Scripture and Literature

I cross-posted here because I figured you folks might enjoy a shot at the critical questions within. The original post is over at Hardly the Last Word. BTW, congrats to all on 300 posts. (301 with this one.)

Before I get too far I should say to any former student who reads this that I might well be talking about the text of your portfolio’s introductory essay (quite a few people make the categorical division that I’m going to write about in their reflective essays) but that I don’t hold it against you; I probably just didn’t teach these concepts that well.

For the last three spring semesters I’ve taught a special topics composition course at the University of Georgia called Hebrew Bible and/as Literature. (The link takes you to the spring 2007 syllabus, as I have not updated my professional page very recently.) The course is not a Bible survey but primarily a writing-about-lit course in which students tackle Genesis and Job and 2 Samuel and Psalms alongside J.B. and Morte D’Arthur and some Donne and Herbert poems instead of random samplings from an overpriced lit anthology. I enjoy teaching it a great deal, and part of the class’s charm is the fact that I get a good mix of Christians, Jews, agnostics, atheists, and various vaguely-spiritual people in almost every class.

That said, one text that I assign the class early every semester is a .pdf version (password protected, in accordance with copyright law) of the first chapter of Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative in which he argues thus:

This kind of critical discussion, I would contend, far from neglecting the Bible’s religious character, focuses attention on it in a more nuanced way. The implicit theology of the Hebrew Bible dictates a complex moral and psychological realism in biblical narrative because God’s purposes are always entrammeled in history, dependent on the acts of individual men and women for their continuing realization. To scrutinize biblical personages as fictional characters is to see them more sharply in the multifaceted, contradictory aspects of their human individuality, which is the biblical God’s chosen medium for His experiment with Israel and history. Such scrutiny, however [… ] cannot be based merely on an imaginative impression of the story but must be undertaken through minute critical attention to the biblical writer’s articulations of narrative form. (12)

In other words, my students who hold the Bible to be in some sense God’s book should look upon our project in the class at least in part as discerning what kind of book God has given, as God has given it. Yet in introductory essay after introductory essay, I read my Christian students’ assertions that they learned in my class to read the Bible as “literature instead of Scripture.”

I think I might cross-post this on CRM and see what the folks there think. I don’t have time right now to theorize at length, but my instincts tell me that I’m seeing some fallout from the late, polite phases of the culture wars, and I imagine that a youth minister or somebody at some point has told these folks that there would be menacing figures in the universities that tell them that the Bible is “just” literature. (As an English teacher I’m somewhat offended by the derogatory qualifier, but that’s for another day.) So even as Alter proposes that a literary consciousness heightens, not diminishes, the experience of reading holy text, their reflexes tell them that we must be taking something away from the experience.



About Nathan Gilmour

Nathan P. Gilmour is a Christian, a husband, a father, and a college English teacher. He tries to do all of that and write something worthwhile on occasion.


5 thoughts on “Scripture and Literature

  1. >What blows my mind is that when we examine the moral ambiguity of figures like Joseph and David, my evangelical students balk or try to compartmentalize that exercise as “literature” rather than “Scripture.” I suppose they don’t think that Original Sin and Total Depravity extend to Sunday school heroes.

    Posted by Nathan P. Gilmour | April 29, 2008, 2:50 pm
  2. >Absolutely. I think we are saying the same thing.

    Posted by Matt | April 29, 2008, 1:32 pm
  3. >Matt,I would have to agree with you that Scripture is different in the sense that God has spoken through it. It is inspired and Tolstoy is not. However, God has spoken through a number of genres in Scripture that are important to recognize. Just because it’s inspired does not mean that the texts are not genre specific. Certainly some would debate the nature of those genres but they are genres nonetheless.If we read epistolary, apocalyptic, and narrative texts all the same way we will come away with some problematic interpretations. Yet, the text of Scripture includes all of these and is inspired. The question then becomes, has God chosen specific authors to write in specific genres to convey a particular message? If so, then we need to recognize the literary aspect of Scripture.

    Posted by Mark Mathews | April 29, 2008, 4:15 am
  4. >Mark,I don’t know that I would consider Scripture a “genre,” but if God has somehow spoken through the Scriptures in a way that He hasn’t spoken through other literature, wouldn’t you say that that distinguishes Scripture from other literature in an important way?I read Paul in a different way than I read Tolstoy. What Tolstoy writes, I consider. What Paul writes, I try to obey.

    Posted by Matt | April 29, 2008, 1:04 am
  5. >Funny how ‘Scripture’ seems to either fall outside the realm of genre specificity or some consider it a genre. Although the latter is absurd, I suppose some see it that way. The most striking comment, however, is when they say they read the Bible as literature and not Scripture. The last time I checked, Scripture was literature. Oh well!

    Posted by Mark Mathews | April 28, 2008, 11:30 pm

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