HON 395, 4th Review
21 October 2012
Reading the Bible as Literature: An Introduction. Jeanie C. Crain. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010. p 65-89.
In this fourth chapter of Reading the Bible as Literature: An Introduction, author Jeanie. C. Crain rescues the reader from the mire of inductive reasoning. As she states in chapter four, “I want us to keep in mind the importance of close reading the need to focus on the Bible as a whole” (65). It is too tempting in Biblical scholarship to narrow one's focus. Once the reader begins zooming in, it becomes harder to zoom out; thus instead of overarching ideas, metaphors, styles, and genres, the hapless reader sees only books, chapters, verses, and words. The readers of this book should not fear the bog of research, as Dr. Crain has already traveled through it and back again. Crain excels at enumerating the genres which make up the Bible, but she also urges her readers to link genres and search for the greater themes, and the “macro-plots.” In the fourth chapter of Reading the Bible as Literature: An Introduction, Dr. Crain touches on the great divide of Biblical criticism: whether or not critiquing the Bible is even a good idea. She largely leaves the issue alone, though, which is the best response for such bickering. Crain then dives into the literary arena with an explanation of plot structure, story groups, and story cycles. She ends the chapter with a discussion of drama and poetry, and how to unpack genres therein. Immediately after the chapter, as always, Crain includes her difficult exercises and thought-provoking questions for reflection. Biblical criticism seems to be a marshland of holistic thinkers versus individualistic thinkers, of empiricists versus theologists, and of critics caught in the middle. With Dr. Crain's Reading the Bible as Literature: An Introduction, the reader finds a friendly leshii, who will provide guidance through the mire.
As Dr. Crain addresses almost immediately in chapter four, a very real issue is that “a study of genre in and of itself leaves unaddressed the inner matter and spirit of the books” (66). With discussion questions like “Can fiction tell truth?” and “What two views of truth influence how one reads and interprets the Bible?” (88-89), the reader glimpses a very big, very scary world of criticism. For example, if fiction is rigidly defined as a lie, then the Bible cannot be fiction. Yet if nonfiction is defined only as the truth, then Bible falls through the cracks of an overly-empirical society. Contemporary views of truth are limited to empirical fact: quantifiable with mass amounts of numerical data. The Bible provides quantitative analysis, yes, but the Skeptics have long relished proving the facts of the Bible false. The problem with a culture of empiricism and the judgment of the Bible is that the Skeptics, while too-willing to condemn the “truth” of the Bible on one or two quantitative anomalies, are unwilling to treat the Bible as an actual scientific experiment. In a science experiment, data points are crunched and then graphed; there are always outliers to the resultant trend line. Scientists do not regard these outliers as a process for falsification. Instead, anomalies are completely expected as long as the trend line remains relatively understood. The Skeptics do not understand this science; they assume one anomaly is grounds for atheism.
Disturbingly enough, this viewpoint has infiltrated the ranks of the theologists, who attack Biblical criticism for opening the Bible to the study of anomaly and thus, falsification. If the Bible were to be scientifically analyzed by book, chapter, and verse, the trend line would probably remain unchanged. Dr. Crain's research proves that the Bible's message is nothing if not constant. Scientific analysis can only aid the Bible. It is the harsh world of rhetoric where the stakes are higher, and a subject can fall on its wording alone. Understanding these debates is an interesting extrapolation of the fiction versus nonfiction, criticism versus faith debate. However, Dr. Crain writes “I also want to explore with you how the Bible takes individual stories and weaves them together to form an ever greater narrative that has been described as having its own beginning, middle, and end—a unifying plot conflict that begins with the beginning of human history and ends with the consummation of history. Whether this is the motive of the God who “wrote” the Bible or the writers who wrote for their God, Crain leaves her readers to decide. The debate is firmly stoppered in Reading the Bible as Literature: An Introduction, as the author has better things to do than take sides and risk leaving a reader in the roiling wasteland of truth and untruth.
With that in mind, the author begins, explaining that contemporary adaptations of the Bible leave little genre study to the reader's determination (70). The Bible has already been interpreted, and the reader only has to accept what has been long-accepted by scholars. Yet then there are debates like the Documentary Hypothesis, where the different editions of Pentateuch are often written in different genres. The Yahwist version provides a mythological account of the flood, while the Priestly version provides a more historical, human-centric account. The redactor wisely combined the two writings, but does that mean that the two genres combine as well? Dr. Crain touches on this debate:
Determining boundaries among units, however, requires careful reading and attention to language, and readers may still disagree about the beginnings and endings of stories and overarching episodes. Discrete stories may be the easiest to identify; biblical scholars, though, point out that even a simple story such as the creation, told in tow accounts, poses a problem for identifying where one account ends and another begins. (70)
So the reader is largely on his or her own. This is when the aforementioned leshii arrives to save the day. Readers can use genre similarities as linkers, explains Dr. Crain. There is the children's-story plot, as well as the more complex composition-style. Narrative similarities interlock with one another throughout the Bible, within the Testaments and then linking the Testaments to one another.
In previous chapters, the reader of this book learned to associate certain motifs, like testing, temptation, rejection, and divine miracle, with each other. In chapter four, the reader now learns to sort not only motifs, but the narratives in which the motifs are presented. It is a field which provides endless combinations, yet each combination retains a similar message. The holistic viewpoint saves this treatment from abject empiricism. Crain goes on to discuss Genesis as “three chains and two reversals that make up the plot of this story” (78). Then she makes things harder, moving on to groups of stories. It is a staggering burden, somewhat lessened by the guided exercises following the chapter. Crain handles the cycles and macro-plot of Genesis easily, explaining the modulation between primeval history, patriarchal history, Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph (79).
Perhaps the best argument, both critical and moralistic, in chapter four is Crain's scholarship on the drama and poetry of the book of Job. It is, as Crain says, a theodicy on moral issues, beginning with the narrative, and consisting of dialogue couched in poetry. Job is no child's story, nor composition. It is a masterful approach to the moral question of judgment, the human question How could a loving God do this? Dr. Crain does not need to tackle the religiosity of the question; she has her hands quite full with the depth of poetry and prose in the book of Job. Her end analysis is astute: As theodicy, a treatise about God's justice and the existence of physical and moral evil in the world, Job takes special pride of place in responding to the mystery and imperfect human knowledge of God (87).
Where does all that leave this reader? I find myself wanting a conclusion to summarize what I just learned, maybe to mouth some theoretical platitudes. Dr. Crain, though, does not stoop to such immaturity. She is an amateur only in the sense that she loves her topic, and the happy duty of conclusion and platitude is left to my clumsy care. With unsurprising parallelism, just as I find it hard to keep track of the themes, motifs, metaphors, and so on of the Bible, I am having some trouble keeping straight all the themes, motifs, metaphors, and so on in Reading the Bible as Literature: An Introduction. Dr. Crain, however, is seasoned at keeping the student from foundering. For fear that I will start the Jesus motif, I will stop this metaphor's development. Her analysis of the Book of Job is stunning. My interest was certainly piqued, in case I want to narrow my focus to certain specific elements. More and more, my respect for this book as an introduction to the Bible and to Biblical criticism (though Dr. Crain would probably disavow that intention) is growing. Baudelaire recognized self-doubt as the “vast and terrible question-mark which seizes the critic by the throat from his very first step in the first chapter he sits down to write.” Dr. Crain avoids this self-consciousness, and thus achieves a maturity which is little-encountered in the quagmire of contemporary criticism.