HON 395, 7th Review
9 December 2012
Reading the Bible as Literature: An Introduction. Jeanie C. Crain. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010. p 129-152.
Confident in her pedagogy, author Jeanie C. Crain ends Reading the Bible as Literature: An Introduction where many anthologies begin. In her chapter “Themes and Motifs: A Way of Unifying,” she again warns her reader that reducing the Bible to exclusively literary study will strip from the work a great deal of meaning. The Bible contains many themes and motifs, and being aware of the continuities will provide a great deal of additional meaning. Veering too far off into the hinterlands of reductionism, however, means forgetting the theological element to Biblical studies. As Dr. Crain protests in the first chapter of Reading the Bible as Literature: An Introduction, the literary approach to the Bible is not just about scientific method, painstaking research, or applying Occam's Razor in search of a unifier—or homogenizer. Thus, it is in the last chapter when Dr. Crain pulls out the themes and motifs. The chapter discusses major themes such as the relationship with God, the Shema, the Covenants, Mercy, and Justice. As the reader zooms outward, the themes illuminate a macro-plot: the Heroic Quest. As always, Dr. Crain closes the chapter with a truly impressive list of questions and exercises for further study. These have the advantage of concluding the book for the reader. Crain's short conclusion is at once tasteful and encouraging; with one hand she closes her book, and with all her remaining appendages, she opens an entire library of research.
“It may be helpful to know,” writes Dr. Crain, “that the current distrust of the theology of the Bibles comes largely from the eighteenth-century counter-culture that largely replaced the much older Judean-Christian world view” (129). While Crain is tactful enough not to name names, her first chapter mentions those troublesome Enlightenment thinkers. Once the counter-culture had distrusted theology enough to do away with it, they uncovered some interesting anomalies in the Bible. Of course, in a work as large in scope as the Bible, anomalies are not uncommon. Still, the most fascinating anomaly was the contrast between God's justice and God's mercy. Dr. Crain elucidates the many reasons for this paradox, writing:
Scholarship has struggled with ways to reduce the paradox: the use of multiple sources as the origin of the paradox; God as a complex character evidencing human characteristics; the short- and long-term action of God; the equation of charity to responsible behavior; and the emergence of a wisdom tradition that emphasizes the unknowable. (142-143)
Many reasons exist for the supposed paradox, but the paradox never disappears completely, because it is not completely explained in the Bible. The Book of Job, for example, describes a man beset by both God's justice and mercy. Whatever the reason for the confusion, either that the authors of the Bible did not understand the paradox or that the explanation is too advanced for readers to comprehend, the paradox exemplifies a situation in which theological and literary criticism collide. From a purely literary standpoint, if a critic cannot immediately see reason to the paradox, or even reason for the paradox, it is a literary weakness. According to the New Critics, a work should not have to be informed by biological, psychological, sociological, historical, ethical, mythical, or archetypal considerations. (Or at least, the work should be informed lastly by these.) The Bible is sacrosanct, and criticism must arise solely from its pages. To a New Critic, an anomaly is weakness.
To a theologian, the Bible cannot be weak. It is a holy work; anomalies may exist, but they exist only to the reader. The reader, after all, cannot understand the ways and wills of God. This is the unknowable tradition, after all. Theology and Theory are, in this case, opposed, and it is this chasm Dr. Crain seeks to bridge. She argues that reading the Bible as literature is about recognizing the literary elements of the Bible without losing sight of the theology; the interpretation of the Bible as a holy book. In this case, the Bible gets a free pass for its anomalies. As I wrote in an earlier review, “anomalies are completely expected as long as the trend line remains relatively undisturbed. The Skeptics do not understand this science; they assume one anomaly is grounds for atheism.” With her discussion of conflicting themes, Dr. Crain reminds the reader that he or she always has the holiness of the Bible to hang on to, even as his or her foot gets caught by the anomaly.
Dr. Crain introduces the major themes as the relationship to God and with other humans, the Shema, the Covenants, the Mercy/Justice debate, and the Heroic Quest. The Decalogue, housing the Ten Commandments, is an example of God's relationship to huans. Similar in form to a suzerain treaty, it is representative of the theme of God's superiority over the Israelites—a superiority which they largely choose. This covenental theme is one common throughout the Bible. The promise of fealty for reward, whether material or spriritual, and of the Abrahamic Covenant, opens up the can of worms on supersessionism. Modern Christianity is based on the idea of supersessionism, which in turn houses the idea that “the New Testament church is the new Israel that has forever superseded national Israel as the people of God” (Vlach). Supersesionism carries the theme of the Covenants far beyond the Bible, into present-day tensions and criticis The Shema helps solidy God's superiority, and it also “advances the theological belief that there is only one God” (Crain 136).
I found Dr. Crain's final paragraph of Reading the Bible as Literature: An Introduction to be quiet and unassuming, yet fully aware of the vast amounts of research and guidance she has given the book. This modesty is becoming; she writes:
Read as a whole, I have suggested that the Bible achieves a degree of unity and coherence through its themes and motifs. We have explored a core of themes that help to pull together the Bible's diverse collection of ancient literature: the divine-human and the human-human relationship, illustrated in the Decalogue and in the Great Commandment; the one sovereign God and Creator; the contractual nature of a series of covenants between God and poeple; the steadfast love of a God who intervenes in history to rescue, restore, and deliver his people; and finally, the theme of justice, with its moral demands for fair rule and intervention on behalf of the helpless. With the exception of covenant in the books of Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes, these themes help to unify all sixty-six books. (148)
Yet as a reader, I wanted a more conclusive ending. Even the five conclusive points Dr. Crain feels are appropriate to make border on parsimonious. As a reader, I may now be familiar with tools for understanding literature, have learned about similarities in Biblical and literary language, have gained some knowledge of important Biblical passages and canons, have interpreted broadly yet read closely, and have “discovered a library that invites [me] to engage at deep levels of study and greater depths of insight” (152). However, I want to know what the author thinks. As she hands the torch of scholarship unto the reader, I would appreciate a realization of what she has learned from writing the book, not just what she hopes the reader has learned. Dr. Crain may be an Author-God, but she need have no fear that her presence will subsume the multi-dimensional space that is this book.