting that it is “not quite desirable either!”),  but remember that this is the second step only, and that we will remember our theology when we are done. We live in theology; we are adventuring, for a time, into story.

Rule 2: Consider your cultural and historical location. While we may have been raised with these passages that are as familiar as our mother’s tongue, we must understand that historically, the Bible, and particularly the Old Testament, were written before the great movements that shaped the western mind. Abraham’s questioning of the angels sent to destroy Gomorrah could not have been Socratic dialogue. But St. Paul’s structures of rhetorical questions might have been. Yet the same apostle certainly did not soliloquize to the raging storm that shipwrecked him as Wordsworth might have, so; “ah, I remember the last storm I was in – how much I have changed in relation to this spirit in nature!” But we might do so because of the Romantics. And so it goes. In particular, American culture is uniquely extreme in individualism, which affects how we think, use language, relate to our communities, value justice, and bear responsibility. It also makes us almost childishly honest, compared to communal cultures. Yet the Bible was written in and to an intensely communal culture. So do not judge Rahab’s lie or David’s feigned madness through American eyes. Let the texts themselves give you the cultural lens through which to see them.

Rule 3: Read like a child. Ask the excited “what comes next!” questions, and then expect answers. When the answers surprise you, ask why, and what is the effect of that choice in the narrative which is different than the choice you might make. 

Rule 4: Know what genre you are in, and don’t expect modern genres in ancient literature. There is no science textbook in the Bible, though the history the Bible offers does have implications for modern science. But also, be sure that what you are reading is actually tagged as historical. The Book of Job does not have the same genre tone as Esther or of Chronicles. Remember that History as we know it today did not exist in the west until the 1600’s (see Rule 2). If you want to know what ancient history looked like, take The Chronicles and Samuel as your guides.

Rule 5: Look for patterns in language and narrative and look for when those patterns are broken. Look for connections between books and across genres. Notice the position of the “camera lens,” and try to fill in what is hidden, while noticing that it is hidden. Ask why it is written this way and not another way. Ask "what is the effect of making it this way?"

Rule 6: Consider the human author when you are in a single text, and consider the divine author when you are comparing one book to another. The author of Jonah made particular choices when he ends that book with the saving of the cattle, as did the author of Job when he describes a conversation in heaven as though no humans were present, or John when he wrote with such a warm pastoral voice so different from Paul’s more scholarly one. Do not let theologies of scriptural inspiration overshadow these choices of the human author, but definitely consider the effect of choices only a divine author can make in the arrangement of the whole. The choice, for instance, of author, subject, arrangement, and preservation to this modern day, are more obviously the work of the divine. 

Rule 7: Pin down the simple and obvious meanings before complicating it with alternative suggestions. Just as it is wrong to ask what kind of person Elizabeth Bennet represents before discovering who she is as a person, it is also limiting to ask what David’s stones represent before wondering what the boy David must have seen and felt when he walked out on a battlefield in his shepherd’s clothes that day, or what in heaven’s name Saul was thinking when he chose him to be champion. Later, we can ask what this unlikely champion has in common with that promised Champion who is coming. In the same way, it would be limiting to only ask what David felt. Don’t neglect either the grand or the small picture.  

Rule 8: Read the whole thing. At Saint Constantine, we never discuss a book until the students have read the whole thing for one important reason: We’ve no right to an opinion on Elizabeth Bennet’s judgment of Darcy until we know that she accepts him in the end. What makes us think we can understand the grief of the exile without fully experiencing the joy of the city under the reign of David and Solomon? Or that Paul’s grief over the Jews will make any sense without seeing also Christ’s grief over the same, and the long history of his struggle to establish them his kingdom in the Old Testament. Read not only carefully and closely, then, but also largely and expansively and hungrily. The Bible satisfies both appetites.

Rule 9:  Remember that the divine Author of this book is one who broke language at Babel, yet chose to write in the medium he himself broke, through the varied voices of the human authors.  We should therefore (among many profounder implications of this large idea) be very okay with ambiguity, knowing that the final solution to this puzzle of pieces of language is found only in the mystery of Pentecost. What we might find, and who we might meet, if we give up the “irritable reaching after fact and reason” (Keats), is a wonder that we have yet to fully discover.

Among the many benefits of reading in this way is that the literally happening of these events is less important to their effect and meaning.  Thus, learning that the ark has been discovered in a place other than the Bible seems to suggest has almost no effect on the literary reader, and certainly will not shake faith apart from reason. Nor will learning that the genealogy in Matthew’s gospel does not correspond exactly to other Biblical genealogies. Such observations only makes the literary-eyed say “Oh! Then the author made a choice there that is even more intriguing! What, I wonder, is the significance of the careful numbers in that genealogy?” And they will learn, among other beauties, that the writer emphasizes the fullness and the completion of time in the arrival of Christ through a neat pattern of 3 sets of 14. 

If any pastor, priest, or theologian objects to anything I have written here, I can only say I am a lowly Philomyth, writing to increase the love of the story before us, which ultimately allows the text to have its intended effect. And in the end, there is no danger of reading the Bible as literature only - because more than any book written, this is one which, if treated as any other book, shouts with defined force, that it is definitely not.