Reading the Bible as Literature – Part 2/2

Evaluation

I read the author’s intent as including several overarching goals, some stated and some implied.  The first stated goal is to show that the Bible is a form of literature. This is proven by the full spectrum of literary forms that are used consistently across most Scriptural genres, in both the Old and New Testaments. This also demonstrates that the extensive use of literary forms by scriptural writers was deliberate. This is effective in making Dr. Ryken’s case.

Second, having established that the Bible can be studied profitably as literature, the book seeks to analyze each Scriptural genre individually, briefly cataloging the literary devices used and a set of precepts for read the text with these in mind. Though a more complete academic treatment of each genre in possible, the book provides sufficient explanation, guidelines and examples to make each technique clear.

The area of the reading and application guidelines is where I would suggest that the book has a minor shortcoming. The guidelines or rules provided for each literary device, as applied to each genre, are scattered throughout the associated chapters. This is appropriate for initially explaining the techniques, but it is quite unwieldy in providing a set of tools for use in later application. The book would be greatly enhanced by the inclusions of either a.) an end of chapter listing of the genre guidelines developed in that chapter, or b.) an appendix listing the each genre and associated guidelines in summary.  The inclusion of an appendix would be best. The guidelines themselves, however, are for the most part clear and relevant.

The third goal is implicit more than stated. Throughout the book, Dr. Ryken refers to the importance of experiencing the stories and other forms of the text, rather the viewing them as colds fasts to be intellectually supported. He states repeatedly that to ignore the experiential aspect is to miss much of the communication and the intent of the writers.

I would agree very strongly with this. I consider to be more significant that the guidelines provided for literary analysis. I have long held the conviction that though exposition requires a strong commitment to factual analysis, the text has much more to communicate though it’s literary form. From my experience this has been actively discouraged in the church in modern times, yet Dr. Ryken’s book shows that it was clearly the intent of the biblical writers that it be read this way. I was very heartened to see this and I consider it to be the most significant contribute of the book.

Conclusion

This book makes a successful case that the Bible, both as a whole and in individual portions, should be viewed as literature. As such, literary analysis should be an equal tool set beside traditional hermeneutic techniques. The book provides a concise synopsis of appropriate literary forms and associated techniques for analysis for the major biblical genres. The most significant proposal for bible study is that the stories and other genres be experienced as much as analyzed. A convincing case is made that the biblical writers included literary techniques in order to convey an experiential meaning that is beyond that which the plain doctrinal and proof text meaning are capable of imparting.

The text of the bible is demonstrated through structure and example to contain a richness of expression that is only fully received when view from a total engaged perspective. This perspective includes all the experiential, emotion and intellectual inputs supplied by the text, and these are partially communicated almost exclusively through literary form.

Bottom Line

This book added a new hermeneutical and confirming dimension for me. It gave voice to my conviction of the importance of affective content in interpretation (something largely and proactively ignored in the Reformed community), and how that content is communicated.

Literary analysis has an important place in the interpretive process. I am not convinced that, as VP Long would propose in The Art of Biblical History, it must come before historical-grammactical and canononical analysis. However, I do feel it has an equal place with historical-grammatical techniques.

An excellent book.

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Between Heaven and Earth…

Scripture states that the real struggling that is occurring as life plays out is one of Spiritual Warfare. The events of this world occur in the context of this battle playing out. The secular world writes this off as foolishness, as we would expect, since our Lord has said “But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him” 1 Corinthians 2:14 (NASB). We expect this from the world. But what about the body of believers on this matter?

It should be different. Again, from Scripture “But he who is spiritual appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no one. For WHO HAS KNOWN THE MIND OF THE LORD, THAT HE WILL INSTRUCT HIM? But we have the mind of Christ.” 1 Corinthians 2:15-16 (NASB). So the those in the Body are to appraise things spiritually and thereby stand with the Lord.

When it comes to major, obviously evil events, Christians in general (even nominal adherents) will usual make reference to evil in the world. Even then, however, it usually never goes beyond a casual reference in most instances. They do not see the “Prince of the Power of the air” Ephesians 2:2 (NASB) as the active agent in the world.

What about day to day life? The scripture passage at the beginning of this post does not differential between large events and small, nor one circumstance or another. It simply states that the struggle on earth is one of spiritual warfare more than just circumstance.

