How to Read the Bible as Literature
Leland Ryken Ph.D.
Grand Rapids, Michigan
How to Read the Bible as Literature by Dr. Leland Ryken is a call to all those engaged in Bible study to included literary analysis in their interpretive methodology and to allow a more complete personal engagement with the Biblical text. Dr. Ryken proposes that the traditional, exclusively intellectual approach to interpreting the Bible does a disservice to the literary nature of the text. This disservice results in a loss of interpretive content. Through the examination of literary devices in the various genres of Scripture he demonstrates the literary nature of the bible. He further develops appropriate sets of guidelines for the literary analysis of each genre, illustrating that this method yields a more complete exposition. He implies that tradition interpretive method alone relegates the emotional and affective content of the Scriptures to an inferior position within Scriptural analysis. This fails to allow the text to engage the reader fully, and as a result, a substantial amount of the intended communication is lost. He contends that complete engagement of the reader was the original biblical intent, a fact supported by the deliberate use of literary forms throughout the Scriptures. His solution is the use of literary analysis in hermeneutics. I agree with his position, though with some misgiving concerning application.
His techniques are able to add a significant wider perspective to both devotional and theological bible study. This supports his contention that literary analysis should have a prominent place in Hermeneutical instruction.
Background Information and Context
The present text stems from Dr. Ryken’s observations over many years in the classroom, primarily at Wheaton College in Illinois. As an English Professor in the seminary environment, he observed that while the tradition, intellectually based approaches to Scriptural interpretation were well addressed, the literary perspective was either ignored or considered inappropriate. He came to see this as completely at odds with his view of the Scriptures as literary writings. Further, he observed that a great deal was being missed in exegesis and interpretation though the omission of literary content which the Biblical authors had included through literary genre and device. This book attempts to address these omissions by developing a literary approach to interpretation. This is accomplished by introducing applicable literary genres and demonstrating techniques for literary analysis of each genre.
Dr. Ryken summarizes his book as “a ‘grammar’ of literary forms and techniques” (p10). However, in providing this exposition of forms and techniques, the book also provides extensive justification for their use as parallel techniques on equal footing with the standard grammatico-historical method. He proposes that “there is a preoccupation among biblical writers with artistry, verbal craftsmanship, and aesthetic beauty” (p9) which speaks to the experiential and emotional side of the interpreter. This important communication from the biblical writers has been ignored or denied in classic hermeneutics.
The book proposes that the sheer weight of deliberate literary devices used by the biblical writers supports a view of the Scriptures as literature. The bible also illustrates a strong propensity for communicating through the story as a primary medium, as opposed to theological discourse and proofs. This alters both the way the bible should be read and the communication it provides. As a result “The story does not primarily require our minds to grasp an idea but instead gets us to respond with our imagination and emotions to a real-life experience. Literature, in short, is affective, not cool and detach.” (p15).
The affective nature of the Bible, conveyed primarily through story but also expanded in almost all bible genres, is developed as the discussion addresses each genre individually. Beginning with the primary genre of story, successive chapters extend this theme into poetry, proverbs, the Gospels, Parables, the Epistles, Satire, and Apocalyptic books.
Each genre is addressed with a definition, exposition of appropriate literary devices and textual examples. The examples not only demonstrate the literary devices but add additional weight the evidence in support of the Bible as literature. A set of interpretive rules emerges for the literary analysis of each genre. These rules provide a framework for the reader to apply the techniques to other texts.
The Bible is shown to be a book for stories, some related by biblical characters and others written in the lives of those historical characters. These stories communicate precepts through the experiences of people. A set of guidelines or rules are developed for reading the story genre. Similarly, other genres such as poetry have sets of guidelines for using literary analysis for interpretation. For example: ”Interpret as figurative any statement that does not make sense at a literal level in the context in which it appears.”(p102).
Throughout the discussions of each literary genre, Dr. Ryken demonstrates the use of the literary forms to communicate to the reader experientially. The motif of experiential communications is shown to be consistent over all genres and therefore throughout the Bible. For example, in discussing simile and metaphor within poetry, he states that “There is an irreducible quality to metaphor and simile that we should respect, both as readers and expositors”(p92). This irreducible quality speaks to the experiential and emotional, which is a common thread throughout the book.
The book concludes with discussion of the literary unity of the Bible as a story which “which has a beginning-middle-end pattern, a unifying plot conflict between good and evil, a focus on people in the act of choosing, and a central protagonist who is God.”(p179). These techniques are shown to combine to form a unified theme and convey “archetypal plot motifs” (p191).
All of the forgoing literary genres and techniques combine into an “affective power”(p196) which engages the whole person of the reader. The expositor and interpreter are stronger encouraged to participate in this engagement.