Reading the Bible as a Writer…

lion-and-lamb4C.S. Lewis once observed, “Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes.” The only palliative to the peculiar blindness of our own age, Lewis suggested elsewhere, ‘is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.’ When it comes to old books, they don’t get much older than the bible. For Christians, the benefits of studying God’s Word are well known. But Lewis’s remarks suggest an added benefit of reading the Bible, in particular for writers – Christian and non-Christian alike.
Unless contemporary writers test their vision against the wisdom and insight of former ages, they are likely to fall foul of the sort of error Lewis cautions against. But by keeping the ”clear sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds” we can strengthen our guard against the kind of writing that would serve only to reinforce the distorted vision of our own age. At the recent Reading Like a Writer Seminar at Adelaide’s Tabor College of Higher of Education, Rev Dr Mark Worthing presented the following overview of why and how the Bible should be read by today’s aspiring authors.

There is no shortage of biblical writings … which, if read by people of understanding – even if they are more interested in the content than in the eloquence of the language – will not fail to imbue them with something of the eloquence of the texts they are reading. This eloquence of style will only be increased if a person puts it into practice in their own writing and speaking – St Augustine, On Christian Doctrine 4, iii

 

Good writers read. Great writers read even more. And they don’t read drivel. The literary tastes of great writers is as varied as their styles, yet they all seek out the best crafted works for both their professional and recreational reading. Writers are not ‘naturals’. They learn their craft. Reading great works of literature is one of the most important ways in which this is occurs.

I recently read Colin Thiele’s biography of Hans Heysen. One thing that struck me was Heysen’s interest in the great artists of the past. Whenever he travelled, he spent as much time as he could in art galleries. He didn’t just look at landscape artists or those with styles similar to his own. Heysen studied and made notes about the brush technique, colours, use of light, forms and lines of artists of all styles and mediums. Why would he spend so much time studying Renaissance frescoes in Italian churches, or the works of Dutch portrait masters when he didn’t do religious frescoes or portraits? Simple. Great painters learn from and are inspired by other great painters, even if they have no inclination to produce similar works. For the same reason great fantasy writers do not read only fantasy, great romance writers do not read only romance, and great biographers do not read only biography. A writer of fantasy fiction can learn much more from a well-crafted military history or travel book than from a poorly written fantasy.

Many successful writers have produced lists of their favourite works of literature and aspiring writers have sought to read as many of the books or authors on these lists as possible. The works of Homer, the plays of Shakespeare and Shaw, the American colloquial masterpieces of Twain, Dickens’ vivid depictions of the underbelly of London, the poetic beauty of Auden, the fantasy of Tolkein all appear regularly on such lists. Yet studies of citations, allusions, references and imitations of style suggest that the most influential literary source is one that most writers do not think to add to their favourite books lists. It is the Bible. No other literary source has contributed more figures of speech, more sayings, more allusions, more frequently copied characters, than the Bible. There is a huge gap between the Bible and the next most influential source, the works of Homer – which you should also read!

If you have never read a book about the Bible as literature, you might be surprised by what you discover. Some works to begin with are with Leland Ryken’s Words of Delight! A Literary Introduction to the Bible; Jeanie Crain’s Reading the Bible as Literature: An Introduction; Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative; and Robert Alter and Frank Kermode’s The Literary Guide to the Bible. You may be surprised at the richness and diversity of the Bible as literature. For some, the literary diversity and richness of the biblical writers may come as a surprise. When Christians read the Bible we often read a single verse, or even a few words, then stop to meditate and reflect on them. We seldom read a story or poem straight through as we would any other work of literature. Nor or do we take notice of the type of literature or the human creativity involved. We are too busy looking for divine guidance. The irony is that because we overlook these features, we often miss the true intent of the message. But that is a matter for a discussion of biblical hermeneutics.

I want instead to speak to you as writers. Specifically, I want to speak to you as writers who share a commitment to faith in Jesus Christ and therefore, presumably, also to the importance and value of the scriptures. I am going to challenge you to stop reading the Bible only as a devotional book. I am not saying that you should not read the Bible as a devotional book. Of course you should. But be willing to pick up the Bible and read it as a connoisseur of great literature. Be prepared to read the Bible as a writer, seeking to hone your craft. If you are not able to do this as a Christian writer – if you are not able to allow the Bible to have a literary influence upon you as it has on so many great writers of the past – then you unnecessarily impoverish yourself.

