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The Bible as Literature

1.People are fair only to those whom they love. --Nicholas de Chamfort (1741-1794)

Those of us who love literature tend to be gentle with it and give it the benefit of the doubt. I think of the Bible as literature. It makes a great deal of difference whether one sees Genesis 1 as a poem or as a scientific treatise. Likewise, Jonah read as religious satire is different from Jonah read as history, and Revelation seen as apocalyptic literature reveals something other than Revelation understood as precise prognostications.

2.Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes. --Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

The Bible is messy. It was composed over a period of 2000 years—and that was 2000 years ago. Few books are like it. It is not politically correct. One reason it has lasted so long, I think, is that its grand themes are remarkably consistent and not contradictory. The Bible can always answer its critics by saying, “I have been influential now for 4000 years. What have you done lately?”

Reading the Bible well requires the perspective of centuries. One temptation is to read it anachronistically by viewing it only through the lens of contemporary literary theory, contemporary science, or contemporary progressivism. But the worst temptation is to read it at once ideologically and prosaically.

3.A poem should be equal to: Not true. --Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982)

Literature by definition requires the suspension of disbelief. If we attend a play or movie and do not suspend disbelief, we will soon say to ourselves, “This is ridiculous,” and walk out.

The suspension of disbelief does not imply that literature is a pack of lies. It means that in order to appreciate its truth and benefit from it, we must approach it as it is.

Like all good literature, the Bible has the ring of truth: Abraham is a liar, David is an adulterer, Moses has anger issues, Jesus sweats blood at the thought of his impending death. If the Bible is occasionally violent and harsh, it is also brutally honest and even-handed.

There is more to the Bible than meets the eye. It is subtle, surprising, and difficult to pigeonhole. It speaks to the human condition and the wisdom of the ages. That is why, as I write, it is being studied in graduate classes at Yale, Harvard, and Princeton—as well as at Bob Jones, Liberty, and Oral Roberts.

Is the Bible sometimes odious (Joshua 6:21; Psalm 137:7-9; 2 Kings 2:23-24; Leviticus 20:9-10, 27)? Perhaps. But far more often it is uplifting and inspiring. Those who find the Hebrew Bible too violent and cruel may choose to read the New Testament as an “amendment” to the Old.

Yet ironically, Jesus in the New Testament, to the dismay of some modern Christians, acts like too much of a pacifist—more willing to die than to fight.

Believer or skeptic, we cannot make the Bible over in our own image. It is what it is—equal to and, in that sense I think, profoundly true.


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on May 22, 2007 8:32 AM.

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