Can the New Testament Really Be Read as Literature in the Same Way That We Might Read an Auden Poem as Literature? Are You Sure?

It’s probably a safe bet to say that, in American culture, most of the time, when a person approaches the New Testament it’s for life-direction (“What must I do to be saved?”), or for information (“What does Paul say about speaking in tongues?”), or to derive some inspiration or comfort (“Can I come home too, like the prodigal son?”).

 

And no doubt, whatever other purposes the authors of the New Testament may have had, we can safely guess that conveying such messages to their readers and hearers was high on their “to-do” lists. We might even say that the words that they chose to get their messages across are akin to tools for getting certain jobs done, and not ends in themselves. Or to shift the simile, we might say that, like windows, their words are not so much for seeing, but to be seen through, to something else.
 
So before approaches to the NT “as literature” can even take flight, we must work against the gravity of an objection: Isn’t it rather artificial to approach the NT in ways that are not specifically or necessarily religious—that is, as literature? Isn’t it, for example, a self-evident fact that the NT is first and foremost a religious proclamation, not a novel or a poem? And isn’t any reading of the NT that (at least temporarily) downplays or backgrounds this fact, generating an interpretive distortion?
 
In short, aren’t we missing the point?

 

Take, for example, the problem of style. By style I simply mean one’s manner of speaking or writing as opposed to the matter (content) to which one speaks or writes about. Calling attention to a writer’s style might entail noticing such things as his or her tone, syntax, or use of metaphor. But it may well be that the authors of the NT, though we often recognize them as using words well (or at least their translators using words well), may not have always been self-conscious of their doing so. Like a good pianist, it may be that where a NT writer seems to achieve a powerful stylistic performance, it is only because of long practice in writing and not due to a self-conscious and attention-seeking display of aesthetic skill (see I Cor. 1:2-4). And it may also be the case that, at least in some instances, the writers of the New Testament had no stylistic purposes of any sort whatsoever. If, after all, you open the New Testament to its first page, you find no obvious stylistic invention. Indeed, Matthew’s gospel starts like a phone book, with a long list of names, and the names are presented as an authentic genealogy for the historic Jesus. But surely this is not the kind of writing we tend to think of when we talk about “Literature”—especially literature with a capital “L.”
 
So what does it mean, exactly, to read the New Testament as literature?
 
 
A PLACE TO START
 
Last year, I was driving alone on a stretch of ill-maintained road in the Mojave Desert, about a hundred miles north-east of Los Angeles. Between the city and me stood the San Gabriel Mountains, and at the foot of them lay a stretch of desert. Above the mountains were storm clouds. I pulled my car to the side of the road and read what was written on a road sign, which displayed matter-of-factly three simple words: ROUGH ROAD AHEAD. It was just a road sign. It had no other formal purpose than to convey pragmatic information about the condition of the road. But with the gravelly, pot-holed pavement and ferocious terrain and weather standing behind it, for me ROUGH ROAD AHEAD took on the quality of the first line to a poem, the start of a roadside haiku. It became, as it were, a “found poem” that not only pointed to the physical road in front of me, but to the inner road inside me, and the journey of life before me. Sitting awhile with ROUGH ROAD AHEAD, I started noticing other things about the message, such as the assonance and balance of its two R’s and two D’s, and its clustered vowels.
 
If you will permit me an indulgence, I’d like to suggest that ROUGH ROAD AHEAD took on the quality of literature for me.

 

In other words, I was reading a road sign as I might read literature, charging-up its words with associations and meaning.

 

Here in the desert, no one else around for miles, I had stopped and read a conventional road sign and the scene around it with attention, and by doing so the sign took on unexpected and curious qualities.
 
Now perhaps inmates had made this sign in the workshop of a California prison. And perhaps the words were placed on the sign without the least attention to the aesthetic effects that they might achieve on passing motorists. But regardless of the intention of the sign’s fashioners, the words designed to be read “as information” became words read by me “as literature.” This shift occurred at the moment that my attention was arrested away from what they formally pointed to (the condition of the road), and was drawn back again to the words themselves.
 
This return movement, this turning back upon a message, is a key to reading a text as literature, including the text of the NT.
 
