Dan Larson, Literature, The Bible, and Much More
Dan Larson teaches at http://www.colorado.edu/ and is working on his Ph.D. This is a very special one for me. I have known Dan for some years now and he played music in a band I loved growing up. One of my heroes is C.S.Lewis and yet Lewis never had theology degrees, in fact Lewis was trained in medieval literature and was brilliant when it came to the Bible. Why? It is my belief that unless one understands the function of language and literature (see Dan's answer below for a clearer definition), one will be very perplexed by the Bible. The Bible is, after all, a collection of many books and individual stories within a larger story. It has poems, writings, songs, wars, and histories found within it's pages. What I hope you glean from Dan is, well, read and find out. - Casey
1) How has reading and teaching literature given you a healthy perspective when approaching the Bible?
For one thing, knowing more about the way literature works has helped me better appreciate the story of the Bible. There’s a reason this book has been so influential across the world for so many centuries—it’s brilliant. The poetry, the narrative, the characters and symbols it builds makes an epic like no other. To be more specific, I think reading through this story requires a lot of attention to the details. I often tell my students that the details of any text will give us greater understanding of the “bigger picture”—and every detail matters. Why is this particular word used here instead of another? Why are the lines of this poem broken up the way they are? Why this punctuation? I try to teach them that nothing in a text is there “on accident,” everything can be meaningful. The Bible is much the same, I think (though we do have to be extra careful to account for things like translations, or textual history, or historical context to direct our interpretations).
This might actually be a way that reading the Bible has given me a healthy perspective when approaching literature. I grew up in non-liturgical Protestant churches, and every Sunday the pastor would work through a few select verses, explain the specific words and their histories and their contexts—it’s kind of the modus operandi of Protestant preaching. I only learned later that this is similar in many respects to what literary scholars have called “close reading.” It’s not really surprising to see the interplay between the history of Bible interpretations in Christian teaching and literary analysis. I mean, historically, part of the reason we began to value literature in the way we did in the later 19th and early 20th centuries was that it filled a certain cultural gap left when folks stopped reading the Bible—literature, a “literary canon” was invented to be a kind of secular Bible.
And not without reason. Literature entangles itself with some of the very complex situations we live out, and the Bible does the same—literature leaves us with some really enduring questions about ethics and origins and consciousness, as does the Bible. Theology gives us some very compelling explanations of these questions, or at least helps us understand these questions better, which is also what literary theory is supposed to do. Literature—or what we think of as “literature”—was made in the image of the Bible and the theological traditions of the Church. A lot of times people don’t realize this relationship goes both ways: we can use literary theories to better understand the Bible, sure—but we can also use theology to better understand literary texts.
2) Should we see the Bible as Literature? or does that compromise the inspired text?
Without a doubt, the Bible is a work of literature. I don’t think that has to compromise the integrity of an “inspired text” at all. I do think, though, that there is room to nuance what many contemporary Evangelicals mean by “inspired” (or, at least, the sort of parody of inspiration that is often identified with Evangelicalism)—I’m talking about that weird idea where Moses picks up a pen, sort of blacks out, and then wakes up with a completed Pentateuch. That’s not how inspiration works. The texts that make up the Bible are part of a long, living tradition of story-telling. These things were designed to impact specific cultural situations, address specific needs in a specific historical community. More than that, they were written over a rather long span of time, with the earlier books and stories influencing the later texts. So, the prophets in exile, for example, remember the stories of King David; and the writers of Kings and Chronicles remember the story of the Exodus; and the person (or people) who wrote down that oral tradition were remembering the greater (and earlier) story of Creation. All the pieces build on each other. This is what makes the Bible function like a work of literature: the symbols it employs—places, numbers, characters, events, plots, ceremonies, etc.—build over the course of the narrative. The story itself helps us better understand these symbols.
That said, the Bible is more than just another piece of literature. The story it tells us invites us to live within its pages, it asks us to graft ourselves into the plot and see our selves as a part of the narrative. So, because of this, the Bible has a history of people who have made themselves a part of the story; it’s not just about what the Spirit said to John of Patmos—it’s also “what the Spirit says to the Churches.” Here, for me, is where inspiration comes in: what allows the followers of Jesus to see themselves living out the story is the Holy Spirit. The Spirit that brooded over the waters of chaos in Genesis 1 is the same Spirit who speaks to the Church in the pages of the Bible, and is the same Spirit who God promises will dwell in believers. Inspiration in the Bible isn’t just in the writing—it’s in the reading, and in the living of the Church. Seeing the Bible as a work of literature—a narrative that employs a variety of deeply significant and unique symbols—doesn’t threaten that at all—in fact, I think it makes it all the more significant.
