Leland Ryken. How to Read the Bible as Literature. Grand Rapids: Zondervan 1984.
Since God is the author, many readers of the Bible often assume that one approaches all of it the same manner. Often missed, however, is the reality of the dual authorship of the Bible. The Bible is not a monolithic piece of work. The Bible did not come to us in a Koranic-like fashion with an angel dictating every single word. What we have instead is God the Spirit superintending the process of revelation so that men—with their own personalities, experiences, vocabularies, etc.—wrote down God’s words as he would have them (2 Pet. 1:20-21). As such, we have a rich diversity of God-breathed Scripture, all of it profitable for the people of God (2 Tim. 3:16-17). This diversity includes genres and styles, ranging from story and poetry to metaphor and proverb. Each of these genres require a unique interpretive approach so as to be faithful and clearheaded in our exegesis.
Leland Ryken, long-time and now retired professor of English at Wheaton College, provides in his book How to Read the Bible as Literature a guide on how to approach the various literary genres used throughout the Bible. Ryken reminds us that in addition to historical and theological approaches to the Bible, we will be well served and we will do honor to the Bible when we approach it literarily. As he reminds us, the Bible is not simply a truthful book but also an aesthetically beautiful work (9). This dual reality is expressed by the writer of Ecclesiastes as he tells the reader that he not only chose the words “with great care” but also “sought to find pleasing words” (Eccl. 12:9-10). The aesthetic, creative element is a handmaiden to the propositional content of the Bible and we should never pit them against one another. Instead, we ought to appreciate the Bible, with all its literary genres, and rightly handle it with care. Leland Ryken helps the reader do just that.
The first thing Ryken establishes is the literary nature of the Bible. By “literature” he means the imaginative or creative element in the Bible (12). He admits that there are also “expository” portions in the Bible. He is quick to make clear that in surveying the literary nature of the Bible he is not ignoring the more abstract or propositional elements. He writes, “I have no intention of building a ‘great divide’ that would make a biblical passage either literature or nonliterature” (12). Instead, he offers a “literary continuum” of portions that more or less literary.
In the opening chapter of the book, as Ryken examines various elements of a story, he is quick to remind the reader that he is not required to memorize all the “rules” to rightly interpret any given biblical story. He writes, “The sheer quantity of ‘rules’ for reading and interpreting biblical stories may seem overwhelming…. We tend to apply most of these rules intuitively, simply as close readers of the biblical text” (68). This caveat, on a book of rules and examples, is a welcome reminder for the reader at the very outset. One need not enroll in an English literature course to read the Bible, although I am sure Ryken would not discourage either. Ryken is a guide, not a heavy-handed literary taskmaster.
Another feature of this book is the exposure to the breathtaking beauty and diversity of Scripture. For example, when surveying the types of biblical poetry, Ryken highlights the types of psalms: lament, praise, worship, and nature. Again, this quick survey exposes the reader to the wideness and appeal of the psalms. The psalms cover the whole gamut of human emotions—delight (1:2), fear (2:11), anger (4:4), joy (4:7), peace (4:8), grief (6:7), gladness (9:2), love (18:1), loneliness (25:16), sorrow (31:10), hope (33:22), shame (44:15), and pain (69:29). The psalms are not a flat, one-dimensional hymnbook to casually read. To the contrary, the psalms invite the reader—every reader—to come to God at every point of human emotion. Ryken helpfully showcases this.
A few other topics deserve mention. The most helpful of the sections in this book are Ryken’s treatment of the parables (139-153) and apocalyptic or “visionary” literature (165-175), for they are two of the genres that most often confuse Bible readers. Ryken also includes an insightful five-page appendix devoted to the topic of allegory in the parables. And lastly, in classifying the various literary genres of the Bible, Ryken concludes his book by stressing the literary unity of the Bible. “Like other stories, the Bible has a beginning-middle-end pattern, a unifying plot conflict between good and evil, a focus on people in the act of choosing, and a central protagonist who is God” (179). In the end, this Bible’s great unifying theme is God. In studying the various genres of the Bible, the student of God’s Word would do well to not miss its main actor.
There are various positive things worth highlighting. Ryken provides the Bible student with an invaluable resource in this book. He systematically works through various literary genres and guides the reader. Like any good teacher, he slowly reinforces what he teaches with various examples. The sidebar captions are invaluable as they concisely summarize what the paragraph is about. The wide margins allow the reader to dig in and gloriously destroy the book with marginalia—it is as if Ryken is inciting the reader to become a conversation partner in this process, not simply a detached and mechanical observer. Moreover, the “Further Reading” at the close of each chapter gives a snippet of more thought and information that a reader can pursue.
There are also a few negatives. At times the discussions can seem tedious. For a new student of the Bible, the many terms and words such as “correspondence” (99) and “encomium” (119) can seem intimidating if not off-putting. Moreover, perhaps this work could have been further shortened and thus made more accessible. An updated version with new recommended books would also be helpful to today’s reader.
And lastly, writing in the mid-1980s, it seems Ryken wished to counterbalance the excesses in those who insisted on a grammatico-historical method of interpretation and emphasized the propositional truths taught in the biblical texts to the exclusion of the literary. As mentioned above, Ryken does not wish to make an either-or separation between the literary and the expository elements in the Bible. But in recent years, it seems to me that the literary side has been so prominent a feature that the more propositional component has been eclipsed. Today’s emphasis on the story line of Scripture has been a welcome reminder that our Bibles fit together—there is one great redemptive thing from beginning to end. The Bible is not reductionistic in its message or simply a scattered collection of abstract truths. But, of course, this must be balanced with the other emphases. This is a perpetual problem for the exegete of any generation. Thirty years have passed since Ryken first published this book; perhaps there is a need for a revised volume—or an entirely new book—that presents a more full-orbed presentation of the Bible as literature and what that means and does not mean.
In the end, however, this is a classic work by a seasoned scholar. The fact that this work is still in print thirty years after it was first published testifies to its enduring value. I am sure that it will still be an invaluable guide for many more years to come