So what are the benefits for writers of reading the Bible as good literature?
What follows are ten lessons I have learned from reading the Bible as a writer.

  1. If something important is being said, then it is important to say it well. Augustine of Hippo was one of the best teachers of the art of rhetoric, or public speaking and persuasion, of his day. When he converted to Christianity he allowed himself to be persuaded that the worldly craft of rhetoric had no place in the service of the gospel. After many years of listening to unnecessarily bad sermons he finally had had enough. He wrote a little book about the value of rhetoric for the Christian with the odd title, On Christian Doctrine. He demonstrated that many of the biblical writers, especially Paul and the gospel writers, were masters of the art and used a number of complex and beautiful rhetorical devices. If the Bible can contain the best rhetorical devices, then why shouldn’t Christians use them to teach and preach and write? It made no sense to Augustine that the defenders of the truth should put people to sleep with boring speaking and offend their intelligence with illogical reasoning while the proponents of error were entertaining, made people laugh and cry, and put their arguments in the most reasonable form possible. Where is the sense in this, he asked? (Book 4, chapter 2) Or, as the Christian rock musician Larry Norman famously asked in the 1970s: ‘Why should the devil have all the good music?’ If the Bible can entertain, stir our emotions, tell a gripping tale – why should we not seek to follow this example and make our writing the best it can be.
  1. There is no single approved literary genre or style that the Christian writer may use. Some years ago my sons were spending time in America with their maternal grandfather, a proudly self-proclaimed fundamentalist Christian. He berated them for having an interest in pop music, and was outraged that they also were fond of rap. They should know these were the devils’ forms of music. The debate arose as they were riding with their grandfather in his car. They pointed out that he was listening to Country Western music. To make matters worse, they had actually been paying attention to the lyrics! ‘That’s different’ he insisted. ‘Country and Western is a form of music that is pleasing to God. Rap, rock and pop are not.’ It was as simple as that. He turned the volume up on his radio and refused to engage in any further discussion.When a group of Christian writers recently put together a collection of Christian vampire stories in an effort to reach readers they would not otherwise connect with and to show that there is no place so dark that the light of the gospel cannot penetrate, they received thanks and praise from some quarters, and rabid condemnation – including death threats and physical assault from others.[1] There are those who are convinced that a whole range of literary genres, themes and styles are simply no go zones for Christians. There are even websites dedicated to denouncing all fantasy writing, including that of C.S. Lewis, as unchristian. Such ideas, however, certainly do not come from the Bible. The Bible never teaches that certain styles of music or literature are not allowed. Instead, the Bible includes the entire range of literary types which spanned the ancient world from the Semitic cultures of the middle East to the Greeks and Romans.
As an exercise, before reading further, take a moment to see how many different literary genres you can name that are contained in the Bible. Here are some you may well have come up with:
History (Kings, Chronicles, Samuel, Acts); philosophy (Job, Ecclesiastes); military history (Joshua and Judges); satire (Jonah); humour (Story of Ehud, Elijah’s taunting of the prophets of Baal on Mt Carmel); love story (Ruth); erotic poetry (Song of Songs); alphabet poems (Psalm 119); concentric structured poetry (Isaiah 43:1-7); laments (various Psalms); wise sayings (Proverbs); letters (NT epistles); apocalyptic (Daniel, Revelation); drama (Job, Revelation); tragedy (Mark’s Gospel); song lyrics (Psalms, the Magnificat, Philippians 2:5-11); morality stories (Nathan’s speech to David, many of the Parables of Jesus); speeches ( Stephen’s speech Acts 7); sermons (Paul at the Areopagus Acts 17); prayers (John 17, Lord’s prayer); genealogies (Genesis 5, Matthew 1); and others!