3) What are some of your favorite books of the Bible to read? why?
I’ve always enjoyed reading Genesis. I often tell my own students that the opening lines or scenes or chapters of the book lay the groundwork for everything else that follows—they orient us the the story that will unfold, and prepare us for the things the text will make meaningful. Genesis certainly does this—it sets us up to read a book of rich and careful poetry; it tells us stories that are sometimes mythic and sometimes historical in nature, without making a big fuss bout the difference between the two; more than that, it paints (in very broad strokes) the picture of the history of a specific group of people, and their dealings with the great Creator God (a God that looks strikingly different from those of other cultures). It’s a story of promise, a story of faith, a story of judgment, and a story of redemption.
For much the same reason, Revelation is foundational for me. Just like Genesis is the beginning of the story, Revelation is the end. What ever was started in Genesis resolves in Revelation. And the resolution is one of the most breathtaking you’ll find: the City of God with its foundations on earth—the final union of God’s complete creation. But best of all, it’s an open ended resolution. It’s not, “They lived happily ever after,” close the book, the end; it’s “Come and see” and “do not close up the words of this book.”
Don’t get me wrong—the middle bits are pretty great too. In fact, the beginning and end are only so strong because of the story that unfolds in the middle. The description of Daniel’s vocation is really important for me—he was skilled in the philosophy and literature of Babylon, and this enabled him to get the ear of the people, and the ear of the King. John’s gospel, too: John says (with some hyperbole) that all the books in world couldn’t hold the acts of Jesus. He may be right about that—there’s still a lot of books out there to read, and a lot more to write.
4) C.S. Lewis has been a huge influence in my life and yet, he never had a theology degrees. Lewis was huge a literature guy, do you feel you can relate to Lewis in any way?
I Know you love studying the Bible and reading all the good juicy books.
Lewis’s writing played a huge part in my decision to study literature. I first came across him in high school, but (like most things I read in high school) I didn’t really give it much thought. I remember a few years later picking upPerelandra—the end of that book, Lewis’s description of the Great Dance, broke my brain. It was like nothing I’d ever come across before—dense and vivid and overwhelming. That is what began my real interest in literature and philosophy. I didn’t really start engaging in theology until much later.
I don’t know how much I “relate” to Lewis—I don’t know the guy—but I have enjoyed his writing. Lewis is a brilliant communicator. He can take a very complicated idea and expresses it in a way that not only “makes sense,” but is compelling as well. I think one of the things Lewis gets is that a lot of theological or religious concepts are best expressed through the imagination rather than the intellect. There is, of course, a long tradition of Christian writers who came before him that had the same insight. Maximus Confessor’s Mystagogia comes to mind, as does John Damascene’s Canon Odes; but of course, Dante, Spencer, Bunyan, Milton, Coleridge—Lewis is in good company. Lewis’s imaginative writings make sense to contemporary readers because we’re still dealing with a lot of the same issues—the relationship between Christian ethics and global capital (Out of the Silent Planet), for example, or the difficulty we might face in articulating Christian beliefs in a rationalistic world (Till We Have Faces, or The Pilgrim’s Regress), or maintaining child-like faith and wonder in the face of industrial mechanization (Prince Caspian). Some of those ideas can be a bit Romantic, maybe—but they are concerns we still face.
5) What are some approaches you would give to people when reading the Bible? maybe reading the Bible for the first time?
Well, those are kind of two different questions—but, when reading the Bible for the first time or the fiftieth time, the narrative matters. That doesn’t mean that only the narrative matters—much of the Bible isn’t narrative, but even the poetry, liturgies, prophecies and other “non-history” writings are shaped by the over-arching narrative of the Bibe: the story of the Creator God promising to act on behalf of humanity through the nation of Israel in the Old Testament, and that promise made good throughout he life and ministry of Jesus in the New Testament. I think we make it far more difficult on ourselves when we try to interpret, say, the Psalms or Ecclesiastes (or Romans or Hebrews, for that matter) when we haven’t first understood the hopes, desires, and fears that governed the original writers and readers of those books. We get that kind of information from the narrative.
