Reading the Bible as Literature: An Introduction. Jeanie C. Crain. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010. p vi-21.
In Reading the Bible as Literature, author Jeanie C. Crain presents a holistic, critical, and appreciative method of analyzing the Bible. She is careful to preserve her objectivity, and that painstaking care is immediately discernible to the reader. The italicized sections of the text are meant to be the author's personal reflections —rather like a portable classroom lecture—and her guidance is valuable if the reader begins to founder in the at-times dry passages. Indeed, there is very little propensity for prosy opinions in this first chapter, the author prefacing the obligatory mission statement of her text with a warning that she is about to descend into generalization. With this literary eye-roll, Crain chooses a high ground devoid of the pretentious and usually silly “truisms” which are the hallmarks of contemporary textbook writers. She lets the reader know that no opinion or approach is frowned upon; in a Postmodern sense, she realizes that the truth is not what it seems. With the open-ended exercises and questions ending the chapter, Crain invites discussion and research to accompany the text. At the same time, however, Crain and Reading the Bible as Literature have a clear purpose, and deviation can be done on the reader's own time.
There are, Crain concedes, many approaches of studying the Bible as literature. She lists them as “the literature of the Bible,” “the Bible in literature,” and “the Bible as literature” (13). The first two are the less risky options for study. Literature of the Bible classes extract the “literary” passages for study. Bible in literature classes study the influence of the Bible on literature, tracing allusions and references. Both approaches lack the holistic, inclusive treatment of the Bible as literature. Unlike the two previous options, Reading the Bible as Literature does not shy away from religion, and is thus the most controversial option. If one is to read the Bible as literature, one must recognize the literary elements at work behind the veneer of divinity, at the same time remaining respectful of that divinity. It is a task which seems insurmountable, and the critical disapproval might be due to the factions of scholarship and moral guidance are, as Crain writes, sometimes irreconcilable. Hundreds of thousands of pages have attempted to bridge this gap. In a blunt fashion, Crain's slim 213 page volume mentions the breach and moves on. Let the critics debate; the author has a history lesson to elucidate.
In the Preface and Chapter One, the reader learns that the goal of the text is to recognize the literary aspect of the Bible while simultaneously remembering its religious nature. The Preface and first chapter are general introductions to the methods the reader will use in the rest of the textbook. The author provides detailed definitions for the terms she uses later in the chapter. Crain then explains some of the most common literary traditions for which the reader must be looking; among them, intertextuality, mythology, prophecy, and typology. From macro-plots and meta-narratives, Crain moves on to explain the genres of Biblical criticism. These fields are most commonly sorted into “the literature of the Bible,” “the Bible in literature,” and “the Bible as literature” (13). Crain acknowledges the points both for and against each genre before explaining her choice in “the Bible as literature,” explaining that despite critical disapproval, “the Bible still presents itself as containing unity and coherence, in degree, both within and across these traditions” (15). After briefly defining biblical and narrative criticism, Crain presents a “sketch” of historical background of the Intertestamantal period (19). The chapter closes with several exercises and questions meant to help the reader develop his or her skills in close reading.
As a reader, I respect the author's purpose in writing the text. As stated on page vii, by the end of this course, I should have gained a deeper appreciation for the Bible. Along the way, I will also have learned quite a bit about biblical scholarship, supposedly from whence this textbook came (vii). In equal parts with the Biblical scholarship, the author also is well-versed in literary criticism. Crain chooses a stance well-fit for the twenty-first century; her multiple mentions of the word “meta-narrative” seem to imply that this text is written with an acute awareness of Postmodernism. However, while remaining cognizant of this generation's desire to distance itself from the meta-narrative, Crain poses an interesting solution: why not understand that from which I am running? Again, I see the author's purpose. Regardless of any religious or moral order, the Bible is the most read book in the world, though I am sure that Fifty Shades of Grey is giving it fierce competition. Joking aside, Crain notes that the Bible is also the most poorly read book in the world. Like Postmodernism itself, Biblical criticism has subdivided into studies concerning every subject, yet ended up with little critical appreciation. Crain's holistic approach to the Bible means that I as a student will comprehensively cover less material, but gain a deeper respect for the Bible as a whole. Again, I return to the word “appreciation.”
Overall, I think the approach which the author uses is a beneficial one. Towards the end of the first chapter, Crain explains the Enlightenment-era process of redaction criticism, in which the “facts” of the Bible are ratified, and in some cases, proven wrong. Other areas of scholarship focus on a single area of expertise, moving further away from the concept of knowing or appreciating the whole Bible. Thus, I feel that many students and scholars find themselves with a great deal of knowledge about a single subject, but not a great deal of knowledge about the Bible. Therefore, the process of redaction criticism, or any areas of scholarship which focus inward seem flawed. Especially with a text as important to all history as the Bible, the reader should achieve discerning appreciation. By the end of this book's reading, I hope I will be able to say something pretentious like, “Yes, Isaiah 53 is poetically unsound in these lines, but the weakness is made up by the prophetic undertones coming through.” As I mentioned before, the author only slips into prosy whimsy a few times, one of which is, “Transient life on earth plays out is drama of birth and death natural time under the unending cycles of the sun and moon, day and night, these cycles providing the frame for the ongoing drama of human life and death and passage into another state” (12). While I understand the author's purpose in wanting language to be understood as symbolism in the style of Claude Leví-Strauss, such prosy wanderings make me laugh instead of penciling the reference into my extra-wide margins.
On that note, I will close gratefully. By providing extra-wide margins for note taking and including numerous discussion questions at the close of each chapter, Crain shows her willingness to accommodate the reader in his or her studious endeavors. While questions such as “What is the Bible?” (20) will at first be haltingly answered in classroom discussions, Crain presumably asks such an insane question so that the reader can gauge his or her level of biblical comfort. Otherwise, the use of such questions is slightly sadistic, or perhaps just another level of the subtly dry humor the author employs. While expecting each reader or student to complete all the exercises and reflection questions is impractical, a quick glance down pages twenty and twenty-one shows that the author herself has given much thought to the questions she has asked. Indeed, the reflective questions provide an inclusive recap of all knowledge gained within the chapter. Reading the Bible as Literature is strenuous going, even though the author slows herself and her stream of Biblical knowledge to a drop. The text is almost like a meta-narrative in itself, a small volume with the overawing weight of Biblical scholarship behind it, just waiting to drop on the head of the unsuspecting reader. Crain acknowledges that her stance may irritate some critics and thus tries to salvage the situation in the use of quoted words and alleviating language (3). She is aware, though, that the vast readership of her textbook will be students just beginning to make forays into the realm of Biblical studies, and that her opinions (or lack thereof) will become those of her students. By avoiding discussions of moral relativism, Crain ensures that her readers will focus not on their own Postmodern inclinations, but on the Bible they are reading.