Reading The Bible As Literature: An Introduction. Jeanie C. Crain. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010. 213 pp.
Chapter five of Reading the Bible As Literature: An Introduction by Jeanie C. Crain focuses on sub-genres as a way of clarifying and mapping a piece of literature. In the beginning of the chapter the author notes that “Biblical writing, however, cannot be strictly defined as expressive: it always mixes faith, what people believe, and face, what actually existed or happened.” This rings so true for me. Sometimes when I am reading the Bible I actually notice that I tend to get wrapped up in one aspect or the other. At times I find myself focusing more on the facts regarding what happened, trying to figure out exactly what occurred in the story and to who and when. At other times I find myself focusing on what I feel is the underlying meaning, or the lesson that I am supposed to be learning. I can imagine that the best way for the reader to approach this issue could be to read a passage using one approach first and then reading the passage again trying to use the opposite approach. Then, finally trying to mesh the two and really analyze what the author was truly hoping and intending the reader to understand and learn. It seems to me that there are so many layering elements to literature in general, and especially in the Bible. Furthermore, as the author states there are many intermingled genres in the Bible which would add to the complexity and deepening layers in nearly every story of the Bible.
At this point, the author states that the reader will need to “begin by asking questions: What kind of thing is this – is it prose or poetry? What is the literary form? Can the text be recognized as a song, an allegory, a parable, a prayer, or another genre?” Crain continues, saying that the Bible is generally encouraging the reader to read passages out of context. For example, reading sections such as in verses, chapters, and occasionally a whole book if it is shorter. Reading in this way can really detract from the connectedness and unity which is really a large part of the Bible. I know personally I always read in this way. I agree that at times it does take away from the whole unity and completeness of the Bible. However, reading the Bible as a whole seems to be an incredibly daunting task. Further, the author notes “that simply looking for genres (forms and types) of literature will sidetrack you from living through the story, a group of stories, a cycle, a book or books,” and I completely agree. Sometimes I feel that in literature, it is more important to just go with the flow of the reading and interpret it in whatever way seems natural to each individual reader. I feel that this can still be effective in analyzing and understanding literature. However, I do feel there is something to be said regarding a knowledge and recognition of literary symbols to help the reader understand and relate to the literature.
Conventions “guide readers into a text and help them to understand what to look for and how to organize their experience of reading,” Crain states. Recognizing and understanding different genres can guide the reader to better follow a story and appreciate what the literature is aiming to achieve. I feel that recognizing genres can be kind of tricky sometimes. We are often taught to read a passage for the content and to get the facts. We are not often encouraged to look for the underlying genres or other literary devices and to read about a story. In a metaphorical sense, the Bible could have an approach “both as mapping divine action in history – God’s will for human behavior and the privileges and responsibilities of God’s covenant people – and as providing an explanation of how persons fit into God’s created order.” I can relate to both of these methods. Sometimes I feel that I am reading the Bible with more of a historical, facts-related approach. While other times I am focused more on my feelings toward God’s message and what He seems to be wanting me to learn and relate to the passage. I think it’s important to take both approaches at times and with different stories.
I feel that the various sub-genres that Crain mentions are very familiar to most people. Song, allegory, parable, and prayer are all literary elements that I feel pretty comfortable with and that I am able to relate to them. First, songs are very prevalent in the Bible. The author notes “victory hymns and songs, marching songs, and songs of celebration” as words of the Bible that are meant to be sung. Sometimes I think these may be difficult for the reader to pick out, or we may read them without realizing that they were meant to be a song. But I remember there are also some parts of the Bible that specifically state a certain passage is meant to be sung, or there are sometimes directions on how it should be sung. Further, the entire book of Psalm is essentially a great song as the definition of Psalm is a sacred song or hymn. Crain also notes that songs can “express joy, relief, praise, thanks, and deliverance; in lifting their hearts and voices outward and upward to their God, they provide a cultural inheritance for the generations that follow them.” I completely agree with this statement. Personally, I love using songs to praise, cope, and share my feelings. Also, I know there are songs within my church community that are passed down through the generations which connect us and create a sense of belonging. Furthermore, there are songs that my family sings that are passed down and unify us. It creates a culture, just as it likely did in biblical times.
An allegory is defined by Crain to be “where a term or phrase is applied to something to which it is not literally applicable to suggest resemblance.” Allegory is probably the most difficult for me to understand and relate to. However, as the author notes, “through metaphor and allegory, the Bible often expresses abstract or spiritual meaning in concrete or material forms,” so I can see how this would be helpful for the reader to aid in understanding. Furthermore, Psalm 23 is probably one of the most well-known allegories of the Bible. I have heard this passage many, many times but I have not necessarily noticed it in the sense of an allegory until it was brought to my attention as the Shepherd-King and the people-sheep relation. However, after taking this approach to the passage, there are so many sections and references that seem to fit with this relation.
There are many mentions of parables in the Bible, particularly in the gospels. “Analogy, demonstrating a similarity of features between two things, serves as the common denominator for all parables,” according to Crain. To me, parables are told to help the reader make a great comparison between two sometimes very different things. There is a lesson that is meant to be learned and the story helps the reader relate to the story and make a connection that is more relevant to their lives. Granted, some of the parables in the Bible may not be quite as relevant to us today as they were in biblical times, but the concept is the same, to encourage learning and understanding for the reader.
Finally, prayer is incredibly prevalent in the Bible. It is practiced so many times by children, the elderly, and Jesus prays frequently, too. It is done in the morning and the night, at home and on the mount. To me, prayer seems to be a focal point of the Bible, a solid foundation for the entire text, in a sense. Prayer “exists in a continuum between conversation and formalized address. In the individual’s relationship with God, prayer expresses the conviction that God can and will respond,” the author states. Sometimes prayer can be very public, and other times it is kept incredibly private. Some people consider prayer a very powerful connection to their Lord and Savior and prayer is considered a very powerful tool.
There are also many other sub-genres and underlying themes within the Bible, which continues to prove that the Bible and many other pieces of literature are extremely complex and deserve to be looked at on a deeper level.