So, to answer the question, I’d say start at the beginning—Genesis is a great book—give a read. But read it carefully and critically—ask questions while you read. Sometimes, when you come into a passage or a symbol that doesn’t make sense, find out the history; think about how it might connect with other portions of the text, how it complicates or nuances other passages. A lot of times, people will read in the Bible something that troubles or complicates another passage they’ve already come across—don’t stop by simply saying, “Well, the Bible is full of contractions anyways” and leave it at that. That sort of response (very common with modern readers) stops analysis. It’s basically say, “I don’t want think very hard about this, or imagine a different paradigm where these two ideas might not contradict each other.” Remember, nothing in a text is there “on accident”—everything can be meaningful. Sometimes, contradictions happen because the paradigm we’ve assumed (or the ideas we’ve readinto the text rather than from the text) creates limited interpretations; other times, contradictory ideas run up against each other to produce potential for new and unthought of paradigms. If, in any other situation, every problem was met with the same kind of dismissal people give the Bible, there would never be any discovery. So, read the narrative, think hard about the things that don’t seem to line up—go discover, go interpret.
6) Do you see the Bible as story? If so, do you think it's better to read the Bible with narrative approach?
I’m not sure I would say it’s “better” to read the Bible as a story—but I think we gain a number of things when we do. There’s certainly a place for dogma and systematic theology—but I think we should be very careful to not let those frameworks overshadow the text itself. Sure, there’s no such thing as an “unbiased” reader—we all carry something in with us when we start to interpret—but we should be very careful not to force the text to fit our preconceived notions. Rather, we should think of our frameworks as the things that need to be shaped and molded by the text, rather than thinking the text will fit our frameworks.
Also, when we think about the Bible as a story, we’ll likely find ourselves interested in a completely different set of questions, and that is bound to change the conversations we have about the Bible in the wider world. Take Genesis 1, for example. Many Christians read Genesis 1 as if it were simply a record of things that happened at creation, or a description of how God made the world, like it was an article in a news paper or instructions on how to install a car stereo. When we read the Bible this way, we establish an unnecessary antagonism with, for example, the sciences (an antagonism that is detrimental to both parties—science loses out on the glory of God, while Christians miss out on the joy of discovery). But, when we read Genesis 1 as a poem, the least important thing is the literal chronology of the events or the exact date and time they happened (or whether or not Adam had a belly button). What we discover instead is an image of the powerful Creator who tames chaos, produces a world rich with life, and—as the pinnacle of His creative work—makes himself an image-bearer, the man formed from the dust of earth, who was tasked to share God’s glory with the whole of the cosmos. That’s a big deal—that’s a huge vocation for human beings to carry. It gives us a value and a meaning for our own existence, and it gives us a job to do—we must tend and keep the Garden of God, we must bear His image and reflect His glory. There’s a lot tied up in that—there’s ethics and psychology and sociology, there’s challenges and discovery, and imagination. We miss out on all that if we stop reading at “Yep, the world’s 6,000 years old.” Don’t get me wrong—I’m no scientist—for all I know the earth may actually be 6,000 years old. My point is that that is the wrong sort of question to begin with. The question for the text is not “What day did God create man?” it’s “Why did God create man last, on the 6th day, and then stop creating?” We find a wealth of insight when we ask this later sort of question, because it requires us to think deeply about the nature of God, the nature of Man, and the purpose behind creation.
7) Can you maybe list some books outside of the Bible that you recommend reading?
Well, I’ve dropped a couple titles above, but there are really tons of excellent works of literature that can wake our imaginations up to the Biblical text in a new way. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy can give some great perspective on apocalyptic literature; John Steinbeck’s East of Eden might sharpen the imagination when thinking about the patriarchs, Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, too. Neitzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra is a rich parody of prophetic literature that can re-attune us to the concerns and characters of the Old Testament prophets. There are some works, too, that recapitulate parts of the overall story of redemption (often in spite of themselves). P.B. Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, for example.
Now—full disclosure—a number of the books I mention above are not interested in Christianity or the Christian God. In fact, many of them are openly antagonistic to the Christian world view; others are a subtle, humanistic appropriation of the Biblical narrative that erase the need for a supernatural God. Remember, the idea we have of “literature” comes as part of a direct challenge to the Bible. I’m not saying Christians can and should read these sorts of works as though they have the same authority of the Bible—but they should read them nonetheless for two reasons. 1) Reading things we disagree with will stretch and exercise our faith, while giving us better insight into those people who have rejected traditional orthodox Christianity. We learn to love people better when we listen to what they say, and take what they say seriously, even when we don’t agree. Reading literature helps us empathize, and one of the things American Evangelicalism has been particularly bad at in recent years is this kind of empathy. 2) Reading works of literature from non-Christian (and even anti-Christian) authors can help us sharpen our critical reading skills—which can help us better read the Bible as well. Steinbeck and Shelley both, for example, want man to be the only God—but their use and appropriation of the Biblical narrative and Biblical poetic forms can begin to help us reimagine our own interpretations of the Bible, even if it is to better recognize why we disagree with them.