Looking back to the world in biblical times, this particular reality was seen quite a bit more clearly. Although there were complications due to the their lack of understanding of some nature phenomena, their conceptual acceptance and grasp of the individual participation in and the effects of spiritual warfare in daily life were clearer.

This is not to say that the Christian community has not swung to the other side of the pendulum at times (for example, the dark events of the Puritan era, despite their brilliance in other theological areas). However, even there, the core concept of warfare involving principalities beyond the natural actualizing in daily life was more accurate to them than that which we see today within the Christian community.

It is as if the Christian community tries to trumpet the reality of the Kingdom, while at the same time applying postmodern philosophy to the event of daily life, assuming that these world views are compatible or complimentary. They simply do not combine. They do not intersect.

So how do we see this within life in the world?

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Reading the Bible as Literature – Part 1/2

How to Read the Bible as Literature
Leland Ryken Ph.D.
Grand Rapids, Michigan
Zondervan, 208p
ISBN 978-0-310-39021-3

Introduction

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.

Summary

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.

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Rejoice, rejoice, again I say rejoice

The theme from a well know hymn, and a clear message in countless Scripture passages, regardless of the circumstances. Again in Psalm 40:16 we have “rejoice and be glad…”

But as I noted in Confusion of Focus, we often don’t. We are mired in worldly circumstance, at times even including the circumstances of relationship with other believers.

What have we forgotten in our haste to make things work as we assume they should?

We have forgotten who is in charge, of course. That is even true despite the passage of  the major Christian milestones of Easter and Christmas in which we are confronted by the Lord of all creation fulfilling the promise of a redemptive paradigm. We often don’t dwell on the implications of these acts.

Everything is (and continues to be – note the active voice) created by Him, and in His mercy He is redeeming in the world according to His will. All the capital H’s are important. They denote God, and Him alone.

The elect have reason to celebrate, for His hand is permanently upon them. The world has reason to celebrate, since His common grace permits the dynamics of creation to continue from moment to moment. Without the dynamics of God’s activities in the present moment, neither would continue.

In this there is joy. We see it in our play (and playing is important for everyone at every age), as we loose ourselves in what He has endowed us with. Let us carry that joy into all of our lives and rejoice.

But notice that I never said easy…

 

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Called by whom?

My recent experiences led me to recall an interesting ecclesiastical puzzle that a friend brought up some time ago and that I have observed several times in congregations.

Case 1: The Pastor of a protestant church (I have no Catholic experience to offer) announces that he has been ‘called’ to a new church and will leave shortly.

Although people may be sad and regret the situation (or not in some cases), they do not question for a moment that the ‘call’ is devine. He is wished well and sent off into the sunset as an obedient servant.

Case 2: Same scenario except that this time a congregant member of a protestant church announces that he doesn’t fit at the church for one reason or another, and is moving to or looking for a new church.

In this case, the congregant is more often than not told that he or she has been placed in that congregation by the Lord for a reason and shouldn’t ‘run away’ from problems. His or her reason is assumed to be a man-centered one and certainly not devine in origination. If they do leave, the well wishes are often grudging as best, possibly judgemental and assumes that the congregant has the problem.

So, what is wrong with these pictures?

In many (I won’t go so far as to say most) instances, the pastor in Case 1 was less than happy with the current church or he wouldn’t have bothered with the new offer. The legitimacy of that unhappiness is not relevant to our discussion here. The new ‘call’ may legitimately be a better devine utilization of pastoral gifts. It may also be just a more comfortable fit for the person. In either case, no fault is attributed.

The situation in Case 2, however, present a problem. Why can a Pastor feel a calling to a new situation (even one that suits better) and it is okay, even a blessing for all, while the same move by a congregant is treated as man-centered and a problem in the congregant?

It just doesn’t wash, folks.

Is the Pastor intrinsically closer to the Lord? I don’t buy it as universal. Is the congregant intrinsically farther from the Lord? Again, makes no sense.

If the congregant should be working through whatever the issues are, then the pastor should be doing no less. If the pastor can hear a new and exciting call, then the congregant can do likewise and should have equal blessing. The congregant and Pastor should be regarded with unanimity.

Now, that doesn’t mean that there is not a clear time to go, or to stay. That is always between the believer and the Lord. The problem illuminated here is the use of man-centered values and reasons to treat two situation differently.

