Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Literary Sins of the Bible?

From The Guardian, yesterday and already generating lots of comments, here is part of the conclusion:
However, these are rare flashes of light in 1,000 plus pages of opaque, dull, greyness. Can anyone honestly tell me that they enjoy reading all those lists of endless genealogies that take up such huge portions of the Old and such hefty chunks of the New Testaments? Has anyone got the stamina to read the entire tedious work from cover to cover? To keep up with all those hundreds of characters that appear from nowhere and disappear without explanation, rhyme or reason (the greatest story thereby displaying ignorance of the most basic storytelling rules)? Do all the cubits, marriages, lists of names, departures, camps in the plains of Moab across from Jericho and offerings of goats say more to you about the human condition than, say, The Great Gatsby? Would you even prefer to read all that bunk about demons in the New Testament, unleavened as it is by humour or the intriguing possibility of the lead character finally losing his virginity, to Harry Potter? In short, does anyone sincerely believe that the vast majority of the Bible is anything other than crashingly dull? Personally, and with pun fully intended, I doubt it.
Sam Jordison is not the first person to ask these questions, and I'm sure many Christians often struggle with them too. They're questions I asked internally in my teenage years, before I was a Christian - having struggled to read even a small amount of the good book.

Here I am wanting to say that all that apparently unnecessary detail shouldn't have been edited out. Though by contrast I really think some of the Harry Potter books could have been edited a bit more rigorously. In the Bible, the names matter. The genealogies matter. The journeys matter. The cubits and other measurements also matter. I don't doubt that JK Rowling would defend her books the same way!

The big picture of what's missing from this writer would appear to be believe in Jesus who says that anyone who doesn't notice that the Old Testament points towards him and so believe in him is already missing the elephant in the room.
Genealogies? The genealogies are frankly fascinating. They trace out the greatest story through its people, walking generation by generation towards Jesus. The details along the way giving great insights into the kind of people God is interested in.

Cubits? I presume a reference to the measurements for the tabernacle that represented God's home with his people. Hebrews 9 tells us why we need all these - they were a copy of the real place where Jesus would go to offer himself as a sacrifice to cleanse our consciences of sin.
A taste of this read by Ryan Ferguson
The translations we have may or may not be great literature - Jordison is probably better qualified to comment than me. They should however be evaluated on their own terms. That is to say they should be evaluated as offering eternal life, as tasting sweeter than honey and being more precious than gold. I can only hope that the Mr Jordison might take another look and hear that his experience of reading the Bible is neither unique nor universal.


  1. Dave,

    "When sinners..." books in post today, should be with you in a day or so (Northampton address). Having to leave a comment to let you know as i'm having email issues in a broadband switchover!

    Cheers, NATHAN

  2. Thanks for highlighting this article, and for your response to it. He's echoing important stuff that we need to interact with.

  3. I wonder if we might spend a bit more of our time emphasising the separateness of the 66 Bible Books. I know some follow a consecutive history - the Pentateuch for instance - and all follow the big picture of salvation history but when originally written down they were intended to be read in isolation. It is the work of the church to make the canon. It is in isolation they should be judged as literature; in compilation they should be judged as life-saving.

  4. st,

    I think I'd rather say it was the church who recognised the canon, rather than made it. We can spin off on that topic if you like...

    As literature it's both 66 and 1 isn't it? The books are many and one.

    For example, Esther on its own is fascinating comedy but read in the light of Exodus and 1 Samuel it's meaning becomes much clearer.

    Paul and Peter appear to recognise that their letters should be read together, going as far as asking their readers to consider the others.

  5. It's interesting, because I was reading some Augustine related stuff the other day and apparently he rejected the scriptures when he was younger (his Mum was a believer, his dad a pagan) because he thought they were incredibly base and unrefined when compared with greek literature. Foolishness to the greeks and all that...

    Obviously, he changed his mind in so many ways later on, and actually spent much of his time trying to persuage greeks of the superior wisdom from above that is found in the scriptures.

    Also, an interesting thought - the parallel between the scriptures and the incarnation which is often useful (if a tad over-used perhaps) in talking about dual authorship might also help us here. In one sense the bible is intentionally unimpressive from a human literary point of view (Isa 53:2 anyone?). Only the unveiled eyes of the regenerate look in the pages of the scripture and see it for what it is in all its glory???

  6. That's a helpful angle Pete. Even the very idea that God would use a book to reveal himself seems unimpressive to many. Yet, 'There is life in the red letters' as someone once sang (if you print the whole book in red and not just some of it)