Friday, October 9, 2015

The Holy Bible as Literature

From WikiMedia Commons
It has been more than 400 years now since the Holy Bible – King James Version (KJV) was first published in May 1611, England, giving the world the gift of unique language with many eloquent phrases as “salt of the earth,” “nothing new under the sun,” “a time and a place for everything,” “turn the other cheek,” “the leopard cannot change his spots,” to name a few.  No respectable teacher of literature should let pass the opportunity to at least introduce students to the greatest book ever written— unsurpassed as “voice” of human experiences, unrivaled in diversity of content and form, having God as the central character, whose presence unifies the complex story that dramatizes the evolution of the highest purpose revolving around divine providence, judgment, and redemption.

Fulfills requirements of the literary art form

The Bible fulfills Aristotle’s requirements for a complete story— beginning, middle, and ending. It starts with the story of creation and concludes with the apocalypse, a version of the end of the world. Between these cosmic events expands the history of the human race and God’s involvement in it. This is the plot.

Another vital element of literature, conflict, is also present— God versus Satan; good people against evil people (external conflict); and good versus evil within individuals (internal conflict). As my literature professor in college used to say, “No conflict, no story.”

Other elements— characters, background or setting are also present. There are “hero stories” such as those of Abraham, Joseph, Daniel, Gideon, Ruth, Esther, David, and of course, Jesus. The favorite setting, the mountaintop, is symbolic. It is on the mountain where Biblical characters encounter God. Mt. Zion is God’s place.  Eden or Paradise is not just a location, it is a way of life. The pastoral setting is often the background for love stories as that of Ruth and Boaz, as well as that of the Shulammite and the Shepherd in Solomon’s Song of Songs.

Varied genres

Poetry and narrative are the two major genres in the Bible but there are other minor literary types such as proverbs, parables, epistles or letters, fantasy or visionary writing, satire, comedy, tragedy, and epic. Song of Songs and the Psalms are great poetry. They paint a picture of natural beauty that is fraught with perils (darkness, evil) but reassure and comfort with images of stability and sustenance, as illustrated in the favorite and popular Psalm 23— “The Lord is my Shepherd / I shall not want….”

The gospels by the evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are structured as narrative and deal with topics such as the nativity or birth of the Messiah, vocation or ministry, recogntion, witness, encounter, conflict, pronouncement, miracle and the Savior’s passion (death and resurrection).

Parables abound in the “kingdom gospel” of Matthew, the most comforting of which is “The Parable of Workers in the Vineyard.” It is about the vineyard’s owner hiring workers at various hours during the day but paying them the same amount of wage each, beginning with the late workers and ending with the early workers, which caused the early workers to complain because they think the owner is not fair. The owner asks the grumbling laborers, “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous? So the last will be first and the first will be last.” This is reassuring because, the vineyard owner who represents God, is generous and not fair. Because if God is fair, the wages of sin would be death. But because God is generous and full of mercy, He forgives repentant sinners regardless of whether they repent early or late in life. When the vineyard owner says, “… the first will be last and the last will be first,” God is telling us that those who are humble, the repentant prostitutes and thieves, poor and social outcasts will be the first to enter heaven ahead of the kings, religious leaders, the wealthy and famous.

It is also in Matthew 7:7 where the defining trait of literature, artistry, is demonstrated best—“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you….” These lines are immortalized in Elvis Presley’s inspirational song, “Welcome to My World;” and the same verses quoted by my father to me over the telephone the day before I had mastectomy which at that time I dreaded more than dying of cancer. Now that I have a new life, I keep in mind and practise whenever possible Matthew 10:8—“Freely you have received, freely give.”  I have received so much (prayers, love, healing, financial help) and want to give back as generously.

Paul’s epistles in the New Testament have the following format— opening or salutation, thanksgiving, main text, moral exhortation (vices to avoid, virtues to practise), closing or final greetings, and benediction.

Satire is the style of Ecclesiastes (life is fleeting, all we do crumbles to the ground though we refuse to see) Jonah (how not to be a prophet), Amos (virtue from the viewoint of the privileged class), and Luke 10: 28-37 (“The Good Samaritan”).

Comedy, which is a story with happy ending, is format for the stories of Joseph, Ruth, Esther, Job, Noah, and of course, Jesus (He resurrected and thus conquered death, so that whoever believes in Him will have eternal life).

The stories of Samson and Saul are tragedies (with unhappy ending).

Epic, which is a long read, sprawling, encyclopedic tale around a hero who performs a great feat is evident in Exodus (about Moses leading the Israelites from slavery in Egypt into the Promised Land) and the story of David in the two books of Samuel up to the beginnng part of 1 Kings.

Fantasy, visionary or supernatural writings are seen in Zechariah, Ezekiel, and Revelation. They consist of fantastic settings, imaginary creatures, and events that do not occur in real life.

What the Bible teaches us

In high school literature class, I could hardly wait for the time when our teacher would explain to class the “moral lesson” of the story. It was the same thing in college when my most awaited moment was  when our professor would discuss the “meaning of the story” with all the significance of the metaphors, symbols, classical allusions and references.

Critics of the Bible condemn it as the worst book ever written because of the violence (for example, in David’s exploits as warrior-king) and explicit sexual language (as in Ezekiel, for instance). We must take note that all great literature are a “voice of human experiences.” Nothing in the Bible is sanitized or sugar-coated. As in a painting, there are elements of light and darkness, illuminations and shadows to dramatize and bring home the artistic truth. Thus, the elements of good and evil are also used in the Bible to teach us these basic truths—
  • Human beings have the potential to be good or evil.
  • Human beings have the free will to choose between good and evil.
  • Humans are both physical and spiritual beings.

Email me: <>

No comments:

Post a Comment