An Excerpt from How to Read the Bible As Literature, Leland Ryken

The one thing the Bible is not is what it is so often thought to be—a theological outline with proof texts attached. Asked to define neighbor, Jesus told a story (Luke 10:25–27). Likewise, Jesus’ aphoristic command “Remember Lot’s wife’’ (Luke 17:32) shows that he believed that truth can be embodied in concrete examples or images as well as in moral propositions.

Traditionally, we have been so preoccupied with the hermeneutical question of how to interpret what the Bible says that we have been left impoverished in techniques to describe and interact with the text itself.

I use “literature” in a restricted sense to mean the types of writing that are often called “imaginative literature” or “creative writing,” in contrast to expository writing. The Bible is obviously a mixed book. Literary and nonliterary (expository, explanatory) writing exist side by side within the covers of this unique book. The literary parts can and should also be approached as history and theology. The literary approach is one necessary way to read and interpret the Bible, an approach that has been unjustifiably neglected.

The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30–36)

Everything about this passage makes it a piece of literature. We should notice first that Jesus never gives an abstract or propositional definition of “neighbor.” Instead, he tells a story that embodies what it means to be a neighbor. This suggests at once the most important thing about literature: its subject matter is human experience, not abstract ideas. Literature incarnates its meanings as concretely as possible. The knowledge that literature gives of a subject is the kind of knowledge that is obtained by (vicariously) living through an experience.

Because literature presents an experience instead of telling us about that experience, it constantly appeals to our imagination (the image-making and image-perceiving capacity within us). Literature images forth some aspect of reality. Consider all the sensory images and gestures we encounter in this parable: robbers stripping and beating a victim on a road, specific people traveling down the road, first-aid equipment consisting of such tangibles as oil and wine, and such physical things as a donkey and an inn and money.

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. It puts us on the scene and makes us participants in the action. Literature, in short, is affective, not cool and detached. This, of course, made it such an effective teaching medium for Jesus, whose parables often drew his listeners innocently into the story and then turned the tables on them after it was too late to evade the issue at hand.

Psalm 23 as a Literary Work

We can tell at a glance that this is poetry, another distinctly literary genre. The recurring unit is the poetic line, not the sentence. Furthermore, nearly every line follows the same grammatical pattern (God is identified as the actor, and then an action is ascribed to him), and many of the sentences fall into a pattern of pairs in which the second repeats the thought of the first in different words. In short, Psalm 23 is written in a verse form known as parallelism. It possesses a memorable, aphoristic quality that ordinary discourse lacks.   The poem begins by announcing the theme and the controlling metaphor (the sheep-shepherd relationship). It then proceeds to a catalog of the shepherd’s acts on behalf of his sheep, from the noontime resting in the shade to the activities performed in the sheepfold at the end of the day.

Psalm 23 takes God’s providence as its subject. But the psalmist does not use the word providence and does not give us a theological definition of the concept. To drive this point home, we might contrast the literary approach of Psalm 23 with the theological definition of providence in the Westminster Confession of Faith:

God the Creator of all things doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least, by His most wise and holy providence. . . .

The approach of Psalm 23 is the opposite. It turns the idea of God’s providence into a metaphor in which God is pictured as a shepherd in the daily routine of caring for his sheep. The literary approach of Psalm 23 is indirect: first we must picture what the shepherd does for his sheep, and then we must transfer that picture to the human level. Instead of using abstract, theological terminology, Psalm 23 consistently keeps us in a world of concrete images: green pastures, water, pathways, rod and staff, table, oil, cup, and sheepfold (metaphorically called a house).

We can profitably contrast the literary and the expository, or documentary, use of language. Expository (“explanatory”) writing seeks to tell us, as objectively and clearly as possible, facts and information about a subject. Literature, by contrast, appeals to our imagination. Literature aims to recreate an experience or situation in sufficient detail and concreteness to enable the reader to relive it.

Because literature aims to recreate a whole experience, there is a certain irreducible quality to it. We may be able to deduce ideas from a story or a poem, but those propositions are never an adequate substitute for the embodied vision that the literary work itself conveys. The whole story or the whole poem is the meaning because the truth that literature communicates is a living through of an experience. If the direct statement of an idea conveyed all that a story or poem does, the story or poem would be superfluous. But the stories and poems of the Bible are emphatically not superfluous.

What does it mean to approach the Bible as literature? It means first of all to be sensitive to the experiential side of the Bible. It means to resist the tendency to turn every biblical passage into a theological proposition, as though this is what the passage exists for. The one thing that the Bible is not, may I repeat, is a theological outline with proof texts.

The chief means by which literature communicates the very quality of human experience is concreteness. In literature we constantly encounter the sights and sounds and vividness of real life. This is most easily seen in the poetry of the Bible. For the biblical poets, nothing remains wholly abstract. Longing for God becomes as tangible as thirst “in a dry and weary land where there is no water” (Ps. 63:1). Slander is pictured as weapon-toting ambushers “who sharpen their tongues like swords/and aim their words like deadly arrows” (Ps. 64:3). Pride becomes a necklace and violence a garment (Ps. 73:6).  

The impulse toward concreteness is no less prominent in the stories of the Bible. Even to express truth in the form of people doing things in specific settings is to choose a concrete medium rather than the abstract form of expository writing. It is easy to deduce a dozen ideas from the Bible’s story of origins (Gen. 1–3) and to state these ideas as propositions, but the account itself almost totally avoids stating the truth about God and creation abstractly. It embodies everything in the concrete form of characters performing actions and saying things that we overhear.