11 July 2007

The Bible as [also/only] Literature

My last BreadLoaf summer is slipping by.... If you would like to read more about classes, lectures, etc., you can take a look at Cafe Cobblestone, the blog my roommate Teresa is keeping of this summer.

One of the classes I'm taking is "Milton & the Bible." For the first three weeks, we're studying only the Bible -- a necessary result of the Biblical illiteracy of most modern students, but also a rich look at the history of the texts themselves and the "issues" with which Milton himself would have grappled. We've covered a lot of ground already (today was our last day on the Hebrew Bible, otherwise known as the Old Testament), some of it very hard for me to encounter. There's lot of "higher criticism", which puts the composition of most books much later than the traditional dates, thereby eliminating predictive prophecy and reflecting an emergence idea of the Jewish religion; textual redaction, which suggests alternative readings and ostensibly discovers errors or omissions or additions in/to the earliest MSS; and generally disrespectful language describing an insecure, cruel, fickle, anthropomorphic God projected or created by the uncivilized imagination of a primitive people. [I forget why I signed up for this class...] Hard stuff for an Evangelical/Fundamentalist/whatever-I-am to swallow (even though I am of the more open brand that likes to question and study and hear and consider).

But wait! Today reminded me why I signed up for this class, why classes like this are valuable & necessary & inspiring. Today was a day of breathless beauty. I am whirling, inspired and confused by the new idea the professor presented to us. The class is taught by Jeffrey Shoulson, who is a teacher at the University of Miami, and has written several books, including Milton & the Rabbis.

Now, here's the idea he shared today. It's essentially that the Bible is only literature -- but wait! Don't pass judgment yet. We were reading Ezekiel's first vision, the one that's usually called the vision of the Chariot or something like that. You can read it here: Ezekiel 1:4-28.

Blake's illustration of Ezekiel

We talked about what it meant when Ezekiel ate the scroll, which had "woe" written on it, and then the scroll tasted sweet -- not bitter, as one would expect woe to taste. Prof. Shoulson suggested that this is a microcosm of all the ways in which Ezekiel (and, to some extent, his listeners & readers) thought he knew what the message meant/contained, but was surprised by the actual [sensory] experience of the message. The experience of the vision, then, is more important than any interpretation of it. This was a mystical moment, yes, but not any particularly quantifiable or definable moment. Yet there is a whole tradition of Jewish mysticism, older than even that of the Kabbala, based on this vision. I think it's called Merkava ("Chariot") mysticism . But Prof. Shoulson said this is a misunderstanding of that passage, or at least that it is an allegorical reading, and that all allegorical readings are non-helpful in approaching mystical or transcendent moments. He said it is designed to be approached as just a vision and not a set of symbols designed to point beyond themselves. A vision is an experiential moment, not an interpretive locus. We should read vision as vision, and text as event. This is what is suggested by the eating the scroll event: word becomes flesh, flesh becomes word.

There are other moments in Scripture that express God's glory in terms of a chariot, of natural phenomenon, of enthronement, or of worship in the temple service, such as Psalm 104, Ps. 68:4, Ps. 11:4, Isaiah 66:15, Habakkuk 3:8-13, and Exodus 20:4-5. Ezekiel refers to all of these (windstorm, lightening, living creatures, wheels, a throne), yet he seems to subvert traditional visionary identifications by never naming "The Chariot." The vision itself is unnamed, and Ezekiel attempts to overwhelm his listeners/readers with an excess of detail that serves to be anti-iconic. Ezekiel avoids the containment of God in any single image; thus, his vision has no specific source or referent.

Furthermore, translating an allegory leads to loss: extracting the kernel of meaning leaves you with only the kernel. Some quality of the text as mystery is magical, significant, and opening it with an interpretive key leads to loss due to simplification and definition. [NB: I think this is why my beloved Inklings used story & myth, not allegory, to suggest and hint and show spiritual truths, rather than creating a symbolic puzzle to be decoded piece by piece.] Therefore, Shoulson said, we should approach the text of Ezekiel as literary and lyrical, but not expository or discursive. Indeed, this might be a good way to approach the entire Bible.

