Friday, July 01, 2011

A Literary Approach To The Bible

What is a “Literary Approach” To The Bible?

by CWK

I commend the literary approach as a helpful way of thinking through the meaning of the scriptures. However, I do not believe it is completely free of problems. So, this post is not a whole-hearted commendation. Rather, this is my attempt to describe, succinctly, what is commonly referred to as "the literary approach."

1. A literary approach is attentive to the craft/artistry of the author.

                The craft of writing has displayed various methods at different times. For instance, in Hebrew poetry parallelism is the main tool of the trade, and skill in this area makes for excellent poetry. In 17th century England, where the Sonnet was a popular poetic form, craft was demonstrated by rhyme and concise expression. Of course, there is some overlap, and certain characteristics seem to mark good poetry in any area. Nonetheless, the point is obvious that what is considered excellent artistic expression differs from culture to culture, and era to era. This point is critical in understanding the literary approach.
                The literary approach begins by asking, “What were the tools the artist had in his hand when he crafted this piece?” “What would his audience have expected of a competent and creative piece of writing?” In this way, we seek as much as possible to read a text based on the artistry of the time and culture in which it was written. We would not, for instance, expect Biblical poetry to conform to Sonnets. We would also not expect Biblical narrative to take the shape of a modern novel. Robert Altar has done much to delineate the various artistic tools of the Ancient Near Eastern Hebrew writer.[1] In some cases we will need to be trained to recognize the artistry of the author. We may not be delighted by the same things. In this sense, the literary approach helps us put ourselves in the position of the original reader; we learn to read as they read.
                How do we go about answering the question, “What were the tools the artist had in his hand when he crafted this piece?” We may be lucky enough to find commentaries by artists or critical assessments of a work that tell us these things explicitly. For instance, if we were reading a review of a Stephen King novel 1000 years from now, and came across the statement, “King does a poor job of developing his characters,” we would rightly assume that character development was a hallmark of good writing in the 21st century.
                Unfortunately, in the case of the Bible we do not have much in the way of outside helps. We are left with the text itself as evidence of the tools of the artist. Thankfully, we have a pretty large amount of material to survey, and we often see “tools” again and again. Robert Altar has demonstrated, especially in the case of Hebrew Narrative, that it is possible to discern such tools from the text itself, without outside commentary.[2]

“In the literary perspective there is latitude for the exercise of pleasurable invention for its own sake, ranging from “microscopic” details like soundplay to “macroscopic” features like the psychology of individual characters”

-this is one of the most confusing statements Altar makes! What does he mean by invention for its own sake? He expands, “I do not think that every nuance of characterization and every turning of the plot in these stories can be justified in either moral-theological or national-historical terms (46).” 

And “literary imagination develops a momentum of its own (46).”

2. A literary approach tends to classify texts in order to enhance understanding

To more aptly understand the tools of the artist we need to begin to classify compositions into different genres (classifications) because “though all texts are literary acts, not all acts are of the same kind.”[3] Even when literature is contemporaneous, it is not always of the same genre, and so it would be a mistake, for instance, to expect one of Shakespeare’s plays to comport with the artistry of one of his sonnets. Plays belong in a different class, with much different characteristics. To take the illustration further, once we have narrowed our genre down to plays, we can further narrow it down. Within the genre of plays there are tragedies, comedies, and histories. It is useful to classify works based on genre because in so doing we gain an interpretive key. We have, for instance, different expectations of a biography and a fairy story.
                It should be noted that genres are not incidental.

…Genre is not simply a device for classifying forms of literature, but a cognitive tool for generating worldviews. The crucial point, again, is that form is not incidental but essential to the content. [4]

                Though genre is important in a literary understanding a text, it must also be noted that texts do not have to slavishly conform to the genre of which they are a member.
                The book of Proverbs has been aptly placed within the genre of wisdom literature. Several other Biblical books have been placed within this category: Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, and Job. (The compiler of the Hebrew Bible apparently though it important to place side by side these books of a similar genre). The genre as a whole demonstrates the following characteristics: ... The tools of the trade are:
                Proverbs 7 is however, a narrative.

3. A literary approach places priority on the text.

                A work of literature can be approached from many different angles. The literary approach focuses on the text before us, right in front of our eyes. Thus, this approach other “distractions” from the text. Thus, avoids Psychologizing the author. Thus, avoids historical speculation.

4. A literary approach reads the text as a whole.

                Redaction critics tend to take texts apart; literary critics like to put them back together. Whereas a redaction critic will hypothesize on the history of a text, literary critics like to focus on the finished product. Literary critics assume that, even if there were several editors along the way, there had to be a final editor, and this editor had the responsibility of making the work into an artistic whole. The focus of a literary critic is on the artistic tendencies of the finished work. Incidentally, insufficient attention to artistic tendencies can lead to an over-eagerness to splice texts apart. For example, E.A. Speiser hypothesized that Genesis 38 was “a completely independent unit,” placed awkwardly after act 1 of the Joseph narrative. Robert Altar, by paying attention to the literary connections between Genesis 37-39, was able to demonstrate that it serves a vital role in its present context.[5]

5. A literary approach requires attention to textual detail: “disciplined attention.” [6]

                Fundamentally, this means reading texts slowly and looking for minor hints at meaning. Is a word repeated? Is something left out that we would expect based on the genre? Is there a shift in tense that is portentous? The goal is to listen very carefully to the text so that we are hearing even the...
                It should be noted that this is different than “close reading.” Close reading crosses over the line of attentiveness to inventiveness, and imports and idea into a text based on an ambiguity or possibility. It could actually be said that the practitioner of close reading pays too much attention to one part of the text to the neglect of the rest of the text and the overall context of the passage. As we shall see, some commentators on Proverbs 7 have been guilty of close reading because they have insufficiently noted context.

[1] Robert Altar. The Art of Biblical Narrative. (NY: Basic Books, 1981).
[2] Robert Altar. The Art of Biblical Narrative. (NY: Basic Books, 1981): 47-49.
[3] Kevin Vanhoozer. Is There a Meaning in This Text. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998): 336.
[4] Kevin Vanhoozer. Is There a Meaning in This Text. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998): 343.
[5] Robert Altar. The Art of Biblical Narrative. (NY: Basic Books, 1981): 3-11.
[6] This is Robert Altar’s term. It comes in his helpful definition of literary analysis.  “(Literary analysis is) the manifold varieties of minutely discriminating attention to the artful use of language, to the shifting play of ideas, conventions, tone, sound, imagery, syntax, narrative viewpoint, compositional units…the kind of disciplined attention…which has illuminated the poetry of Dante….” Robert Altar. The Art of Biblical Narrative. (NY: Basic Books, 1981): 12-13.

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