Literary Techniques and Biblical Appreciation

I struggle with reading the Bible, but not truly hearing God. Growing up in the church, I remember scriptures being read so often that when I tried to read them again in my own Bible study, my eyes and mind would simply gloss over them, being half-memorized and so ingrained in my mind that they had lost most of their meaning. They no longer sunk into my mind and heart, but merely hit my ears in a shallow way and then disappeared. I want the Bible to speak to me, to resonate, to inspire me and comfort me and transform me. Because that’s what the God’s word is capable of; that’s what God says it will do if I have the right attitude and am open to it.

Studying English literature in college gave me some helpful techniques that work when applied to the Bible. Here are two that help me to move beyond the feeling of being overly familiar and therefore closed off to the word of God.

1) Cultivate an ever-greater appreciation and awe of the Bible

The classic example to show that the Bible is literature (instead of just a collection of historical accounts and wisdom passed down) is Ecclesiastes 12:9 which says, “Besides being wise, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care.” This is clearly literary concern. I could be an oddity, but it makes me excited to think that God inspired the writers of the Bible to care about and employ the emotional power and creative artistry of literature to help spread His message.

Another distinctly literary characteristic of the Bible is that its themes and concerns are universal and still relevant to today. In the introduction to A Complete Literary Guide to the Bible, Leland Ryken and Tremper Longman III write:

The focus of biblical literature is on elemental human experience. John Livingston Lowes notes that the vocabulary of the Bible is filled with “the primal stuff of our common humanity — of its universal emotional, sensory experiences” (33).

The Bible has influenced an incredible amount of literature, culture, and art. In one of my music history classes, we listened to this* musical version of Saul’s conversion (Acts 9). Now whenever I read that verse I hear the music, and I’m sure what Saul actually heard was even more impressive. Finding biblical connections within classes, other books, history, and society has increased my respect and awareness of the Bible.

2) Do close reading exercises of short excerpts

God’s word is alive and always greater than human understanding. There will always be more to discover. Close reading in the literary world means to look at a small piece of a text and consider all its parts, why they are there, what their functions are, and how they relate to the whole. Close reading asks questions like: What does each word mean? Why are they in that order? What emotions do they evoke? Are they blunt or soothing or cruel or compassionate? What function does the passage serve in its context (the larger section surrounding it/the chapter/the book/the entire Bible)? What is God’s purpose in including this passage?

Close reading is not about interpretation, it is about seeing what’s really there. Finding the truth of a passage includes remembering its context and making sure it stays in line with other scriptures and the rest of the Bible. Richard Moulton, an early literary scholar of the Bible, wrote that “no principle of literary study is more important than that of grasping clearly a literary work as a single whole” (The Modern Reader’s Bible, 1718). The point of close reading is to get rid of assumptions and preconceptions in order to get to the deeper and more complete truth of literature.

For example, this excerpt in Jude recently struck me:

These are hidden reefs at your love feasts, as they feast with you without fear, shepherds feeding themselves; waterless clouds, swept along by winds; fruitless trees in late autumn, twice dead, uprooted; wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars, for whom the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved forever (12-13).

The context is a letter from Jude to “those who are called” (verse 1) concerning false teachers, especially those who ignore the law. The excerpt begins with the word “these” which is referencing the anger and jealousy of Cain, the dishonesty and greed of Balam, and the attempt at usurping authority by Korah. Here are a few pieces of my close reading:

“Hidden reefs” is a good metaphor for dangerous stumbling blocks, as something that can shipwreck you all of a sudden, unawares, dangerous but hard to detect…These false teachers are like “waterless clouds, swept along by winds” perhaps they look like they could bring rain (or be beneficial) but really are empty of anything good or even deceitful. This brings to my mind words like ephemeral, drifting, wandering, and temporary…The false teachers are also “wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame.” This reminds me of Ephesians 4:14, but in contrast to that verse where doubt creates passivity and instability, in this verse the false teachers are actively spewing or displaying what they know to be shameful.  They are “wild” and perhaps unruly and out of control. At this point, they are no longer hidden, which suggests that these verses contain not only a list, but also a progression.

These are just suggestions that have helped me go deeper into the God’s word. Ryken and Longman write, “To literary critics, biblical literature is a mirror in which we see ourselves” (21). Finding ways to make the Bible more relatable, more accessible makes its words come alive. Hebrews 4:12 says that “the word of God is living and active.” It is a collection of things God wants to say to me, and He knows what I need to know and learn and become. Engaging with His book allows me to fully hear Him.

*Turn up the sound at the very beginning of this for the full effect. And, it’s in German, but ‘Saul’ is the same, so, you get the gist 🙂

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One thought on “Literary Techniques and Biblical Appreciation

  1. I love this. When we slow down and mindfully drink in, so much is there for the feasting. But it most-certainly is our obligation to take the time.

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