Apologia on Reading the Bible, 3
August 27, 2015

This is the third of a three-part essay.

The Literary Reader

As a conclusion to this essay, I want to make some observations that grow out of C. S. Lewis’s remarkable Experiment in Criticismmentioned in an earlier installment. What Lewis is interested in doing is coming up with a way to distinguish good literature from bad, or inferior literature. He suggests that the best way to do this is to distinguish between two kinds of readers. He calls these the “literary reader” and the “unliterary reader.” Basically, the literary reader is a person who is open and receptive to the text, and allows himself to be molded by it. The unliterary reader is a person who uses the text for his own purposes, whether that purpose be the gathering of information or sheer recreation. Lewis then goes on to say that “good literature” is literature that tends to compel a literary reading, while “bad literature” is literature that does not have the depth to withstand a literary read.

What Lewis is talking about is not exactly the same thing as I am. He is talking about artistic appreciation, and I am talking about practical interpretation and application. For a full appreciation of the text, however, what Lewis has to say is very important to Biblical exposition. To return to the example given above, it is hard to imagine anyone not being enthralled by the Bach Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor, but someone well trained in music will get a whole lot more out of hearing it. It is the same with reading and studying the Bible.

Now, I’m going to illustrate this with movies, because (a) you are more likely to have seen this or that movie than to have read this or that classic book, and (b) you can check out these movies and view them in two to three hours each, while it takes much more time to read a book. The principle is the same.

When an “unliterary viewer” goes to see Greystoke, what is he looking for? He is looking for a Tarzan movie. He is looking for an exciting story. In Lewis’s words, he is looking for The Event. “As the unmusical listener wants only the Tune, so the unliterary reader wants only the Event. The one ignores nearly all the sounds the orchestra is actually making; he wants to hum the tune. The other ignores nearly all that the words before him are doing; he wants to know what happened next” (p. 30) Such a viewer is doomed to disappointment with Greystoke. Even though the film sticks more closely to Burroughs’s original narratives than any other Tarzan movie, there are many scenes that don’t seem to make much sense. There is a lot more conversation than action. The ending is disappoint­ing.

By way of contrast, the “literary” viewer who attends Greystoke picks up on these things. Watching the film through the first time, he senses that there is more here than one viewing will give. There are some obvious symbols employed and discussed: the razor, the mirror, the ring. There seem to be three kinds of people wrestling for Tarzan’s soul: the apes, who are “one with nature”; the Darwinian English scientists, who dominate and exploit nature; and finally such persons as D’Arnot and Lord Greystoke, who see man over nature as steward, not exploiter.

This may make the literary viewer want to view Grey­stoke a second time, because he anticipates that he will enjoy opening himself to the deeper aspects of the film. During his second viewing he notes that the film does indeed seem to have the nature of man as its basic theme. The scenes of Tarzan’s youth bring out, one after another, the points at which modern anthropology says men differ from animals. The scenes of the second half of the film tend to highlight the ways in which men are like animals. And there is a good deal more to the film as well. In general, though, the film raises the questions “What is man? Who is man’s father? What is man’s family?” (Tarzan himself voices the last two questions in one of the film’s climaxes.) These are questions faced by modern man, and just as modern man has found no answer, the film leaves the question unresolved.

The unliterary viewer is likely to respond to the two preceding paragraphs by saying, “Aw, c’mon. It’s just a Tarzan movie, and not a very good one.” Is it possible to argue with such a response? What can the literary viewer say that will be heard?

Now Lewis rightly points out that there is nothing immoral or wrong about appreciating narrative at the unliterary level. Those who would be numbered among the unliterary include people who excel “in moral virtue, practical prudence, good manners, and general adaptability.” By the same token, “we all know very well that we, the literary, include no small percentage of the ignorant, the caddish, the stunted, the warped, and the truculent” (p. 5f.) Some people have a profound appreciation for one of the arts, but only a superficial taste for others. “And many whose responses to all the arts are trivial may yet be people of great intelligence, learning, and subtlety.” This is not surprising because, for example, “the subtlety of a philosopher or physicist is different from that of a literary person” (p. 6)

That’s fine, and we appreciate it. But: The Bible is litera­ture, and those who wish to deal with it in depth need to become “literary” readers.

