Part of the False Dichotomies in the Church series

The Bible as God’s Word—and Also as Great Literature

Is there a dichotomy between revering the Bible as God’s word and reading it as a literary masterpiece? The Bible is among the most influential literary works of art, containing stories, songs, biographies, and many other artistic forms. In the few centuries since the Scriptures have become widely available in English, their cadences and catchphrases have shaped the way English speakers around the globe think and speak, and the stories have inspired writers from Shakespeare to Toni Morrison. The literary artistry of the Bible transcends religious creeds and is recognized by atheists and agnostics as well by those for whom it is much more than a work of art. Ironically, many people of faith who hold the Bible in high regard tend to overlook its literary significance because they view it almost exclusively as a divine reference guide or an instruction manual. Though there may be a tension between the Bible as God’s Word and as literature, are the two entirely at odds?

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To answer, I’ll borrow a phrase from Paul, a first-century Jewish intellectual and writer of numerous New Testament letters: “May it never be!” The artistry and authority of the Bible are both integral to its meaning as a diverse collection of texts stitched together across space and time by a wide range of writers and scribes to give an account of God’s presence among us. The Scriptures wrestle with some of the most difficult questions we face as humans:

  • Where did we come from?
  • Why are we here?
  • Why do bad things happen?
  • What is the difference between right and wrong?
  • How can we live at peace?
  • What happens when we die?

Any text that asks and answers such questions necessarily makes some claim to authority. People of multiple faith traditions, but especially Jews, Christians, and Muslims, have historically looked to the Scriptures for guidance on living righteously. Christians and Muslims have relied on the teachings of Jesus for direction in upright living. Beyond moral knowledge, Jews have seen the texts of the Hebrew Bible, and Christians have seen both the Old and New Testaments, as sources of instruction on how to be reconciled to God.

But life’s biggest questions rarely have simple answers that can easily be communicated in declarative statements, or, when they do, those statements often require further elucidation. This is where literary artistry becomes vital to our understanding because meaningful literature is unflinching in the face of the toughest dilemmas but equally reticent to resolve real-life tensions with overly simplistic lessons. When we’re staring into the haze of questions about life and death, even the most straightforward problems seem to defy straightforward answers. In other words, literature is especially well-suited for grappling with the day-to-day bewilderment of human life.

The Bible as God’s Word—in Literary Form

But what is literature? In short, a text is literary when its form is integral to, even inseparable from, its content. While this definition may seem to apply to most any written text, it applies more to some than others. For instance, when Paul tells the people of Corinth that “There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord,” in 1 Corinthians 12:5, he makes no use of imagery, rhythm, or figurative language. He could have made the same point in different words and it would not have drastically changed the meaning. But just a few verses later, he says to his audience, “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it” (12:27). In this case, the language becomes more literary as he uses a metaphor to make his point, and if the metaphor is changed, the meaning will be changed as well. Literariness is a sliding scale, and I wouldn’t go so far as to say that there are non-literary texts. After all, even the most straightforward writing has style and tone. But I would say that some texts are more literary than others.

Jesus knew the power of literary art as evidenced by his propensity to answer direct questions with short works of fiction called parables. A classic example is the “Parable of the Good Samaritan” in Luke 10:25–37. When a young expert in the law asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus responds, “What is written in the Law?” The young expert answers by quoting the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus, which command him to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind,” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus approves, but the young expert wants to justify himself, so he asks another question: “And who is my neighbor?” This time, Luke describes Jesus’s answer quite differently. This time, Jesus responds with a story:

In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denariiand gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

The story is the answer to the young expert’s question, but it also demonstrates that he asked the wrong question. If the original question was “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus reframes the question, asking instead, “To whom should I be a neighbor?” When Jesus instructs the young expert to “Go and do likewise,” he does not mean for him to go and carry out the same actions as the Samaritan in some mechanistic manner; rather, he has created a picture of how the young expert should act, an example that can be emulated. Even when he is confronted by people he might not consider to be neighbors to him, he must now be a neighbor to them.

The story also resists overly neat answers by violating social norms in its indictment of religious leaders and its heroizing of a character with whom Jesus’s audience would struggle to identify. It plays games with point of view and subverts audience expectations. Doing what is right is thus not merely a matter of being able to repeat the law or fit into social norms but also a way of seeing and a way of being towards others.

How could one define something like neighborliness in a way that would be universal, authoritative, and practical? Could we say that a neighbor is one who always shares? Am I being a good neighbor if I share tomatoes from my garden with the person next door who doesn’t like tomatoes? I’m sharing, after all? The limits of prescription assert themselves fairly quickly. There is something more fundamental at play, a truth that is at once authoritative and complex because it concerns how we live in a complicated world. A syllogism cannot encapsulate this idea of neighborliness. But in a story, the actions of characters and the conflicts between them replace assertions without sacrificing a clear sense of moral instruction—even if such instruction is irreducible to a universal proposition.

The more we come to understand the literary artistry of a story like “The Good Samaritan”—its point of view, allusions to other texts, plot structure, characterization, and so on—the more the Bible opens itself up as both artistic and authoritative, sacred and imaginative. We may also begin to get a better sense of what kinds of creatures we are, creatures for which understanding something like the Bible is not a matter of mere intellectual acumen but a process that requires our entire being: heart, soul, strength, and mind.

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