And in this sense, a message—whether it is a road sign, a telephone book, a genealogy from Matthew, or even a train schedule—can be read “as literature.” Terry Eagleton (a professor of English at Oxford) puts it this way:
“If I pore over the railway timetable not to discover a train connection but to stimulate in myself general reflections on the speed and complexity of modern existence, then I might be said to be reading it as literature” (8).
In like manner, reading the New Testament as literature can be said to start at the moment that your attention veers back to the text and away from reading it for “road sign” guidance and informational messages (“What must I do to be saved?” “What does Paul say about speaking in tongues?”). Instead, reading the New Testament as literature entails a double-take on the text itself, with questions like these:
 
  • “Why, if being born-again is so important to salvation, is John the only gospel to use the phrase?”
  • “How exactly is the Greek word for tongues, glosalalia, used in the Book of Acts?”
  • “The start of the Book of Matthew seems boring to me. In Matthew’s original audience, who might have regarded Jesus’ genealogy of such high importance that the author felt compelled to start his gospel with it?”
Once you start doing double-takes with questions like these, you have started to read the NT as literature. It’s that simple.

 

For an example, I’ve just opened the NT and picked a verse at random. It’s Phil. 4:12 (KJV). I’ve put it below with some line-breaks to give it the look of a poem. Here it is:
 
                        I know both how to be abased,
and I know how to abound:
every where and in all things
I am instructed both to be full           
and to be hungry, both to
abound and to suffer need.
 
Read the passage again. Ask yourself some questions about it. Do you wonder who’s being addressed and in what context? Do you notice the repetition and balance of the passage’s words? Is there anything arresting to you about the passage that is causing you to do a double-take on it? If so, you’ve begun to read the New Testament as literature.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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3 Responses to Can the New Testament Really Be Read as Literature in the Same Way That We Might Read an Auden Poem as Literature? Are You Sure?

  1. Mr. Contrarian says:

    Very interesting post. But one thing strikes me: once you’ve conceded that all writing can be read as literature, it seems somewhat redundant to then speak of the New Testament as literature in that light. Surely that must then devalue any literary value it has? I for one think it silly to read the phone book as literature, but don’t find it silly to read the NT as such. Despite the fact that most of the NT has obvious religious purposes, I still believe it can and should be read as fiction in a similar sense to how we read The Odyssey and the Iliad, which are at least ostensibly based on real events. Partly, the Gospel writers admired the ethical message of Jesus, but perhaps even more, they simply admired the charisma of the man himself. To them, Jesus may have signalled a new kind of hero to replace the likes of Odysseus and Achilles, say.

    On a slightly related topic, if you haven’t read Harold Bloom’s “Book of J”, I highly recommend it. It’s about the literary values of the “original” Torah, before it was redacted several times, and how it was never intended as a religious text — in fact, it was secular. I’m sure you’d find it very interesting!

  2. santitafarella says:

    Mr. Contrarian:

    With you, I’m reluctant to treat everything as literature. Some parts of the NT are, for example, more literary than other parts. Revelation is far more literary than the first chapter of Matthew.

    But I’ve been influenced by Sartre’s reflections on writing. Sartre argued that what is important is not a focus on words, but on what the words point to. Put differently: Sartre saw literary study as a kind of focus on the window and not what the window looks out onto. He was concerned that writers be engaged with the world, and not insular and strictly aesthetic.

    I was writing contra Sartre above. I was trying to emphasize that the NT “window” can be looked at, and its immediate religious message ignored, at least for literary study. I think Sartre was wrong to devalue the role of studying and thinking about aesthetic elements.

    As for the book of J, I have it. Thanks for the tip, though.

  3. Mr. Contrarian says:

    In that case I completely agree. My own approach, given that I am not a Christian, is that the we simply have to accept that there is a religious message, but we don’t have to judge its merits on that. The Divine Comedy is extremely didactic, for instance, but we don’t have to agree with its message to see its literary value. If it rested only on its message, we would probably dismiss it as literature. Similarly, no “holy book” can be written like a phone book–it is my view that it is exactly the aesthetic power of these texts that has made them survive the centuries.

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