I am a firm believer that Christians should be well-schooled in literature. At one time I would have thought that this was a strange idea, sort of like Christians understanding world history, but not anymore (I also think it is important for Christians to have at least a rudimentary grasp of world history, but that is for another discussion). The connection between Christianity and the study of literature as a whole runs deep. In fact, I am going to go so far as to say that to properly understand the Christian story in a meaningful way requires a grasp and appreciation of many forms of literature.
The Gift and the Giver
For starters, and this is probably as basic as one can get in a discussion such as this, the Christian story is found in a book. Not just any book, but in a book that we claim to believe and view as divinely inspired. God’s words to us today are not given through a man or woman or booming voices from the sky, but rather in the form of a book. God’s primary revelation of Himself to humankind is literature. If we do not appreciate literature then we do not appreciate how God has revealed Himself to us. If we despise the study of literature, we inadvertently despise divine revelation. If we despise the gift, we despise the giver. By despising literature, we despise God.
But it goes beyond the idea that to love God, we must, in some way, love literature. Understanding literature actually helps us to understand God more completely. I will briefly discuss a few ways in which this is the case.
God and History
One form of literature is the historical narrative. This is one of the most basic forms of literature. It consists simply of a group of people putting into writing what has happened to them and interpreting those events through the lense of some deeply held belief. In the case of the Judeo-Christian story, this belief is the existence of a supreme being, namely Yahweh. All throughout the story, you see various events occurring and the people’s responses to those events in light of their perceived interactions with God. God tells them to do things, He chastises them for doing others by making other events happen, He sends others to do the chastising on His behalf, and on and on.
In the New Testament, the story shifts from a focus on Israel’s interactions with Yahweh to proving that Jesus is the perfect embodiment of Yahweh Himself. Not only that, but they also attempt to simply tell the Jesus story in a readily accessible manner.
These are all literal events that literally happened interpreted in the conext of a particular framing story. Each Gospel is, of course, written from within different framing stories and is attempting to bring to light a different aspect of Jesus, but the over-arching theme is still, I believe, proving that Jesus is God-embodied.
But one thing that musn’t be lost in the discussion of the literal truth of the stories is the fact that they must be interpreted within the original author’s frame of reference. While it may be literally true that the Israelites felt called to slaughter an entire people group, including children and infants, we must seek to understand why it was that they felt that it was God who had called them to do it. Especially since this idea seems to contradict His character. We also must interpret these historical events in light of the dissenting voice. In the case of Scripture, this refers to the prophets.
God and Poetry
A large portion of the Bible is presented in the form of poetry. Poetry is a largely symbolic form of writing. It is complex and one phrase can carry many different meanings. Poetry is a subjective literary form, with individuals often coming away with vastly different perspectives of the same poem.
The symbolic aspect of poetry is vitally important when it comes to interpreting Scripture properly. When the Bible tells us about God’s right hand, is it saying that He literally has hands, or is it speaking to a deeper idea? Without an understanding of how poetry works, it becomes hard to interpret books like Psalms properly.
God and Letters
God has also chosen to reveal Himself to all of us through other people’s personal letters. Some were intended to be read publicly while others very obviously had a specific person or audience. In reading personal letters, we must seek to understand who was writing and why. A statement in a personal letter may or may not apply in a broad sense. It may only apply in the original context or even only to the original recipient of the letter. Or it may only apply in situations like the ones addressed in the letter. We must be careful when reading letters and use careful discernment in how to apply their contents.
God and Fiction
A last form of literature that I am going to mention here is fiction. Yes, the Bible contains fiction. And, I believe, this is a largly neglected literary form within Christian circles. Yes, there is “Christian fiction,” but this is not the kind of thing I am talking about. Fiction as entertainment is a fairly recent development (according to Stephen King’s introduction to the 1796 work The Monk, fiction as entertainment came to be used in the 1770’s). The fiction contained within Scripture is fiction with a deeper, underlying meaning.
Jesus tells fictional stories, or parables, to teach significant spiritual truths. He tells a story about some guy who plants seeds, for example. That isn’t to say that events like those didn’t happen, but Jesus is not referring to a literal random guy who planted literal random seeds. It’s a hypothetical situation. And a proper understanding of fiction will help us recognize where Jesus is telling a made-up story and where He is telling a true one. It might even help us interpret other passages in Scripture as well, but I’m not going to open that can of worms.
Properly understanding God, as I said above, must include an appreciation and an understanding of the way varying literary forms work and how to read them. We cannot read the Psalms as history or the Epistles as fictional stories. We must interpret each work as the form that it is. Then, and only then, can we properly interpret God and His message to us.