Sunday, March 9, 2008

How to read the Bible as Literature...by Leland Ryken: Book Review

It is somewhat rare today, amongst books dealing with Bible interpretation, to find one that is focused almost exclusively on literary forms. You’re sure to find many books emphasizing the grammatical-historical method. But who would consider prose and poetry? How does one recognize a narrative from apocalyptic literature, and why does that matter? Ryken answers these questions and more in How to read the Bible as Literature…and get more out of it with utility and purpose.

The unique aspect of this work is it's specific consideration of literary forms. While you will find petite sub-sections in other hermeneutical books on literary genre, none delve into the subject matter so deeply. Ryken helps us to understand how to read the Bible in a more fluid, comprehensive fashion. What I mean is that people usually come to the Bible, in my opinion, with a determination to find doctrine and promote a theological agenda. The Bible wasn’t written like that, especially the way in which the Hebrew text was written. Most of the Old Testament is made up of narrative, displaying the acts of God. Yes doctrine is established through connecting the dots, as it were. But when you read the story of Saul and David in the books of Samuel, you hardly find a “theological” agenda represented in the same way, for example, as in the book of Roman’s. Ryken effectively shows how and why literature is written.

From the outset Dr. Ryken establishes his arguments, stressing the significance of being consciously aware of literary style. In chapter 1 he uses Psalm 23 as an example of how to identify the chief player (which in this case is God) and the descriptions attributed to Him. He then shows how David uses the means of metaphors to colorize his perception of God. Ryken writes, “Instead of using abstract, theological terminology, Psalm 23 consistently keeps us in the world of concrete images: green pastures, water, pathways, rod and staff, table, oil, cup, and sheepfold (metaphorically called a house).”[1]

At the same time, I must admit that I felt this book lacked liveliness. It seems that, while Ryken does a great job elaborating the value and significance of understanding literary forms, the book itself nevertheless lacks a sense of engaging intensity. I will grant that the nature of the topic doesn’t [necessarily] have an intrinsic vitality; when one sets out to clarify the need of "poetry" in Biblical interpretation, a flame of energy is rarely set ablaze.

Overall, I found this book to be edifying by strengthening my ability to properly understand narratives, prose, etc. Even the format was accommodating, with its consistent use of topics along the sidebar. Rarely, in my opinion, can one find a book that conveys the notion of literary style when reading the Bible as effectively as this one does. Despite the fact that I would’ve appreciated greater vitality when reading, it remains one of my commonly-referred-to books.

[1] Ryken, Leland. How to Read the Bible as Literature…and get more out of it. Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI. 1984. p. 17.

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