Just something to ponder…

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Confusion of Focus

A good friend, who follows my blogging drivel, dropped me an email one day that got me to thinking (yes, I know that is a shocking revelation). He commented that a certain situation that he was aware of was, in his words, “figuring in your rants”.

He was correct, but what it made me think about was the percentage of negative ranting vs positive ranting in the blog – not only my blog, but others as well.

Yes, this stuff needs to be said, and yes, often is strikes a common cord with many others. But like media in general, we are often soooooo negative in focus. There are lots of good things, honest there is. It is certainly cathartic to rant righteously, but we also need to rant about that good stuff as well.

Christians have eternal reason to rant positively. And so we are back to my “How shall we live?” thread.

I don’t have an answer, but maybe just bearing it in mind will be a step on the road…

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Irritated by the Beloved

Assuming that you are are believer, then you are living in the Beloved – marked by God before creation, saved through Christ, changed, inhabited and directed by the Spirit, and His into eternity no matter what. More significantly for today’s post, you are in all of this with a lot of brothers and sisters in the faith.

This family of faith are, in the end, closer to you than any other earthy group of people. As a family apart from the creation, we are precisely that – apart. No bond of flesh within creation is as eternal nor significant. We are commanded to be loving and supportive within that family.

And there’s the rub (to abuse Shakespeare shamelessly)…

Why? Because our brothers and sisters in Christ, or at least some of them, can be very irritating! I would venture to say that within each local assembly there is at least one, and likely several, believers who really annoy you. If not, then I think you are either not involved or in denial…

That said, what do we do with these bozos who are part of us for all eternity?

First, let us remember that they will only bug you in the flesh. In the New Jerusalem, all the vestiges of the flesh which lead to the observations in this post will be gone, for  “we will be like Him” (1 John 3:2). As such, the conflict will be gone and forgotten. Thus we only have to consider now – now being the time until we either die or the Lord returns.

With that in mind, do we have to embrace every other believer as our long lost friend – approving and supporting all that they are in the flesh? Should we expect ourselves to interact with all of them well, and fit with them? Are we sinful if we don’t care for or feel comfortable in the company of some? Many pious Christians might seem to believe that this is the case,and in fact our obligation.

I would disagree. I think this is without biblical support. Further, it can lead to reactions and guilt that can be sinful.

The confusion appears to be around the difference between acceptance and preference. That is, global acceptance within the family of believers is regarded as proper and pious, while preference is not. But because you accept an individual as a  brother or sister does not imply that you ‘fit’ with them in the present flesh. I know of no biblical text that would propose this.

As long as we are in the flesh and all that it brings, we will be a better fit with some than others. This is where preference comes along. You have a preference for some over others – a natural resonance if you will. And there is nothing sinful in that.

Now, in the New Heaven and Earth, this will apparently not be the case because of our state (1 John 3:2 again), but even this is just an interpretive assumption.

We certainly are called to treat our brothers and sisters in the Lord with deference and general regard. After all, we are all strangers in the same strange land (to use a Robert Heinlein phrase). But our relationships can be at various levels, and those levels can be determined by individual preference. There is nothing sinful in that, and I would go so far as to say that to believe otherwise is error.

Let us treat each other with the deference that our relationship in the Lord brings, but realize that having preferences in close relationships is quite acceptable and not sinful, as long as it does not result in ill treatment of a brother or sister.

Soli Deo Gloria

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Listen here, Elvis has left the building…

It is amazing how some people can’t take a hint graciously, no matter how clearly and politely it is delivered.

I held a post on a volunteer (let’s say that again loudly, VOLUNTEER) board of directors for a few years, quite some time ago. It lead to an interesting observation that I think has wider application.

In that position people tended to suggest that ‘we’ do things, of course meaning that in the end someone else should do them because they were busy or whatever. The end result was months of often singular and invisible labour, lots of blame from those that didn’t actually do, and eventual burnout, for those that actually “did”.

So, in the end, after a few years of service, with the beginnings of stress related health problems, volunteers politely resigned.

