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Category: Literary Criticism

Crossway ESV Literary Study Bible

Crossway ESV Literary Study Bible

Regular readers of this blog (that imaginary group every blogger hopes he has!) will know that I am not a fan of the [tag]ESV[/tag]. More precisely, I’m not a fan of the hype that surrounds it in certain circles. It’s not a bad translation in my view–it’s just not very special.

Thus I was not immediately attracted to ESV, The Literary Study Bible despite the very attractive title. I think literary study of the Bible is one of the key elements that is lacking in Bible study by many Christians. Besides the specific benefits of the various literary disciplines, simply relating Biblical material to the metanarrative can improve one’s memory, if nothing else. I’m reminding of a lady who was in a study group I led. After about six months she suddenly got an expression of wonder and surprise in the middle of a session and announced, “I finally see it! It’s all connected!”

Adrian Warnock has printed an extract from this Bible (12 Literary Features of the Bible) with the permission of Crossway, and that one section is enough to spark my interest. I will certainly place this on my list to buy and use, and perhaps review here once I’ve had time to enjoy it a bit myself.

I must note that there are some nuances of the 12 features that I would state a bit differently, but without context, it’s hard for me to tell just how far I differ, so I will save my quibbles until after I have actually read and worked with this Bible. As it stands, I welcome a new tool for students of the Bible in English. Anything that directs people to another perspective from which to study will be helpful.

Pope Benedict XVI on Creation-Evolution Controversy

Pope Benedict XVI on Creation-Evolution Controversy

My sister e-mail me a link to this article on to me via e-mail.

Pope Benedict XVI said the debate raging in some countries — particularly the United States and his native Germany — between creationism and evolution was an “absurdity,” saying that evolution can coexist with faith.

The pontiff, speaking as he was concluding his holiday in northern Italy, also said that while there is much scientific proof to support evolution, the theory could not exclude a role by God.

Now while I agree that there is much evidence for evolution (I think “scientific proof” is a poor use of terms), I have to say that I don’t think the debate is an absurdity. For folks like Dr. Kurt Wise (author of Faith, Form, and Time, who believes as an article of his faith that he must take Genesis 1-11 as accurate scientifically and historically, it does make a difference. I might call him bullheaded, but I shouldn’t call him stupid. Given that one assumption, the debate isn’t absurd, because from his point of view, the Bible must be false if evolutionary theory is true.

I don’t have that same problem, because I don’t understand the Bible as a whole, or Genesis 1-11 in particular in the same way that he does. Yet while I continue to have a very low regard for scientific arguments in favor of young earth creationism, as I’ve indicated in several recent articles, and I object to young earth creationists identifying their one interpretation of Genesis as “the Christian faith,” it is obviously quite possible for people with substantial IQs to disagree.

From the point of view of Catholic Biblical interpretation, it may, in fact, be absurd to come to a problem. I know that my wife, who was raised Catholic, never even saw this as an issue. I lack the knowledge of Catholic doctrine to comment intelligently on that fit. One assumes that Pope Benedict does not suffer from that deficiency, and that one can take his statement that the argument is absurd from that perspective as fairly definitive.

The primary debate, however, is not between Catholic theologians. It is rather between Christian fundamentalists and some conservative evangelicals and other protestants for the most part. And there we have a simple divide.

Tim LaHaye, in his book How to Study the Bible for Yourself states as his first rule of hermeneutics (p. 159), “Take the Bible literally.” In my copy of his book I have circled that statement and simply written “WRONG!” And there’s the key point of the debate. I don’t like the literal-figurative continuum as a single way of discussing how to take Biblical meaning. I prefer to discuss the types of literature involved, and what one might expect to get from those particular forms. As commonly understood, however, “literal” generally means “in the most concrete sense possible,” thus suggesting 7 literal 24 hour days, and accurate recording of all generations in the genealogies, for example. “Taking the Bible literally” in that sense of the word will result in support for young earth creationism.

The controversy is real, and not absurd, however shocking certain positions in it may seem to any one of us.

Looking at Form and Genre

Looking at Form and Genre

Awilum has a short post that makes a couple of good points related to literary genre, which I’ve been discussing in a couple of posts, and will discuss some more.

