Reading the Bible as Literature: An Introduction. Jeanie C. Crain. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010. 22-42.
Chapter four introduces the major genres of literature and their presence in the Bible. The chapter begins with a clarification of the definitions of genre and genre criticism. Genre “designates the literary form into which works are classified according to what they have in common, either in their formal structures or in their treatment of subject matter, or both” (p.66). Genre criticism is part of the much broader method known as form criticism, which addresses structure, genre, setting, and intent (p.66).
Dr. Crain proceeds to identify the major genres in literature. Prose or narrative, poetry, and drama are identified as the major genres in literature. Prose or narrative tells a story through sequenced, chronological events. Although poetry is never actually defined and is not present in the glossary, the chapter appears to working from a standard definition similar to the “literary work in which special intensity is given to the expression of feelings and ideas by the use of distinctive style and rhythm” (Oxford American Dictionaries). Drama is related to performance with different characters speaking in prose or poetry. Fiction is identified as a genre that tends to be misinterpreted as “not true,” but Dr. Crain defines fiction as stories that have been made up imaginatively which metaphorically tell the truth of human experience (p. 67).
As part of the preliminary considerations, Dr. Crain notes the essential elements of narratives: plot, characterization, setting, point of view, voice, and closure. These elements are common to all narratives. She also identifies the narrative devices specifically used in the Bible: repetition, omission, dialogue, and irony. Fiction, drama, and poetry are all linked through the use of speech to either cloud or unveil characters inner thoughts and motives.
Genre criticism, composed of genre theory, has been controversial and has fallen in and out of usage throughout time. Genre theory is the process of dividing literature into different types and naming those types. There have been many questions about this process throughout the years of its use. One must decide if genres are objective, if they cross cultural bounds, and if they change over time.
The meat of the chapter was dedicated toward narrative. Narrative consists of episodes, containing rising, turning, and falling action that link multiple stories together. Bibles of today generally have clear headings and spaces that separate different stories and episodes, but the point at which one idea ends and another begins has been the source of much debate. Stories contain structured plots, protagonists, and themes. A great example of this form is found in the story of Zacchaeus. Another prime example is the story of Elisha replenishing the oil stores for a poor widow with no means of paying off a debt and providing for her children. Both these stories contain the aspects of a story.
Episodes create the larger structure around “the simplest unit of narrative,” the story. One example of an episode is parallel stories. The example of Elisha and the poor widow is exemplary of an episode because it parallels a story of Elijah and a poor widow (p.72). The continual reoccurrence of parallel stories is called a type-scene. Type-scenes and parallel stories can link the Old and New Testaments together in the same way that those stories of Elisha and Elijah are related to each other.
Genesis is used as en example of coherence and unity as a book. Genesis is similar to ancient, pre-scientific historiography and uses myth, legend, tales, sagen, and novelettes. It is also en excellent example of the five parts of a story: exposition (Garden of Eden), complication (Serpent tempts Adam and Eve), crisis (sin), falling action (expelled from the Garden), and resolution (curses and provision of clothing). Genesis is also structured to contain acts, or groups of stories, and cycles that contain overarching macro plots. Overall, Genesis contains many examples of the organizational principles of stories and narrative (p. 77).
The book of Job is used as an example of many forms of drama and poetry. This book combines moral and legal issues and aspects of comedy and tragedy. It also contains a prologue, an epilogue, speeches, aphorisms, parable, hymns, laments, metrical symmetry, and legal debates. Job also contains many poetic techniques like repetition, allusion, figurative language, imagery, and formal structure (p.84). The extended use of binary form can be described as “extreme parallelism” which uses different words to express the same ideas (p. 85).
This chapter was well written. I was able to follow the flow of ideas from genre and genre criticism through the explanation of narrative and concluding with drama and poetry. The identification of episodes and the different ways they can ties stories together was well organized and provides very useful information for the reader. The use of Genesis and Job as larger scale works that exemplify the qualities of narrative, drama, and poetry worked very well.
The contents of this chapter will help readers to identify the type of genre being used by a Biblical author and identify the strategies, devices, and patterns used to gain a clearer understanding of the Bible on both the small scale and large scale view of the entire collection of Biblical books. The description of cycles was very interesting and their identification will allow readers to see the parallel lines that are repeated in different stories.
The overall structural form of the book is the only drawback to this chapter. This book lives in a realm somewhere between textbook and informative book. It contains some of the typical textbook supportive material like an outline and bolded words, as well as questions and activities at the end of the chapter. Unfortunately it lacks some of the typical textbook structure like vignettes in the side margin that clarify concepts, definitions within the text for ease of access, diagrams, timelines, and pictures. “Reading the Bible as Literature” resembles an informative book in its shape, page size, use of headings, and expectation of certain vocabulary words being understood without explanation.
In my opinion, one of these styles of structure should be developed to a fuller extent. The form of the book essentially falls to its purpose as intended by the author. If the book were intended for study in an academic situation involving class discussions, homework, projects, a textbook structure would be more beneficial to aid in student comprehension and synthesis of concepts. If the book were intended for individual self-improvement study, education, and growth, then a more traditional structure of informative book would be more beneficial. One structure or another would solidify the purpose and structure of the book.
In conclusion, Dr. Crain does an excellent job of describing the major genres of literature and specifically the Bible. She thoroughly describes narrative, drama, and poetry and provides major examples of each of these genres. Reconsidering the structure of the book would increase comprehension for the reader, but the current structure still communicates the concepts in an understandable manner.