The Bible and Literature

Posted on: 1st March 2013  |
Author: Alison M. Jack
Publication details: SCM Press, 2012 352 pages
ISBN: 9780334041665
Tags: bible, literature

SCM Press claim that The Bible and Literature is ‘undergraduate-friendly’ and ‘a valuable contribution to the reading lists on Theology, hermeneutics and Bible studies’, and I am pleased to say that the book is both of these. The fact that Ms Jack is herself an editor (of The Expository Times), a Church of Scotland minister – and thus used to delivering punchy, well-considered sermons, one suspects – and an academic whose particular field this is, shines through every page; she writes well and with clarity.

I tried to imagine that I was an undergrad embarking on this field for the first time, and I found the examination of the literary merits of The King James Bible in Chapter 1 fascinating, as were the explanations of the Bible’s ‘story’, its arrangement into text and its reception in the early church. As a taster of what Alison Jack does later in her book, the reader is then asked to consider biblical influence on Paradise Lost and Eliot’s Journey of the Magi – and this is where I wondered if such an approach might founder on the modern students’ well-known abyss: a knowledge of ‘older’ writers. When Jack makes such specific literary connections, she does provide a shaded box with a potted biography of the writer mentioned, thus tacitly accepting that a 19-year-old is unlikely to have read Milton, Rossetti, Hopkins, Dickinson, Charlotte Brontë, Hawthorne - all of whom get at least one work examined fairly thoroughly.

This brings me to an aspect of this book of which the reader must be aware: it is pretty subjective. By this, I mean that one could just as easily choose other bits of writing by the authors mentioned which refute the posited notion that the Bible is at the root of classic literary works. (Personally, I would argue that the Classical world and the poetry of Theocritus, Virgil, Ovid & co is as least as influential in Milton, if not more so, than the Bible. I also think that Shakespeare in King Lear was at pains to be consciously pagan, as befits its setting, and that Lear isn’t really all that like Job.) This is, I suppose, the problem with examining anything written after something else: one is bound to spot influences – and it is, surely, no more than a truism to assert that the Bible influenced practically all Western writers from Chaucer onwards, certainly up to the 1960s. I’m not quite certain about Stephen Marx’s notion, which Jack discusses, that there is a two-way flow of intertextuality between Shakespeare and the Bible, potentially affecting readings of the original (the Israelites’ victory over the Egyptians at the Red Sea having a ‘typological’ relationship with the victory of the English at Agincourt in Henry V is an example given). I wonder how true it is that such a reading of a modern work, which may possess half-glimpsed, or even overt, story-lines which are shadows of biblical ones, really does help one evaluate Scripture.

So, while I found practically every page of this book of interest, I think it is most successful where it examines the Bible as a literary work. The astonishing skill in story-telling; the force of parable; the linkage between themes; the midrashic ability to speak to those then and to us now; the (for us) fascinating masculinity of so much of the assumptions (‘Of the 18 main characters in the Parables in Mark’s Gospel, all are men; of the 85 in Matthew, there are 12 women, but this includes the 10 bridesmaids; of the 108 in Luke, there are 9.’): all these are handled succinctly and effectively. So much so, in fact, that I felt I didn’t need, say, a resume of Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde thrown in connectively. (And I wondered how valuable it might be to an undergrad who hadn’t read Jekyll and Hyde– except perhaps as a suggestion that he or she might jolly well do so!)

The work is full of aptly-chosen quotations from authorities from Matthew Arnold to Wesley and touches on pretty well all the modern biblical commentators, quite a few of these being women. Jack presents some quite startling feminist interpretations of New Testament parables, and stresses the relevance of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s 1984 conviction that ‘the litmus test for invoking scripture as the word of God must be whether or not biblical texts…seek to end relations of domination and exploitation’. Also brought to our attention is the reissue in 2012 of Rhoads and Michie’s Mark as Story: An Introduction to the Narrative of the Gospel, co-authored by Joanna Dewey. This seminal work emphasised the ‘closed world’ of the story, freed from theological considerations, demonstrating how the gospels work as literature. Alison Jack introduces a way of reading John’s Gospel that takes seriously its unity and narrative design. Critics back to T S Eliot have, of course, asserted fiercely that the Bible must never be regarded as a literary work: it is the Word of God; but Alison Jack makes a most compelling case for John Taylor’s 1762 claim that the King James Bible is simply ‘the most excellent book in our language’, and demonstrates with sure-handed felicity Arnold’s belief that ‘the strongest part of our religion today is its unconscious poetry’.

Perhaps The Bible and Literature is a book for the older, more widely-read student, but if I had been a young theology scholar I would have found it very interesting, if demanding, and a lesson in Forster’s dictum: ‘Only connect’. Although its target audience is small, I wish it success, a long life in print and (as a writer whose last two books were for niche-interests) as wide a readership as possible beyond the Core Text Theology students for whom it is intended.

The reviewer, Simon Potter teaches at Wimbledon College where he was Head of English from 1981 – 2002. He currently produces the school’s plays part-time. He is a member of The Society of Authors and has published 8 titles on Shakespeare and poetry, a novel, a technical work on motorcycles, a book about Wimbledon College, poetry for various anthologies, and technical and literary articles.

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