[K:NWTS 6/1 (May 1991) 45-49]
If you are my age and attended a secular college or university, as I did, you can remember the reputation of a course, usually in the English department, called "The Bible as Literature"—taught by an atheist or agnostic, specifically designed to dispel forever the notion that there was anything special, let alone divinely inspired, about the Bible, a course where plenty of students had lost their faith, etc., etc. It was, as I recall, one of those courses, like philosophy and world religions, that evangelicals tended to avoid—or, on the other hand, to take purely for the opportunity it afforded to test one's mettle against the Philistine. (The course was taught at my university, incidentally, by a man who, it was rumored, had graduated from Calvin College, but who no longer believed and now amused himself by taunting fundamentalist students with his blasphemies.) Such in those days was the Christian student's view of studying the Bible "as literature," the phrase meaning, of course, merely or only as literature; in this case the literature of the Jews, but no different in the way we handle it than that of any other ancient people.
Times have obviously changed. No doubt part of the change can be explained by the fact that we university students have grown older and wiser. But there has clearly been a shift in evangelical convictions as well. From Baker Book House (1987) we have Leland Ryken's Words of Delight: A Literary Introduction to the Bible. Ryken teaches at Wheaton and has numerous articles and several books on the subject to his credit, including The Literature of the Bible (Zondervan, 1974) and How to Read the Bible as Literature (Academic Books, 1984), both similar to Words of Delight. Ryken's work and that of one or two others—on the Old Testament the latest is Reformed Theological Seminary professor Richard Pratt's He Gave Us Stories (Wolgemuth and Hyatt, 1990)—indicate that the Bible as literature is now an acceptable evangelical enterprise. Well it should be.
Ryken's thesis, stated often and supported by dozens of examples, is simply that the Bible is literature—primarily, essentially, as of first importance—and that if we do not understand it as such we shall not really understand it at all. In other words—and this is of course what makes the point particularly relevant to most of us—the Bible is not a book of theology, at least not in the first instance. On the very first page Ryken admonishes that, "The thing that it is emphatically not is what we so often picture it as being—a theological outline with proof texts attached" (11) and he never lets up. Commentators who neglect or fail to take seriously the essentially literary character, the sheer artistry of Scripture, are more than once rebuked. On Ruth, for instance: "I cringe every time I read a theologian's comment that 'when the narrative "trimming" is stripped away, the story of Ruth takes its place as simply one more bit of Heilsgeshicte,..."' Against such reductionism (his word) Ryken offers the view of a critic who argues that the author of Ruth is "an artist in full command of a complex and subtle art, which art is exhibited in almost every word of the story" (125).
This is Ryken all through: the Bible is literature and its writers were literary artists—and not by accident. The biblical poets, to name perhaps the most representative, "wrote as self-conscious artists aware of the conventions or 'rules' of their craft" (241). Nor is "artistry" a frill or impediment, something to be "gotten through" in order to get to the kernel of theological truth. Of Psalm 19: "The sheer beauty and artistry of a psalm like this are not extraneous to its meaning. They are part of the total effect of the poem" (196).
Ryken's method is to walk us through the various genre—narrative (including epic, tragedy and hero story), encomium, proverb, satire and drama—describing, first, the key elements of each, then showing how each is represented in Scripture; also when and how Bible tragedy or epic or drama differs from its profane counterparts. For those not familiar with such things as the elements of narrative or epic versus anti-epic, this is Lit. 101 audited, without exams (or a review of what you've forgotten from university days), applied this time to the Bible.
Ryken goes further than explanation and example: he provides us with literary analysis—exegesis, not in terms of theology or the structure of language, but of metaphor, simile, personification, image, etc. His analyses are models for us to emulate, lessons in how-to for the novice. And in this Ryken is nothing if not thorough, perhaps too thorough. His explication of the variety of psalms, for example, goes from literary introduction to commentary; and when the book fails it does so because it falls between these two stools. Depending on one's knowledge of Ryken's subject, one will find some of his analysis either nuts and bolts practical (he gives us almost five pages on Psalm 90, doing it for us) or pedestrian, telling us what in many cases we already know, or should be able to figure out, as in his treatment of Job.
Indeed, the fault of this book is often the defect of its virtues. "Analysis is well as death is well," said George McDonald. How much better, in most cases, simply to read the text itself. (But of course Ryken would say the same; that is, after all, what he is trying to teach us to do.) Nor are we drawn closer to the text by technicalese (admittedly limited): "scene-act ratio," "scene-agent ratio," etc. But the problem here may be built in: it is difficult to have literary analysis without—well, literary analysis!
Ryken is most helpful when he opines, exhorts or instructs: the Song of Solomon, for instance, "a collection of love poems," not a spiritual allegory, or drama, or a story about a love triangle, "has been extravagantly misinterpreted throughout the centuries and continues to be so today" (271); Jonah is "the greatest satiric masterpiece in the Bible" (337); and the apparently contradictory passages in Ecclesiastes make sense when we understand that "the book is structured on a dialectical principle in which opposites are contrasted to each other" (320). His comparison of John 1 to Old Testament encomium (300ff.) and the cloud of witnesses of Hebrews 12 to the cloudy pillar of wilderness wandering (309) are, moreover, not only interesting; they are grist for the biblical-theological mill.
This kind of critique, borne of Ryken's considerable knowledge of his subject, offers us another approach to and possibly a way out of traditional dilemmas, vis-a-vis strictly linguistic or theological exegesis. At the very least Ryken causes us to see the Bible in a new way, gets us out of our ruts; he gives us the professional's view. And if we were ever in doubt about the self-conscious artistic intent of the Bible's authors, or ever thought Scripture a kind of theological handbook, Ryken sets us straight. The Bible is art, often great art; its message comes from the pens of poets, story tellers and aphorists, not professors of dogmatic theology. (I have long thought, by the way, that the literary perspective is precisely what is missing in the often fruitless debate between theologians and scientists over the early chapters of Genesis, where the sides appear to be firing past one another.)
Having made his point, Ryken reminds us at the end that for all its art the Bible's purpose is didactic. Art, yes, but not for art's sake.
"The Bible is a continuously religious book. It is always ready to sacrifice literary concerns for didactic ones, and even when it does not do so, its literary dimension is permeated with religious and moral preoccupations" (354). Ryken has brought us full circle. Having explained, with 350 pages of argumentation and in no uncertain terms, that the Bible is understood best, perhaps only, when it is read with a full appreciation of its essentially literary character, he does not fail to remind us, quoting C. S. Lewis, that "those who read the Bible as literature do not read the Bible" (note, 354)—a fitting conclusion for those of us who need both to read it correctly and obey it.
Words of Delight is not casual reading. At times it is slow going; and its occasional hesitation between introduction and commentary, in my view, does not help. Its message and insights, however, are worth having (not least for the sake of our theology), and so, therefore, is the book—because, of course, the Bible is literature. Those old university courses were misguided to the extent that they failed to acknowledge that it is much, much more.
—Richard A. Riesen