HON 395, 2nd Book Review
23 Sept 2012
Reading the Bible as Literature: An Introduction. Jeanie C. Crain. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010. p. 22-42.
With this second chapter of Reading the Bible as Literature: An Introduction by Dr. Jeanie C. Crain, the reader is suddenly adrift in a world rife with terminology both old and new. The lines flow smoothly down the page, broken up by thirty-eight vocabulary words. While some are familiar, such as the ubiquitous simile and metaphor, there are a host of unfamiliar words like inclusio and chiasm, which are not even recognized by the spell-checking device on this word-processing program. There are also words which have never before been associated with the reader's figurative language education, such as recursion and amplification. The amount of new words to explanations is shocking, and compared to the first chapter, the reader is likely to be lost. Chapter two completes the needful task of inoculating the reader with relevant terminology against future confusion, but the pain at the site of inoculation is alleviated by the author.
When working within a highly specialized field of study, an equally specialized terminology is utilized by the specialists. While this ignoramus usually boasts that this terminology is only good for self-validation by insecure people who have no faith in their doctorate degrees, she also knows that the author has a much higher motive than feeding the readers' collective egos. That motive, of course, is “play[ing] a significant role in your being able to read and understand the Bible. I want this text to introduce the Bible as being extremely rich in its extensive use of rhetorical devices” (Crain 22). Indeed, as pages of definitions go, this ceases to be an expanded glossary, but a showcase of the author's scholarship in her field. Crain's descriptions use “the common-sense notion that kinds of rhetorical decides can be recognized and define and that doing so helps us understand literature” (23). The author is clearly a specialist with a big-picture view of the subject, and like a doctor, she explains why the shot(s) she is about to give will be necessary to the reader.
The vaccination begins. Crain delves into the rhetorical strategies used by the Bible, both the narrow and broad interpretations thereof (23). She provides enough examples of figurative languages to appeal to most readers, regardless of field of study. This Literature major, for example, was struck by the practice of metonymy, in which nouns become associated with each other. This practice is present not only in the Bible, but in the poetry the reader so adores. Knowing of the existence of these rhetorical devices provides new understanding of the way language works, and also provokes thought into the so-called “arbitrariness” of language, a theory much-loved by linguists. If there are so many thousands of words available from which to choose in the world, then what is the probability that the average person will answer “life” when given the phrase “tree of”? A linguist would answer that there is very little probability of this, but a quick Facebook conversation proves otherwise:
Reader: Let's play a quick game. I'm going to type part of a phrase, and I want you to type the first word that pops into your head.
Respondent: Oh golly, this may be interesting.
Reader: Tree of-
Thanks to metonymy, the arbitrariness of human language is gone. However, the author moves away from the concrete: words associating with other words, to the abstract: words associating with other ideas. After briefly introducing the new topic, the author follows with a good number of examples. In some cases, she simply lists portions of the Bible where the examples can be found.
Crain concludes her chapter by assuring the reader that he or she “may be in a place now to understand that taking the Bible as either completely literal or wholly figurative creates a serious divide in the way individuals regard its truth” (40). The Bible, the author reminds us, cannot be limited to any single approach for study. Purely logical reasoning reduces the Bible into quantifiable units of “science, natural science, or history” (22), while purely figurative reasoning reduces the Bible into a Literature major's nightmare of what does this mean? A purely faith-based approach is ignorant at best. The reader is not sure, then, that using purely Crain's holistic approach can be optimal under the terms of the aforementioned generalization. However, it is the most optimal of the available choices and is also the assigned textbook. In chapter one, Crain touches on the history of the Bible, in chapter two, she touches on the figurative approach. The faith-based approach has appeared multiple times throughout the book, and this reader just remembered that this course is the Bible as literature, meaning that if the figurative-rhetorical-literary she is studying is slightly less holistic than she wants to believe, at least it is an honest bias.
This reader has inserted herself far too much into the other events of this review. In this paragraph, however, I take back my proper pronoun. I will admit, I was extremely reluctant to learn more vocabulary, especially as I was indoctrinated at a young age to believe that metaphor was only “a comparison between two things not using like or as,” while a simile could only be “a comparison between two things using like or as.” Dr. Crain manages to hammer that notion out of my head, though, reminding me that rhetorical language in the Bible is less about the words, and more the ideas behind the words. Metonymy, though, remains my favorite concept learned. As an item of interest, I have been wondering for the last two years what “chiasm” meant. In his poem, “Maithuna,” Octavio Paz writes:
the singing spiral
planted in a chasm (16-21).
I have never known the meaning of “chiasm,” and now, I am well on my way to figuring out why Paz decided to use the word (unless, of course, he liked the comparison between 'chiasm' and 'chasm'). It is an obscure word, but I applaud the author's dedication in digging out these terms for the reader's purview.
I penultimately close, again, on my admiration for the dogged scholarship and guiding persistence of the author. Chapter two was a difficult hunk of information, exceedingly hard to either taste, swallow, chew, or digest. I, however, am only a lowly Literature major and therefore not as qualified as Sir Francis Bacon to judge. I found, though, the chief confusion to lie in formatting. Bulleted lists of examples may be easier for the reader to comprehend. In a classic Crainian fashion, however, the vast wealth of scholarship is condensed into a heady shot of connections, conclusions, and questions.
At the beginning of this review, I compared this chapter to a vaccination “against confusion.” My aim, of course, was not only to jest. All thirty-eight words in bold (some repeated) made me gird up my literary loins and take up my sword of scholarship (a pen and highlighter, the dangerous duo). The ensuing battle, though, was neither unduly hard nor irritating. I made many connections to the Bible, to my beloved poetry, and to my other studies. The “vaccination” of this chapter is due to the remembrance of being vaccinated against both meningitis and varicella, one in each arm. The resulting additions to my bloodstream caused a slight hysteria, equaled by the amount of knowledge I am gaining from this book. This reader would almost welcome the dull sledgehammer-stroke of a glossary, for at least those blows of information would produce the unconsciousness of boredom, rather than the hysteria of needing to know more.