Stop. Look. Listen.

Lewis makes helpful comparisons with visual art and music. Concerning art, Lewis notes that most people “use” pictures. They are substitutes for reality, or “self-starters for certain imaginative and emotional activities of your own” (p. 16). This is not necessarily bad at all; a famous example of such a use of art is Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” which is “admirable in its own way; [but] not admirable as an appreciation of ceramic art. The corresponding uses of pictures arc extremely various and there is much to be said for many of them. There is only one thing we can say with confidence against all of them without exception: they are not essentially appreciations of pictures.” (p. 18)

Lewis goes on to say, and this is most important, that real appreciation means laying aside our own subjectivity, preconceptions, associations, and interests. We have to open ourselves up to the picture. “We must look, and go on looking till we have certainly seen exactly what is there. We sit down before the picture in order to have something done to us, not that we may do things with it. The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive.” (p. 19) Critical evaluation comes afterward.

This is the salient point, and at this point we can leave Lewis, though if you wish to become a good reader, you really need to get and read his book. (It is only 143 pages long.)

The literary reader has learned openness and receptivity to the text. He does not suspend his critical faculties entirely, but he largely suspends them for the duration of his exposure to the text. It may be that the text is offensive, boring, or trite, and he may not bother to finish it. After all, much writing will not withstand careful reading. This is not the case with the Bible, of course. Here we must be completely open.

The Virtue of Patience

The literary reader has also learned patience. He has learned not to rush to judgment. Let me give an example. Before I saw The Deer Hunter the first time, I was told by a friend that Michael was a “Nietzchean” hero, a man whose powerful will enabled him to dominate circumstanc­es and other people and to perform heroic deeds. This made sense to me the first couple of times I saw the film. (We used this film in a Summer Institute I used to teach at, so I saw it several times.) It began to dawn on me, however, that Michael undergoes a transformation in the film, as a result of his Vietnam experience. In the first part, his heroism is indeed that of the will. At the end, however, his heroism is that of self-sacrifice. He has gone, essentially, from being a pagan to being a Christian hero. He has gone from being hostile to the Church to singing “God bless America.”

Now, this is not the only thing going on in this profound film, but it is a major theme – I believe the major theme.13 The Deer Hunter is an excellent film, but it requires an ability to view with patience and openness. The viewer who is only looking for events will be bored by the long wedding party. The open viewer, however, will allow himself to enter into the mood of the ball, and be stunned by the invasion of the happy party by the foul-mouthed Green Beret – a picture of the impact of the Vietnam War upon American culture.

My general point here, however, is that it took several viewings for me to get over my initial misinterpretation. (My friend went through the same process, and came to the same conclusion as I did.) Along these lines, I taught through Judges four different times, to four different audiences. Each time I refined my interpretation. The final (semi-final?) version in my book makes significant changes, including two major reversals, in what I had taught the fourth time around. In other words, patient reflection -meditation – is required for good interpretation. Repeated exposures are needed for good interpretation. There is no formula for this.

The impatient reader, looking for a new insight, trying to be creative, or whatever, will generally mishandle the text. In The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco deliberately wrote to slow the reader down. He tells us that “after reading the manuscript, my friends and editors suggested I abbreviate the first hundred pages, which they found very difficult and demanding. Without thinking twice, I refused, because, as I insisted, if somebody wanted to enter the abbey and live there for seven days, he had to accept the abbey’s own pace…. Therefore those first hundred pages are like a penance or an initiation…. One acquaintance of mine told me that he got bored with the book and after a while just speed-read it to find about the murders. He also thought the revelation of the murderer and his motive was anticlimactic, stupid, and inane. Of course, if he had entered into the book and read it properly, he would have been utterly delighted at the revelations in finis Africa.14

Literary reading, then, requires openness, patience, pas­sive meditation, and for full appreciation, repeated exposure.

