HON 395, 3rd Book Review
7 October 2012
Reading the Bible as Literature: An Introduction. Jeanie C. Crain. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010. p 43-62.
In the third chapter of Reading the Bible as Literature: An Introduction, Jeanie C. Crain leaves behind the relative comfort of introductions and definitions to dig into the real purpose of the book. That purpose is, of course, literature, and she utilizes the skills the reader has heretofore learned to begin delving into the images, metaphors, symbols, and archetypes which are interwoven throughout the Bible. The third chapter discusses common images which have become symbolic in the the Bible: light and water being notable examples. The Bible also houses many common archetypal relationships, such as God as the King, Judge, Husband, Father, and Master, and Crain explores these concepts. A literary-minded reader might find the concept of biblical symbolism easy to master, but the author forces even the adept reader to accept new ideas and to scour the Bible for new examples.
Accepting the Bible as a source of rhetorical devices such as the metaphor, image, symbol, and archetype can often be hard to accept. As Crain states, “Another reason you may find this chapter difficult is that you will have to move beyond the literalism that has resulted from our modern world's emphasis upon empirical fact and history.” Thus, the modern reader might accept, for example, the story of the healing of Bartimaeus at face value. The story might be summarized as thus: Jesus heals a blind man. The modern reader might then move onward. However, when examined from a literary point of view, the reader sees that Bartimaeus is a made-up name which translates to 'gift'. Jesus, too, is a name which translates to 'Yahweh is salvation'. Still waters run deep in the Bible, and the reader sees that what was once a simple story is now an extended metaphor, and there are hundreds more like it in the biblical depths.
When discussing reality, Crain refutes what she calls the “common-sense understanding of how human beings obtain information about the world and use it to make intelligent decisions and to reason and be guided by moral principles” (44). The process of the subconscious is more complicated than that, as the sciences prove. “The studies describe conceptualization and thought as deeply seated in human beings and their modes of interacting with and shaping their world. They point out that reason itself relies centrally upon imaginative capacities—primarily metaphor—and that meaning can never be purely objective or subjective” (44). Images are assigned meanings, the same meanings, over and over in the Bible, until that symbolism becomes canonical.
The Bible was not written for great literary scholars to puzzle over and ponder. Rather, the Bible was written for common people, albeit people who could read and then interpret for those who could not. Thus, one might expect the 'play within the play' of the Bible to be simplistic and easily missed. This is not the case, as proven by Crain's brief summary of the changing views of neuroscience. Human minds are built to make connections and search for greater meaning. There is greater meaning in the Bible, if only the same greater meaning, constantly repeated in layers over layers of words.
At this time, I find it relevant to discuss the differences between biblical figurative language and magical realism. On the surface at least, the two genres seem very similar. For example, both figurative language study and magical realism involve academic acceptance of the impossible. However, if given a seemingly incongruous statement like “There is a unicorn in the front garden,” a student of magical realism would have to accept that there really is a unicorn in the front garden. A student of figurative language would have to accept that there is probably not a unicorn in the front garden, but there is something deeper which needs further uncovering. Any other student would sigh and get on with his or her life. In reflective question seven, Crain asks, “What dangers exist when readers interpret metaphors in the Bible literally?” Magical realism exists, and the reader would simply accept the literal interpretations with none of the underlying meanings. Hence, Jesus really did walk on water, change that water into wine, feed an entire crowd with two fish and five loaves, and so forth. Magical realism and figurative interpretations seem to be opposites, and the focus on the empirical instead of the figurative may explain the general apathy which pervades non-believers.
