Reading the Bible as Literature: An Introduction. Jeanie C. Crain. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2010. 1-21
The Bible is undeniably one of the most distributed and well-known books in the world. But how well do people actually know the Bible? While the Bible is viewed by many as God’s word or a type of “training manual” for Christians, there is much more to this book than that. In Chapter One of Reading the Bible as Literature, Professor Jeanie C. Crain introduces readers to a fresh, different way of looking at the Bible. Regardless of one’s religious affiliation (or lack thereof), the Bible can be admired and learned from as an excellent piece of literature. Chapter One in Dr. Crain’s book offers an introduction to understanding and reading the Bible from a literary standpoint. Dr. Crain offers readers useful definitions, thoughts about the form and languages of the Bible, reasons for reading the Bible as literature, various approaches for teaching the Bible as literature, and reflection questions to review at the end of the chapter reading. The introductory chapter to this textbook intends to provide a foundation for students on what to expect as they embark on the journey of reading the Bible as literature. Overall, it does quite a nice job of that.
As readers learn in this chapter, there have been the following three approaches taken in textbooks for teaching the Bible as literature over the years: the literature of the Bible, the Bible in literature, and the Bible as literature (Crain, 13). The first approach, the literature of the Bible, views the Bible as a set of stories rather than an entire, cohesive book. In this approach, some parts of the Bible are seen as literature, while others are not. The second approach, the Bible in literature, studies how other pieces of literature have been influenced by the Bible. The third approach is what this textbook is focused on: the Bible as literature. The study of the Bible has evolved and developed through the years, as this approach studies the Bible as a whole, complete work of literary art. This first chapter in Dr. Crain’s book explains the importance of this third approach taken for teaching the Bible as literature.
Chapter One lays a foundation for the study of the Bible as a literary work. The chapter begins with a useful list of basic definitions. Understanding what is meant by, for example, “Bible” or “New Testament” is the most essential starting block for reading the Bible in any way (as literature, for religious reasons, for historical reasons, etc.). Professor Crain then offers clarification of various Biblical translations and forms. To illustrate her point effectively, she quotes the same verse in the Bible from two different translations, showing that the difference can be profound. For an example, Dr. Crain uses Genesis 32.20 from two different translations, the New Oxford Annotated Bible, and a translation by Everett Fox. Both verses have essentially the same message, but Fox’s version repeats the word “face” multiple times. This motif is referred to various times throughout Genesis in Fox’s translation (5). Through this example, readers are able to understand the importance of the specific translation being evaluated. After discussing these basic things to consider before diving into reading the Bible, Dr. Crain offers reasons to read the Bible as literature. On page 6, the author writes, “As a result of its impact upon people all over the world, and because it continues to reveal new exposures about human experience, it has been regarded by many as a classic, but not just a classic, that deserves to be recognized as among the world’s greatest literature.” As if this sentence isn’t convincing enough, this section of the chapter proceeds to explain a multitude of reasons for reading the Bible as literature. The Bible demonstrates usage of unity, coherence, and allusion, for example (7). It contains an excellent usage of language, e.g. metaphors, symbols, and the like (9). And, among many other reasons, the Bible has made a huge impact on literature today (11). This is true; Christian or not, most people know of the Bible, and they probably know of a biblical story or two as well. Now that the reader is sold on the idea of reading the Bible as literature, the chapter proceeds to look at ways to investigate, study, and properly criticize the Bible. The reader is provided with some background of the history and culture of the people in the Bible, and then the chapter comes to a close with a list of exercises and reflection questions for the reader to review.
Overall, the chapter achieved the author’s goal. Chapter One provides a basic introduction to reading the Bible as literature that paves the way for a study of this incredibly influential literary work. This chapter effectively provokes thought on looking at the Bible in a different way, and why to do so. I appreciated the questions for reflection at the end of the chapter, as well. They really got me thinking about the Bible and its place in literature. One of the questions, for example, asks the following: “What is ‘the Bible’?” At first, this question seems easy; clearly, the Bible is considered to be God’s word, consisting of the Old and New Testaments. However, as this textbook is preparing to explore, the Bible goes much deeper than that. It provides more than a set of rules for Christians; it also provides a major influence in literature. I predict the question “what is ‘the Bible’?” will resurface once Reading the Bible as Literature delves further into the material.
Chapter One is well thought-out and complete. There seems to be nothing lacking from the chapter; as the reader, I finished the chapter with no unanswered questions, and only a desire to learn more about this type of study of the Bible. Before beginning this textbook, I had never thought about the Bible as anything other than a rulebook for Christians, and a carefully arranged list of God’s praises and promises. I knew it was an extremely important book, but I had never thought about it as a piece of literature. It is interesting and exciting to approach the Bible in a different way than I have ever done before. Because I am feeling this way, I believe that the chapter fully accomplished its goals.
On page 15 of the text, Dr. Crain mentions a book that is on the same topic. The Bible as Literature was written by John B. Gabel, Charles B. Wheeler, and Anthony D. York originally in 1986. I was curious how Professor Jeanie C. Crain’s first chapter in Reading the Bible as Literature compared to Gabel, Wheeler, and York’s first chapter in The Bible as Literature. The first thing I noticed right away is that The Bible as Literature seems to jump right in with the topic. In fact, the very first sentence says, “What does it mean to read the Bible as literature?” (Gabel, Wheeler, & York, 1). Jeanie Crain’s first chapter begins with an outline of the chapter, and the first sentence eases into the topic a little more slowly: “As readers, you may very well come to the Bible simply wanting to read and understand it more clearly than you have in the past,” (Crain, 1). Obviously, neither way is better than the other. Both approaches get the reader thinking and responding. Both chapters in the two books offer sufficient introductions to the study of the Bible as literature; however, something that sets Reading the Bible as Literature by Professor Crain apart is her usage of personal notes written in italics throughout the chapter. These notes provide a personal touch, and often elaborate on the issues mentioned.
In conclusion, Chapter One of Reading the Bible as Literature does as it intends; it informs readers of basic concepts necessary for the topic. As a reader, I became interested in the idea of reading the Bible as literature, and I gained a better feel for what it will consist of through this chapter. It was an enjoyable chapter to read, and I am looking forward to the rest of the book. One truly can’t ask for more than that.