Unliterary Typological Interpretation

I stated above that literature can be seen as having three levels, the narrative, the philosophical, and the symbolic. Taking notice of these things does not make one a literary reader. It is possible to take a text and look for symbolism, or look for ideas, and make a regular mess of interpreta­tion. You may uncover some symbols and ideas, or you may find some that aren’t there at all. This is again a way of using the text. (Cf. my remarks on the quest for novelty above.)

Some of the reservations people have regarding symbol­ism and typology are justified, because so often symbolism and typology are done by persons who are unliterary readers. They do not read the text with openness. Rather, they read it to find theological points, such as predestina­tion or justification. Or, they read it to find ”typological” shapshots of Christ, ignoring redemptive historical context.

It is easy to run through the history of interpretation and poke fun at some of the symbolic and typological interpretations of the past. Many are very arbitrary. Many have been read into the text instead of read out of it. That does not change the fact, however, that the Old Testament is typological, because all of it speaks of Christ. The answer to a poor job is to do a good job, not to refuse to work at all. It is hard to make a case for the gold and wood of the Ark of the Covenant being the deity and humanity of Christ. Such an interpretation imports ideas from systematic theology into a place they may not belong. But in terms of Biblical symbolism, it is possible to see wood overlaid with gold as a symbol for glorified humanity. Such glorified people are what God desires to be around His throne, like the gold-covered boards of the Tabernacle. Such glorified people have God’s life, law, and authority in their hearts, like the manna, the commandments, and Aaron’s rod in the Ark. Jesus is the firstborn and Captain of the Church, so clearly the glorified wood speaks of Him, but by extension it speaks of all of us as well.

Concluding Remarks

The kind of openness to the text that Lewis sets out as the chief desideratum for good reading is, I believe, the same thing as Christians mean by ‘”waiting on the Lord.” That is why. I believe, so much relatively good exposition has come from pastors and saints, and so little good has come from technically-oriented scholars. The open, receptive attitude of the saints, when coupled with the gift of literary skill, is exactly what Lewis is commending. Time and again, when modern commentaries fall flat, we can turn to the fathers of the early church, to Luther and Calvin, to Matthew Henry and Arthur Pink, and find real insight. (Not all older commentaries are worthwhile, of course. Many devout men simply do not have the gift of reading.)

Lest I be misunderstood, I want to return to a point Lewis made above. Being an unliterary reader is no shame, and no problem. The Bible can be read, appreciated, and used profitably in an unliterary manner. The Spirit communicates to all believers with and through the Word. Most people are not called to become mature, literary-readers. There are plenty of other callings equally spiritual, and indeed, some good literary readers of the Bible are themselves not believers, which is why we can use some Jewish and liberal commentaries with profit. (I think particularly of Umberto Cassuto’s commentaries on Genesis and Exodus.) Many great theologians were remarkably unliterary in their approach to the narratives of the Bible. When it comes to exposition of the text, however, and particularly of narrative, then those who have the training, the skills, the gifts to be literary readers need to be recognized and respected. Much of the supposed fear of “Biblical theology” has arisen because unliterary readers are suspicious of literary ones. The unliterary reader fears that the shell of his systematic theology will be cracked by the insights of the literary reader. As a result, “Biblical theology.” or “redemptive historical theology,” comes under fire. This should not and need not be so, as Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., of Westminster Theological Seminary pointed out years ago.

Thus, not everyone is called to become a literary reader, or a “literary reader” of the Bible. Those who wish to become such, whether professionally or just for personal enjoyment, need to come to grips with Lewis’s insights.

One other random piece of advice I have is this. If you want to get better at reading the Bible, cultivate a taste for good literature and classical music. Good literature stimu­lates our awareness of narrative, idea, and symbol. It also encourages us to read openly and slowly. Classical music trains us to become aware of “long lines.” of extended development in time. While popular music comes in simple tidbits, classical music comes in complex and extended forms. I believe that listening to classical music acts to create a subconscious awareness of and sensitivity to the interplay of details over a span of time. 1 don’t believe it is possible to read the Bible without this sensitivity. In conclusion, serious reading is an art. One does not acquire it over night, nor is there a list of ten rules you can master that will unlock the depths of the Scriptures. It is like any other art. a matter largely of becoming sensitive to the literary form of the Bible. The bibliography provided by this essay will get you started, by exposing you to good models to imitate, and by jarring you loose from the blinders of the 20th century world view.


