Literary Introductions to the Books of the Bible
(Crossway, 2015) by Leland Ryken
I must confess that I was not always a fan of great literature. In fact, I would admit that I used to be one of those students who fall asleep when confronting the big texts. Yes, I was one of them who saw the great texts as too hard (perhaps cumbersome) to understand and even boring or irrelevant to contemporary situations and let alone to real-life experiences, dilemmas and daily struggles.
However, all of this changed sometime during my Christian journey I started questions about the Faith. I read the Bible and signed myself for every Sunday school class and even enrolled and graduated from a locally-based church Bible Institute. It was not enough. I prayed and searched continuously for ways to understand and express my faith outside of the conventional four walls and beyond the celebrated preaching guest or the much beloved church pastor. I began to read voraciously and during that journey I found all kinds of writers who were able to articulate the Christian Faith and for that matter the entire Holy Scriptures in ways that engaged and interacted with other literary works that spoke of human existential struggles. It is during this time that I found a series of writers who had a deep appreciation for literature while having a high view of Scripture.
Wheaton College English Professor Leland Ryken (now retired, Emeritus) is one of those writers that for some years now I have been secretly and closely following and reading. I have fallen in love again and again with not only the Bible but also the classics. Ryken’s work has helped me cultivate a taste for the literary world in a Christian perspective.
Some of the works I am appreciate for offering me an entryway into the Bible, the arts and literature are the following: How to Read the Bible as Literature (Zondervan, 1985); Worldly Saints: The Puritans As They Really Were (Baker, 1990); Words of Delight: A Literary Introduction to the Bible (Baker, 1993); Realms of Gold: The Classics in Christian Perspective (Wipf and Stock, 2003); The Liberated Imagination: Thinking Christianly About the Arts (Wipf and Stock, 2005); The Christian Imagination: The Practice of Faith in Literature and Writing (Waterbrook Press, 2002); Pastors in the Classics: Timeless Lessons on Life and Ministry from World Literature (Baker, 2012) and Christian Guides to the Classics (Crossway, 2014) which introduces us to the following works: The Devotional Poetry of Donne, Herbert, and Milton; Milton’s Paradise Lost, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Dickens’ Great Expectations, Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Augustine’s Confessions, Homer’s The Odyssey, Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Macbeth among others.
Literary Introductions to the Books of the Bible (Crossway, 2015) is Leland Ryken’s most recent publication. This is a sequel to Ryken’s A Complete Handbook of Literary Forms in the Bible (Crossway, 2014) and one that includes parts of Ryken’s Bible Handbook (Tyndale, 2005) and The Literary Study Bible (Crossway, 2007).
Literary Introductions to the Books of the Bible begins by laying out several reasons as to why literary forms of the Bible. Each book of the Bible follows a common format. For each book, there is the following” an orienting section, generalizations of the book that underscore its identity or genre to be explored; where relevant, topics, problems and obstacles, a chart outlining the book of the Bible, a section indicating literary genres, forms, and techniques and a final segment entitled ‘Literary Forms and Religious Vision’.
Literary Introductions to the Books of the Bible continues to emphasize the book nature of the Bible by explaining its anthological meaning. “The broadest literary thing that we can say about the Bible is that it is a book …. If we ask what kind of book the Bible is, the answer is that it is an anthology – a collection of diverse works written by separate authors … the very name Bible (Greek biblia) tells us that the Bible is an anthology, inasmuch as the word means ‘little books’. An anthology of “little books” can appropriately be thought of as a small library” (p. 13). Ryken explains that the Bible can be organized by leading events (creation, covenant, exodus, conquest of the promised land, Israelite monarchy, exile and return, the life of Christ, beginning of the Christian church and the end of human history) or by clusters of books and its dominating genre or common designation (Genesis-Deuteronomy, Pentateuch-history and law; Joshua-Esther, Historical Narrative; Psalms-Song of Solomon, Poetry and proverb-wisdom literature; Isaiah-Daniel, Major Prophets; Hosea-Malachi, Minor prophets etc.). Literary Introductions to the Books of the Bible affirms the uniqueness of the Bible by commenting on the fact in it “three different authorial impulses and types of writing converge: the theological or religious, the historical, and the literary” (p. 16). Literary Introductions to the Books of the Bible also notes the diversity of genres, literary techniques and authorial temperaments that the Bible exhibits. Among the stylistic preferences that biblical writers shares (taking into accounts exceptions) Ryken underscores the following: preference for the concrete over the abstract, realist, a preference for simplicity of style and for the brief unit rather than the long and elaborated one, a knack for capturing what is universal in human experience, affective power, a prevailing seriousness or gravity (Latin gravitas), a confrontational quality, a dramatic impulse, aphoristic flair (p. 19-20).
Literary Introductions to the Books of the Bible is a helpful book. It is critical not only to know the contents of a particular book in the Bible but also its forms. “In any piece of writing, there is no content without the form in which it is expressed. Without the story or poem, for example, there is no message. The content of the Bible does not exist in disembodied form, it is all embodied in a myriad of literary forms” (p. 10). Literary Introductions to the Books of the Bible does exactly that for each book of the Bible. To me this is fascinating, provocative and inviting because it not only places before our own eyes the shape (the forms) of each book of the Bible but also aids our interpretations of them thus giving us greater insight (the substance) into it. Now, this is extremely significant for it will facilitate the faithful reading and understanding of God’s Word.