You should go read his post, but let me highlight the points that caught my attention:

  1. Form and genre are not the same
  2. Form is not binary

I would add that the classic and regularly abused literal vs figurative divide is not binary either. My observation has been that young earth creationists, and many old earth creationists see literal as equivalent to “accurate historical narrative,” while many liberals respond that the passage is figurative, and one shouldn’t take it so literally. Another alternative is to refer to Genesis 1-11 as “just a myth.” I find that pretty annoying, since myth is one of the most powerful types of literature, and has its own characteristics, not all of which are fulfilled in Genesis.

I will get back to discussing these passages in more detail, but for now, I’d just like to remind folks on my side of the line (not taking Genesis as historical narrative) that simply saying “don’t take that so literally” is not adequate. One must at least make an effort to identify what type of literature a document is, and let the appropriate approach to interpretation flow from there.

Recognizing Literary Genre – I

Recognizing Literary Genre – I

I’m keeping things short today as I’m facing another deadline tomorrow night when some research materials have to be returned, and I need to have all my notes extracted and filed. Nonetheless, I did feel the urge to post a couple of things.

I’m promoting this comment from Peter Kirk because he makes a couple of good points. Some people never get down to the comments.

Of course starting a story “Once upon a time” is enough to identify it as not intended to be historical, with no need to mention a wicked witch. And most languages have similar pointers to fairy tale or equivalent genres – which are sometimes also in the verb tenses used. It is important for Bible translators to be aware of these pointers, because if they are not, translations of historical books of the Bible may end up being misunderstood as fairy tales. By contrast, the genealogy at the beginning of Matthew is sometimes understood as a strong indication that what follows is intended to be a factual narrative about real people. This kind of study is known as discourse analysis.

Peter is quite correct that the “once upon a time” indication is enough to identify such a story as one that is not intended to be historical. Many of us would clue in first on the wicked with, however, as it’s simply an easier clue. Such recognition becomes subconscious. We simply respond according to the genre because we have had practice.

Relatively few of us learn discourse analysis. For example, I went through my BA and MA in Biblical Languages without any training in that area at all. It was only when I became much more interested in Bible translation that I started to pay more attention to it and to read some about it. Amongst students that I teach, which means largely lay people without a formal education in Biblical studies, the only people I have encountered who have an acquaintance with it were one graduate student/teaching assistant in English literature and one philosophy instructor.

That is unfortunate, because we have many of the same people saying with confidence that Genesis 1, for example, sounds like history. On what basis do they say that? Well, generally they have the feeling that the “right” thing for it to sound like is something factual, because facts are more important than feelings any day. Other varieties of literature, in their view, don’t convey enough facts. I have often heard people in these settings judge works of fiction based solely on how much information one can learn from them. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia suffer, or are weighed solely on allegorical value (a questionable approach in Tolkien’s case at least).

A good starting point in recognizing literary genre is to put aside prejudices about what literature ought to accomplish. Literature does so much more than convey facts. It can also convey facts in many different ways. I wonder how many of you who have preached or taught have gone back later to find out what people remember. I have done so. I preached a sermon in which I set up a skit. A friend of mine in the audience was primed to angrily interrupt me in the middle of a sermon, and then we followed by ad libbing and argument. A couple of weeks later I asked a few people what we had talked about. The only thing that anybody remembered was the interruption and the skit, but they also remembered the point of the skit.

I use this approach in my study guide on Revelation. I ask members of the class to mention types of literature that they read and what they expect to get out of them. Once they’ve looked at how their lives actually interact with literature (and we usually extend it to other media as well), they begin to relax. Then we can ask what type of literature the book of Revelation is.

Which leads to another point. Information may be packaged and organized differently in different types of literature. Just because Genesis 1 is not narrative history, doesn’t mean it contains no information. Peter mentioned the way in which Matthew starts, and one might also look at the way Luke and Acts begin. In both cases there is an indication that they are trying to present factual information. I think those who try to claim that the gospels are not intended to present historical information do a disservice. The gospel writers were not writing as historians, but they were convinced that they were writing something that contained historical information, that is events that actually took place. Now we can look at what was important to them–chronology not as much as the spiritual meaning–and that will help us get the right information.

One last note. Genre doesn’t necessarily tell us how accurate a work is. We may determine that something is intended to portray history in some way, and yet also determine that the author was hopelessly careless or intentionally inaccurate. Josephus was intending to portray history, or at least he writes as though he was, yet his work is more a personal apologetic, and one can question many of his portrayals.

To be continued . . .