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.