HON 395, 5th Book Review
4 November 2012
Reading the Bible as Literature: An Introduction. Jeanie C. Crain. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010. p 90-109.
In this fifth chapter of Reading the Bible as Literature: An Introduction, author Jeanie C. Crain continues her methodical approach with a chapter on subgenres. In the fourth chapter of the text, Crain enumerated the genres of prose, drama, and poetry. Within these broad categories, though, there are the groupings of song, allegory, parable, and prayer. Learning these are key to understanding that the Bible is not just a conglomerate of stories, but a vast compilation of evidence supporting a single argument for Christianity. With a chapter on subgenres immediately following a chapter on genres, the author must make a statement concerning Reductionism and its dangers. This she does, as well as presenting a compelling case for continued focus on the Bible and its literary background. The author also takes into account the growing abilities of her readers in this fifth chapter, incorporating less of her own research and letting the reader expand on his or her own.
Reductionism is a hallmark of an Aristotelian education. Figure out what one wants to know, advises Aristotle. Then sort oneself into a discipline which can best guide one to the desired knowledge. Ever since, the established route to knowledge is to work inward. A thinker may start with a general hypothesis, then prove it by deductive reasoning. While this may fulfill the adage of “when at sea, lose sight of the land,” Reductionism is dangerous in any field of study. It has already weakened science. Experiments are conducted, results are proven, but when asked the simple question of “how will this help the world?”, most scientists find themselves incapable of reply.
Thus, this reader is wary of encroaching Reductionism in fields of literary study. Dr. Crain agrees, writing that “These habits of reading piecemeal detract from looking for connectedness and unity among parts of the Bible” (91). Any focused field of study can be compared to analysis by microscope. As the reader looks more closely at the Bible, all sorts of things pop off the page. “Ooh, there's an allegory! Chiasm! Apostrophe! Theodicy!” The more the reader looks, the more appears. Yet, if the reader never looks away, he or she will never know how very small his or her discovery is. The author is ever-conscious of the rift of reductionism; she writes:
Critics object, though, to regarding genres as ready-made heuristic tools for interpretation. As pointed out in the previous chapter, they argue that genres seem to be reduced to essences..and that they come the subject of regulations established by critical abstraction. They also object to an approach to literature hat looks only at the technicalities of form, using it in deterministic ways rather than understand it as a covenant made between the author and the reader that helps to shape its composition and reception.22 The literature of “living text,” thesecritics argue, resists such reductions to classification and type23 (93).
This reader breathes a sigh of relief. Like the genre critics, I was wary of the Bible-Literature-Style/Tone/Strategy-Image/Metaphor/Symbol/Archetype-Major Genres-Sub-genres strand. But Crain looks away from the microscope to quickly allay my fears (93). I shrugged, writing a note to the genre critics in my extra-wide margins. “Well, what are you going to do about it?” I read on.
There are too many subgenres to write in a chapter. This is largely the reason why Crain chooses not to write a chapter on all of them. Instead, she writes about song, allegory, parable, and prayer “because they are familiar and easily recognizable as genres. The context surrounding them will always be important and should be considered” (93). The sub-genre of Song is explored inquisitively, with attention paid not only to the stanzas, but to the speakers of the stanzas. In Hebrew culture, Crain writes, songs were a common means of expression. The women were usually resigned to singing the chorus, while the men received more individualistic parts. This means of trading off parts is in itself a representation of the culture. Crain then turns to allegory, calling it an extension of a metaphor. “Allegory, like songs, ultimately should be understood contextually” (98). Again, the reader is faced with the choice of whether to read allegorically or literally. The Bible works either way, but does not “resist classification” as the genre critics earlier argued. As Crain elaborates, “Without the move into analogy and allegory, much of the meaning of Eve's life would be lost; religion and theology would be reduced to talking about a woman, a garden, and a snake!” (99).
Again, Crain returns to her argument of genre criticism. A reader is entitled to read and believe as he or she chooses, but disbelief is no excuse for outright ignorance. The reader of Genesis may indeed wish to believe that the book is about a woman, a garden, and a snake, but unless that reader understands that other meanings exist, he or she will have to accept the epithet of “closed-minded.” Besides, Crain argues, Jesus's parables are obviously meant to be taken symbolically (103). This is verified by a literal reading of Matthew 13:10-13.
10 The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?”
11 He replied, “Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you,but not to them. 12 Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. 13 This is why I speak to them in parables:
“Though seeing, they do not see;
though hearing, they do not hear or understand.
If the humble parable, continuation of a simile, is meant to be taken symbolically, then why not the allegory? Indeed, Crain briefly mentions the literary tradition of the parable as she moves into her next subject. Prayer is a fascinating form of dialogue and characterization. Character, incidentally, is the title of the next chapter. “Prayer,” writes Crain. “exists in a continuum between conversation and formalized address” (105). The format of a prayer varies based on the speaker, whether individual or communal, informal or ritualized. The formative prayer of the Shema, for example, is meant to shape the speaker's soul, much like the Lord's Prayer. This can be contrasted to the exhortations to the Lord of individual speakers throughout the Bible. The different genres of prayer are meant to show that the God of the Bible is as alive as His worshipers, accessible through both formulaic and spontaneous address. Much like the Bible, actually.
And so this reader weighs in. Reading the Bible as Literature: An Introduction is becoming easier to unpack as I read further. Dr. Crain opens with an introduction, includes some background information and criticism, then delves into her chosen literary device with intimidating precision. As inferred from her evermore difficult exercises, she has chosen to let her readers do most of the recognition of sub-genres. The questions for reflection at the end of the chapter become similarly open-ended. I may be able to infer what Dr. Crain thinks about Reductionism and its relationship to literary criticism, but I receive the distinct impression that she cares about my developing opinions as well. Dr. Crain is sensitive to these developing opinions; she formats her chapters by “looking away from the microscope” and is careful to elaborate on the broader connections formed by the micro-filaments of the sub-genres, genres, and all the other topics heretofore covered. The average reader may answer that recognizing genres in the Bible creates disunity (question 12). Dr. Crain aims to prevent a worse fault than a little disunity: ignorance.