Although some are most gracious, as in “sorry to see you go and good luck”?, there are those others who responded “you can’t go until we approve” and “you OWE more service”. They were of course in most cases the ones on whom the responsibility to do stuff would now actually fall. What planet are these people living on? A volunteer, particularly one who has sacrificed much more time and grief than they have, OWES them nothing, nada, zilch, zero…

Anyway, it is truly amazing how self absorbed people can be. No wonder people don’t volunteer readily for some things.

Go figure…

 

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Keep Your Greek – Book Review

So, you maybe know a usable amount, or a lot, of NT Greek. You did the basic grammar courses, added a syntax and exegesis course, and maybe a related preaching or teaching course. Lots of sweat and a little inspiration. And voila, usable Koine Greek (hopefully).

We all agree that this is invaluable if not vital do quality study, preaching and teaching of the Word.

Now the real challenge begins. Retaining a language that you do not actively speak every day means deliberately keeping it up. But how?

Keep Your Greek

Keep Your Greek

Keep Your Greek, Strategies for Busy People by Constantine Campbell was created to address this problem.

This book was not created in the vacuum of the academic study. Each chapter of the book was created through a blog post and associated blog comments (a subset of which are included in most chapters). I followed this process online and the result is a timely compendium which hits the mark.

The book is clearly written and addresses each issue concisely. There is lots of (Greek geek) humour and a point of view that those using Greek will appreciate. In short, it does the job in an engaging fashion, which is half the battle.

It is not that this book contains a lot of surprises, since there is little new under the language learning sun. However, it pulls together most of the tips and tricks appropriate to Koine under one roof. This is uniquely useful and encouraging.

The main requirement, as expected, is ongoing, consistent effort. No surprise there, but the encouragement is appropriate and appreciated.

Along with the expected suggestions (keep your vocabulary up, practice parsing), there are a couple of strategies for retention and increased usability that are not as often suggested:
– skim reading, as you would in English, to practice getting the ‘just’ of the text. This is rarely suggested for this type of language work, especially for the less advanced.
– varying reading speed deliberately.

Lastly, there is a section on recovering your dormant Greek.

Overall, this is a useful, engaging and most of all encouraging look at a problem shared by most serious bible students. It is a welcome addition. Constantine Campbell is to be commended.

I should close by mentioning that Zondervan gave me a copy of this book for review. Irregardless, I would likely have purchased it and my opinions to do consider that.

 

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Doesn’t it drive you crazy when…

Those readers who are old enough will recall Andy Rooney’s commentaries at the end of many episodes of the 60 Minutes show. You may remember chuckling at (as well as often likely agreeing with) his complains and comments on many of the strange aspects and occurrences of life as he marveled at them. In more recent times, Rex Murphy often writes in the same way, though more politically pointed in most instances. His attitude, though is much the same. In remembering this, you will have some idea where I am headed in this Topic or potential series.

I have already posted a couple and we will see where this leads. The actual threads, comments and discussion will unfold as life does…

 

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The Gas Company that is deaf…

If you live in Canada, in a house, you have likely been visited by the ubiquitous door to door sales rep (‘Fix Price Energy’, Telecommunications, Weed Killer, etc.)? They must train these guys at the same school that trains Jehovah’s Witnesses. Amazingly, this continues to some degree even during the pandemic. And to boot, some are either maskless or with one the is a joke.

The guy or girl (though the guys are much more aggressive, comes to the door (selling a product that is often MORE expensive in the short run and definitely so in the long run, therefor most likely NEVER be a good deal) and might say just doing a survey. Or he might ask to see your bill for you current service “just to be sure you are getting the best deal.” That is the first lie. Then he wants to know if you have signed up to save money “just like all your neighbours”. All the neighbours is of course a straight up lie.

I respond “Thanks, but I am not interested”. But being polite is unfortunately an error. Sir, you must want to save money. All your neighbours have signed up (they haven’t by the way), he insists. I try again, “Thanks, but I am not interested”. There must be a sociology paper in here somewhere. We do this dance a couple more times, then I start to get impatient with his inconsideration. After all, this guy is brain dead and I am just being polite. In the end I am intrigued by his stupidity and ask if he is getting the message. He says “Well since the door is still open you must really be interested”. Argh, we are back to night school for Jehovah Witnesses…

I tell him firmly that he should move off my property and I shut the door.

So, did he do his employer any good. Not likely. Not only am I still not interested, but I won’t buy any service from them now.

So now we know that there IS human junkmail, sent out just doing a survey, of course…

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