HON 395, 6th Review
18 November 2012
Reading the Bible as Literature: An Introduction. Jeanie C. Crain. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010. p110-128.
As the reader crosses the halfway point of Reading the Bible as Literature: An Introduction, author Jeanie C. Crain explicates one of the better-known facets of literary analysis: characterization. The Bible contains thousands of characters, some round, some flat, some static, and some hardly-mentioned. The author has identified the unique characteristics through context, action, response, and words. Character traits are also found in symbolic actions, requests, impact, description, and structure. After Dr. Crain has completed her research though, it is the reader's turn. In the first half of this textbook, the author provided lengthy examples for the reader to gain insight. Her pedagogy for the latter half seems to be “You might find what you're looking for around here...good luck!” This is probably why this chapter (Character) and the next chapter (Themes and Motifs) are placed towards the end of the book. While I as a reader can figure out if a character is round or flat from a certain passage, I probably could not have found an example of inclusio (ch.2) without Dr. Crain's help. The author may be a stern taskmaster, but Reading the Bible as Literature: An Introduction is written with the average student in mind—that is, easily understood, yet challenging.
One of the most difficult questions when analyzing the characters of the Bible is “Who is the protagonist?” Dr. Crain, in the glossary, answers that “a protagonist is the central character with whom readers identify and who functions to unify a story; a story can have more than one protagonist” (166). Surely a story as overarching as the Bible can have more than one protagonist. As I wrote in a previous review, though, “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.” As a reader, it is hard not to search for a central (or perhaps higher) protagonist, and God is the only available unifier. Only God lives throughout the whole Bible; his voice is always present (though the interpretations differ in consistency).
Having selected a major character, I as a reader am left with a conundrum. God is portrayed by the Bible as omniscient and omnipotent. Jesus, as God's son, is more accessible to the reader. Yet if God is really the Bible's protagonist, then how can the reader relate to such a hero? God, obviously, has no faults, no flaws. If He has conflicts, then those problems are probably too complex for the simple worshiper to understand. As Epicurus famously argued in his “The Logical Problem of Evil,” “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?” Opening God up to characterization also opens Him up to reader interpretation, and that interpretation may not be positive.
Dr. Crain answers this question with a paraphrase from Frederick Buechner, who writes, “The central character, of course—the one who dominates everything and around whom all the others revolve—is God himself” (194). While this may make God the central “character”--if He can be called a character, God is not necessarily the protagonist. It is important to remember that the Bible is more than a story. “Story” implies fiction, and the Bible is not fiction, or not just fiction. It is rhetoric—persuasion. Thus, the reader of the Bible is most fitted to become the protagonist. God may be the central character, but what is His conflict? Indeed, what is the conflict of every character in the Bible? To some extent, the Bible's argument is to persuade the reader to adopt its religious message. As the reader peruses the various pieces of evidence, he or she grows, changes, faces conflicts, and eventually concludes with acceptance or rejection. Dr. Crain is able to sum up this long postulation with a single sentence: “Traditionally, readers have come to the Bible expecting to discover religious truth, believing its storytellers worked with didactic purpose; through setting, action, and characters, their stories address the great issues of life” (111).
Yet characters are not only tools of the author. Characters have a tendency to mirror their authors, and say far more about society, life, and religion than what their quotation marks enclose. Dr. Crain begins by a means of identifying a character through context, choosing to exemplify Saul and the Witch of Endor. It is a twisted tale, beginning with the possible jealousy of Samuel and ending with the suicide of a ruined Saul. In context, though, the reader sees more than a soap opera; it is an emerging pattern of judgment. This is “a growing tension between prophet and king as well as a moral compass gauged by loyalty to Yahweh. The actions of King Solomon, the third king of the monarchy, must be weighed using these same scales” (117). Indeed, in 1 and 2 Kings, Solomon is judged based on both his acts of wisdom and his many wives, whereas in 1 Chronicles, Solomon is the essential “good king.” Thus, it is important to read a character fully within his assigned context.
Dr. Crain next picks up on another aspect of society: gossip. Characters can be interpreted by what other people say about them. Huldah, her chosen example, was respected greatly, and it shows from what was said behind her back (or, more likely, to her face). The nameless prophetess is Isaiah 8, though, is a different story. Isaiah may dignify her as a prophetess, but not as a woman with any power over him, simply as a receptacle for his child. This is a contemporary reading of the gospel, though, so I apologize. Crain then moves on to one of the most opaque forms of character identification. When unpacking a character's own words, the reader has to be careful to distinguish between the character's voice and that of the narrator. Similarly, identifying a character through symbolic actions (122), can seem a lot like prevarication. Symbolism is tricky. As a reader, I often find myself asking “Is that just coincidence?” For the critical reader, canonical research might be necessary to uncover what is really symbolism and what is an eerie similarity. Then again, I, as Dr. Crain writes “may be more comfortable thinking of a symbol as a word or an image that stands for something in addition to its literal meaning” (122). Too right, Dr. Crain.
Characters may also be identified through their requests, as is the case with the mother Salome. Then there are the barely-mentioned characters. They may not be well-known, but without them, as in the case of Timothy's mother, Timothy's faith would not have been formed (125). On a personal level, without Timothy's mother, there would be no 2 Timothy 2, which is my favorite Bible verse (New International Reader's Version). Eunice is behind her son's actions, and so through the reader can form a wavering idea of her. Another more-secondary means of identifying a character comes from description, as discussed in John's address to the Elect Lady. Lastly, Crain explains that the structure of the book of Mark is a prime example character identification. Mark is different from the Synoptic Gospels in that he focuses not on ancestry but on prophecy. This choice of rhetoric is important to unpacking the character of Mark.
As always, Reading the Bible as Literature: An Introduction is an intense, rigorous study. There are moments when my extra-wide margins are not wide enough. There are also moments when my margins are completely blank; I slam my head against a Bible as if trying by osmosis to impart this knowledge I am so denied. Luckily, Dr. Crain keeps this utter incomprehension at bay by telling me where to look. If asked to find a character identified through structure, I would probably reach for my Bible in despair. However, when asked to find how Mark is identified by structure, I can certainly deliver. Dr. Crain is well-aware of her readers' limitations, and she is generous enough to lead them on a scavenger hunt through the Bible. Her “Close Reading” exercises require more than just close reading; they call for critical analysis, and even some opinionated responses. Her “Questions for Reflection” seem to reflect current issues within Biblical criticism, as well as those formulated in the enterprising reader's head. As always, Crain is keenly aware of the critical debates in her field. She is adept at forcing the reader to maker his or her own opinion through the use of the primary text.