With that in mind, Crain touches on the common symbols and images in the Bible. She begins by expounding on light, darkness, and fire, calling them “master images” (45). All these images are machinations of God, and of divine power. As Crain writes on page forty-six, “God makes the necessary preparations for life itself.” Interestingly enough, these elemental signs of salvation or destruction are God's alone to manipulate; there is no mention of the devil's power. Crain verifies this in writing, “Light functions throughout the Bible to uphold right action and behaviors in contrast to the less reputable shenanigans of darkness” (47). After that spectacular usage of the word 'shenanigans', the author moves on to discuss water imagery, which, like light, is as omnipresent as the deity which controls it. Water is reminiscent of baptism: Crain explain this in the “premise of reversion to watery chaos, dissolution, new creation, and new life” (50).
With the master symbols of the Bible thus revealed, Crain goes on to discuss the “Five Metaphors of Divine-Human Relationship. As Crain elaborates, “Each metaphor begins with literal, physical, image but, beyond the literal image, each represents in some way a characteristic of God” (50). In the Metaphor of King and Subject, Crain easily points out that all human kings are destined to fail, that God can be the only true king of the people. She verifies this reasoning by summarizing the Old Testament stories of the Covenant in Deuteronomy, and of the rises and falls of Saul, David, and Solomon. Crain then explores the Metaphor of Judge and Litigant. “The Bible,” she writes, “presents God as the perfect and patient judge, a forbearing God who pleads constantly, who warns degenerate humankind continually that rebellion leads to final judgment” (53). This patient, perfect God leads seamlessly into the Metaphor of Father and Child. Here, Crain explains that the father archetype occurs over 1,000 times in the Bible. It is therefore noteworthy. Just as man is an imperfect king and judge, he is also an imperfect father. In fact, the only archetype at which man can hope to excel is that of the servant to the all-master.
As a literary-minded reader, I appreciated that Dr. Crain did not spend much time typing such extended verbiage quantifying the existence of figurative study in the Bible. I may have typed the aforementioned extended verbiage in a previous paragraph; while it is a fascinating concept, the literary-minded reader would rather have the examples and not the rhetoric. Dr. Crain delivered. Again, I am poleaxed by the amount of research the author has completed. Suppose I need the master image of water quantified. A deluge of examples comes from the heavens. Ironically enough, Crain refutes the “modern” idea of empirically defining the events of the Bible. However, she provides quantifiable, empirical records for the existence of theses figurative events. This is fine by me as a reader. I like having the vast majority of scholarship done for me.
Although this third chapter was packed with the imagery of the Bible, I would have enjoyed more connections between the Bible and its effect on literature. Light imagery, for example, is rarely associated with anything but the goodly or the godly. What are some famous examples of light imagery outside the Bible? What is a famous inversion of the symbolic meaning of light? I suppose I must find out these idiosyncrasies for myself. Depressingly, I seem to be interested in the historical and empirical meanings behind the Bible. Once I have perceived the web woven by figurative meanings, I have to wonder—what do I do now?
This is where the discussion questions and exercises come in. The exercises are particularly arduous, but at least I get my fill of practically applying this figurative knowledge. In contrast, the questions have fixed “answers” found earlier in the chapter. Even so, I enjoyed reading through the questions and exercises as a summary of the chapter. I may not have enjoyed the scholarly research necessary to complete the exercises, but as the great poet William Butler Yeats once said, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” Scholarly research sometimes seems like filling a pail with spent matches, and then bashing my head against it. This masochism, I am sure, is beneficial.
The Bible is not some jumbled-up collection of twice-told tales. It may not be a singular vision of holiness, either, but it is woven together by a masterful web of images, metaphors, symbols, and archetypes. In the third chapter of Reading the Bible as Literature: An Introduction, Dr. Crain brings that glittering generality down to earth by providing a huge quantity of research. While the reader might absorb the information and then wonder “what's next?”, Dr. Crain provides discussion questions which force an otherwise accepting reader to go back through the chapter and extract the necessary information for him or herself. In further answer to the previously mentioned question, Dr. Crain provides a fourth chapter, and three more after that. The reader is caught in a sticky web of figurative interpretation, and Reading the Bible as Literature will continue to ensnare him or her well after the book (and the semester) is finished.