 

  1. Many biblical type scenes are embedded into our Western narrative consciousness. A type scene is a recurring scene is which everyone knows what is going to happen as soon as the scene begins. They are common in modern cinema. The car chase scene, the potential lovers who at first hate each other scene, the desperado shootout scene, etc. The scenes are either delivered to script, or deliberately altered in some way to make a point. Either way they work. Can you think of any types scenes from biblical stories? Some that come to mind are: the barren mother giving birth, the wicked king meeting a bad end, journeys into the wilderness, the hero meeting his wife at a well, the outnumbered army securing an unexpected victory, the healing of a widow’s son, etc. (see Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative). We can learn much about type scenes and how to use them creatively through the biblical narratives. For instance, look at the Old Testament type scenes of a man meeting his wife at a well (Jacob and Isaac), and the New Testament spin on this type scene with Jesus and the woman at the well, which takes a very different direction.
  1. The gospels have given us the literary messianic figure who comes to rescue us and achieves this through supernatural powers and abilities and by sacrificing his life, achieving victory through apparent defeat. Messianic figures that bear significant and even intentional similarity to Jesus are found in everything from movie block-busters like the Matrix Trilogy to comic book series such as Superman. Even Tolkien makes use of this imagery, though he intentionally divided the messianic role in The Lord of the Rings between three separate characters to prevent any one of them from seeming to be a Jesus figure. (Can you guess the three and how each takes on part of the messianic role? Hint: the suffering servant who humbly puts others before his own welfare, the high priest who himself becomes a sacrifice, the coming king who inaugurates a new era of peace.) Tolkien’s friend C.S. Lewis, in contrast, had no qualms about Aslan representing Jesus in a near complete allegory in his Chronicles of Narnia Writers are always interested in characters and their development. We should not overlook the fact that Jesus, as portrayed in the gospels, is the best known and most influential literary character of all time. Understanding the story and character of Jesus as he is portrayed in the Gospels helps us to recognise the prototype for a whole host of messianic literary characters that have followed. As Christian writers we may wish to intentionally include a messianic character in our story to illustrate who Jesus was, such as C.S. Lewis did with Aslan or Richard Bach did with Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah. We will need, howver, to know when and how to deviate our character from the standard messianic type of Jesus. Perhaps, like Tolkien, we will want to avoid any one character appearing to be messianic. But this also requires a knowledge of what elements make up the Jesus messianic type.
  1. The Bible’s great themes of sin and salvation have become the core of many works of literature. The more familiar you are with these themes biblically, the more richly you can explore them in your own writing. George Eliot’s Silas Marner is a good example. Dicken’s A Christmas Carol is another. Can you think of some others? Many great works of literature touch people deeply precisely because they explore human depravity and elements of hope and grace. A well-grounded biblical understanding of these themes which have shaped so much of Western thinking helps the writer to develop them more fully and appropriately. For the Christian writer such themes provide the opportunity to present a gospel infused storyline without writing overtly ‘religious’ literature.
  1. Good writing today still abounds in biblical references and allusions. (See for instance Biblical Images in Literature, ed. R. Bartel, J. Ackerman, and T Warshaw.) But you are only able to make use of these if you know them well yourself. If you do not want to be a Judas to your craft, fail to show the wisdom of Solomon or the patience of Job in your writing, make the readers your scape-goat, or end up washing your hands of the whole problem of biblical allusions and wipe the dust of the issue from your shoes, choosing to be a Martha instead of a Mary, or jinx your next project, becoming a Jonah; then it may be time to gird your loins, enter the lion’s den of literary critics, and bear your writer’s cross by fighting the good fight of biblical literacy with some well-placed biblical allusions. Just don’t overdo it.
  1. The Bible contains some of the most tightly written works in all of literature. The biblical writers were masters of understatement and minimalism. If you want to use words sparingly and wisely, saying a lot in as few words as possible, there are few better places from which to learn this than from biblical stories. It is these profound blink and you will miss it comments and actions, picked up only by the attentive reader, that stand as a hallmark of good writing. Over-explanation is the curse of many writers who feel that the more words they use to tell a story, and the more obvious they make each point, the better. Examples of biblical narrative which derives its force from tight writing include the story of the tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-10), the assassin Ehud (Judges 3:15-26), the prologue to Job (Job 1-2), all of Jesus’s parables, and the story of Peter and John healing the lame man (Acts 3:1-10). The Bible can be extremely succinct, leaving room for great imagination and discussion. Take, for example, the very unusual and dramatic story of Elisha and the she bears, which comprises only two verses (2 Kings 2:23,24), or the very succinct and powerful description of Jesus’s response at hearing that his friend Lazarus has died (John 11:35, KJV).
  1. Reading biblical prose and poetry can provide the writer with inspiration for new styles, forms and structures. The chiastic and concentric structures found in many Hebrew poems as well as in some Hebrew prose can provide a new way of thinking about how we structure our story, novel or poem – working from the outsides (beginning and end) in toward the centre, which contains the key insight or turning point. (Isaiah 43:1-7 is a powerful example of such a poem.) We might also be inspired by the use of parallelism, or some of the rhetorical forms found in the New Testament.
  1. The biblical material can also provide inspiration for new themes and story ideas. So much is left unsaid in the biblical accounts that the writer is almost invited to explore the situations and characters further. A classic example is Pär Lagerkvist’s novel Barabbas, in which he follows the life of Barabbas after he is set free in Jesus’ place. A more recent example is that of Tabor creative writing graduate Valerie Volk and her book Bystanders (Wakefield Press, 2015), which looks at well-known biblical stories from the perspective of minor characters in the narrative. As another example, Literati, a writing group that I belong to, is currently working on a collection of stories and poems based upon or seen from the perspective of various animals in the Bible. These types of creative projects all come from Christians reading the Bible as literature and having our imaginations inspired not only by what is said, but by the many side stories that are left untold.
  1. Finally, the Bible is a book that shapes the lives of Christians. We read and study it to shape us spiritually, morally and theologically. As we engage with the various biblical texts we continue to grow and mature through our interaction with them. As writers we should also allow the Bible to shape us as readers and writers. The Bible should play a role in the growth of our imaginations, our understanding of arch-typical scenes, our feel for the big questions of sin and salvation, our appreciation of good prose and poetry. But, similar to the use of the Bible devotionally, it cannot shape and form us in these ways if we do not read it, and read it well.