A word of warning for the uninitiated. There is a good deal of interest today in “literary analysis” of the Bible. Much of it is sheer rubbish. Some of it is marginally useful. What Lewis and I are talking about in this essay is not the kind of thing that many technical commentaries are doing.

Two areas can be addressed. First of all, the notion that the Old Testament was build up out of various sources crudely put together by a final “redactor” is so stupid that it is amazing to me that anyone ever believed it for more than twenty-four hours. I recall in college learning that once upon a time, briefly, scholars thought that the Homeric poems were composites, but then along came Albert B. Lord’s The Singer of Tales (1958; building on earlier work by Milman Parry) and this nonsense was blown to shreds. Parry and Lord had found out that Serbo-croatian blind and illiterate poets alive in this century could sing out poems as long as the Iliad and Odyssey. (Of course, there are still a few scholars who want to maintain that there were two Homers, one for each poem!)

Then there were the many Platos, and the many Shakespeares. Does anybody believe this nonsense any more? Ah, but when it comes to the Bible the JEDP idiocy is so en­trenched that even men who don’t believe in it are compelled to take note of it throughout their writings. An example, one of hundreds, is Wenham’s commentary on Genesis, mentioned above. Wenham makes clear in the introduction that he really does not believe in JEDP, but all through his commentary he tells us what sources are supposedly involved in this or that passage. Why waste time with this stupid stuff? Secular scholarship laughed it away two generations ago!17

Of course, there probably were sources used by some of the writers of the Bible. The Bible refers to some of them (1 Kings 14:19, etc.). But, the text as it stands is a seamless garment, and any literary reader who approaches it immediately recognizes that there is no way to discern sources. There are always good literary and theological reasons for the evidence that supposedly proves that sources have been mushed together.

The second area that needs to be addressed is the ten­dency nowadays to perform excruciatingly detailed literary analyses on small bits of Scripture, virtually ignoring both the content and overall thrust of larger sections. This is not all bad, of course, and can be helpful – done rightly. My main beef is that it still treats the text in an incredibly unliterary way. Do we read anything else this way? Breaking down the text into “atomic particles” needs to be matched with an equal emphasis on the “wave” thrust and direction of the overall literary unit, and the “field” structure of the literary unit. Moreover, textual analysis needs to take account of content as well as of grammar.

James B. Jordan is Director of Biblical Horizons and Scholar-in-Residence at Theopolis. This essay was first published in Biblical Horizons in 2010.


  1. I am not saying that The Deer Hunter is a Christian film, only that it borrows some Christian concepts. Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate reflects more explicitly on Biblical themes. The opening section is taken from the Gar­den of Eden, with an obvious seizure of forbidden fruit as its climax. The long middle section reflects on the tower of Babel – Babel means “heaven’s gate” – as the conflict among the various immigrant groups and the general human inability to get along frustrate the youthful dreams of a united and powerful America. The brief coda shows us the collapse of the dream, as the central figure leaves off trying to build the tower. Because of its unsavory aspects, I cannot recommend this film for general viewing. (For the same reason, I cannot recommend Excalibur, mentioned above.)
  2. Umberto Eco, Postscript to “The Name of the Rose”,trans, by William Weaver (New York: llarcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983), p. 41.
  3. And please, don’t think you can bypass the book if you’ve only seen the film. The movie is only a pale, dim reflection of the book.
  4. Gaffin, “Systematic Theology and Biblical Theology,” in John H. Skilton, ed..The New Testament Student and Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Pub. Co., 1976).
  5. Of course, Wenham was doing what he was commissioned to do, and 1 suppose there is a place for it. I’m not faulting him, but it will certainly be nice when the evangelical scholarly community gets to the point where it can just laugh this stuff off and get on with the business of real exegesis.
Related Media

To download Theopolis Lectures, please enter your email.