The (secular) college I attended for my undergrad offered classes on the Bible as literature. I (along with most in my circle of Christian friends) avoided these like the plague. How could I study the Bible as literature? It is literally God’s word. It comes with his power and authority. It is absolute truth. A secular course that has me reading the Bible as a work of literature is bound to misrepresent the Bible and destroy my faith. Right?
We all have those things in our lives that we wish we could go back and do differently. This is one of mine. I’m not certain that these classes would have been life changing, and I’m fairly confident that most of the religious studies professors had a low view of Scripture. But I’m no longer afraid of reading the Bible as literature.
The simple fact is, the Bible is literature. And because the Bible is God’s spoken word, this means that God intentionally wrote the Bible to be literature.
I’m pretty sure that a lot of us would like the Bible a whole lot better if it gave us lists. Lists of doctrines, lists of moral conduct, lists of “believe this, don’t believe that.”
As a matter of fact, for most of my Christian life I have thought of the Bible like this. The New Testament epistles are fantastic because once you get past all the interpersonal letter type stuff, Paul will slip into some serious doctrinal discussions. The Psalms are pretty good because they often speak directly to God. The rest of the Old Testament and the narrative sections of the New Testament, however, are pretty rough. You have to read through pages of story and distill them until you get to the doctrinal or moral point. Wouldn’t it have been easier if God had simply given us a list?
None of us would express it like this, of course. But come on, admit it, you’ve thought this deep down. If you were writing the Bible, you wouldn’t have included Leviticus. Or Philemon. Or most of the narratives in Judges.
But there is something to be said for the fact that God gave us the Bible as-is. Leland Ryken puts it in perspective:
“The Bible is overwhelmingly (though not exclusively) a work of literature. The one thing that the Bible is not is what Christians so often picture it as being—a theological outline with proof texts attached. The characteristic way of expressing religious truth in the Bible is through story, poem, vision, and letter. By comparison, expository essays, theological discourses and sermons are a relative rarity.” (The Liberated Imagination, 41)
The existence of the Bible proves irrefutably that God has an interest in poetry. We know for certain that God is a storyteller. God isn’t content to only write poems with powerful content, he also sometimes takes the time to ensure that they are crafted as beautiful acrostics (this is the case with Psalm 119, for example). He likes people and relationships and isn’t embarrassed by the greetings, asides, and practicalities in the epistles.
The Bible is more than literature, but it is not less. And God did that on purpose. So the next time you find yourself reading the Bible and getting frustrated that you can’t find “the point,” relax and enjoy the Bible as God wrote it. Pay attention to the literary devices, the analogies, the rhetoric. Let these literary features have their intended rhetorical effect on you. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be surprised at all the ways in which the Bible begins to take on a new life.
(And by the way, if you really want to be focused on the literary features of the Bible, I highly recommend the ESV Literary Study Bible. I have been thoroughly enjoying mine.)