The underlying idea is that you can't substitute anything for the visionary experience itself. It doesn't mean anything but itself. You can't make a little interpretive table and say "the wheels - such-and-such, the creatures signify so-and-so." The meaning of the vision is nothing beyond what it is. Ezekiel grapples with transcendence and ineffability and inadvertently starts a poetic tradition of showing the non-referential quality of visionary encounters. The presence of anthropomorphic and bestial metaphors for God do not suggest that He is like that, but just emphasize that these images are all the visionary was left with. Ezekiel piles on the details, but the more he says, the less we know. The very act of writing comes smack up against this insoluble problem of the ineffable. Ezekiel thinks he will write something and then it comes out differently. Over and over he writes phrases like "it seemed" or even "it seemed like a resemblance of"; his vision is a vision of a likeness or a likeness of a vision. It is a vision of the undepictable, of the thing that eludes full rational grasp; the attempt to represent in language something beyond language.

The Scripture, then (or at least the visionary bits), is the constant struggle to represent the unrepresentable, to express sublime inexpressible experience.

So those are basically my class notes from today. But now I would like to speculate on some of the larger implications of this idea. Let me emphasize that the following thoughts are my own, and were not stated in class today. However, I do think think that these conclusions naturally follow from the above ideas, and are implied by such a literary reading of the Scripture. The implication is twofold.

1. The Bible is only a literary text, with no particular discernable theological meaning or correspondence.
2. The Bible is a literary as well as a theological text, and should be enjoyed in all of its ambiguity, symbolism, mystery, and indeterminacy.

The first of these suggestions is, to me, heretical, and I won't follow it any further. The second, however, has interesting implications. Wouldn't it suggest that, if vision is only vision and means nothing beyond itself, that all of the debatable passages of the Bible are really and truly struggling with representation, and all of our conflicting interpretations are likewise attempts, rather than definitive interpretations?

I don't know. The suggestion scares me. What do you think? Do you think there's any possibility that, rather than paedo-baptists drowning baptists and Catholics massacring Calvinists and Calvinists burning Unitarians, maybe we should look at the text more like a 19th century poem, whose meaning is rich and true but not necessarily determinate, or may be not singular, or at least not simple.

Of course this can go too far. Could it be a solution to Christian divisiveness, or is it heresy?

1 comment:

Rosie Perera said...

There is no question in my mind that the Bible is both a superb literary text and a theological text. Being able to relax about that, not seeing it as a contradiction, has made a huge difference in my ability to derive meaty -- not just milky -- sustenance from Scripture.

Coming from the same conservative-fundamentalist evangelical background as you did, Admonit, I was initially quite suspicious of books such as A Complete Literary Guide to the Bible edited by Leland Ryken, which had somehow found its way to my shelves. But that was before I had delved into any such books. I assumed that to read the Bible as literature meant that one was rejecting it as fanciful, false, or fiction -- in other words, irrelevant for faith and life and purpose and relating to God.

Now as I understand it, God has chosen to use this most supreme collection of literature -- spanning multiple genres and styles, composed over the course of more than 1000 years by many human hands, but converging together into one Divine Whole -- as a mode of communicating to us the truth and mystery of himself, of his creation (including us), and of the dramatic story we find ourselves in.

The largest step on my journey from where I was afraid to take an elective on the Bible as Literature at my high school to where I am now quite at ease with the idea was my introduction to Narrative Theology at Regent College by professors Eugene Peterson and Bruce Waltke, both trustworthy mentors who believe the Bible is truly God's Word.

Narrative theology looks at the books of the Bible and takes them seriously as great literature, applying the same sort of analysis of the poetics in them that one would use in approaching any work of literature, but with an eye to understanding the text more for its truth and spiritual enrichment, not just picking it apart and dismissing it. For some recommended books on narrative theology, see my Listmania list "Narrative Theology" at It's the first time I've created one of those, so I hope people come visit it and find it useful.