 

Postscript: Some helpful hints for reading the Bible as literature
  1. Read from a translation other than what you use for your devotional reading
  2. Choose a translation that is based on dynamic equivalence rather than a literal translation or a paraphrase, as these loose much of the sense of story line. Today’s NIV, while still suffering from the limitations of coming out of a single theological perspective and tradition, is quite good for this purpose. The NRSV is also not bad, but not as fluid in some of its prose.
  3. Try to find a Bible that is not set out in double column format but in single column per page, just as most other literature.
  4. Try reading some of the poetry, prayers and speeches in the more formal language of the KJV
  5. Ignore verse and chapter divisions. These were not in the original. Just because the chapter ends does not mean the story ends.
  6. Read biblical texts as literature in the same places as you would read a good novel. If you read your Bible at the kitchen table, for instance, but a good book on the lounge or the hammock in the back yard, do this also when you read the Bible as literature.
  7. Read an entire poem, story or section of a story in one setting without stopping to look up key words, check commentaries or pray – just as you would read a good novel or book of poetry.
  8. If you read novels with pencil in hand, marking key lines or making the occasion note in the margins, then do this also when reading the Bible as literature.
  9. Recognise the fact that the Holy Spirit inspired human beings to write, using their own vocabularies and literary abilities as well as the literary genres known to them within their own cultural contexts.
  10. If you are interested in poetry, try reading all of the poems of the Bible, then perhaps all the songs. Similarly read all the short stories as a group, then perhaps all the military accounts, the histories, the letters, etc.
  11. Accept that a recognition of the Bible as good literature does not diminish its status as given by divine inspiration.
  12. Learn to view the Bible not as a single book just because it is bound together, but as at least sixty-six different books, including collections of poems, that stand alone as literature.
  13. Try to read a poem or story as if you are coming to it for the first time, without strong presuppositions as to what the story is supposed to be about, for instance the long held idea that the erotic poetry of Song of Songs is really all simply a metaphor about the relationship between Christ and the church, or the view of some that the satirical novella Jonah is primarily meant to tell us that a prophet was really once swallowed by a giant fish – as some sort of test of faith or belief – and has no other purpose.
  14. Understand how highly God valued the power of the written word.

 

[1] M. Worthing, ed. 2015. Something in the Blood; Vampire Tales with a Christian Bite. Morning Star Press.

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