The Bible: Purposeful Literary Patchwork

By William H. Willimon. William H. Willimon is dean of the chapel and professor of Christian ministry, Duke University Chapel. | The Christian Science Monitor, April 27, 1992 | Go to article overview

The Bible: Purposeful Literary Patchwork


William H. Willimon. William H. Willimon is dean of the chapel and professor of Christian ministry, Duke University Chapel., The Christian Science Monitor


RECENTLY, a Duke University undergraduate told me that he had spent all month writing a paper that attempted to decipher, on the basis of internal evidence, which play Shakespeare wrote first, "A Midsummer Night's Dream" or "As You Like It." As I left that young man to his historical reconstruction, I heard the voice of Shakespeare mutter, "Who cares? It's a play, for heaven's sake."

Since the 19th century, something very much like that has happened to the Bible.

After decades of captivity within the tight world of the historians, the Bible is being read again as a vibrant literary creation rather than a cluttered historical attic. Instead of the older historical criticism's attempt to root about in the Bible, sort out its components, and reconstruct the textual or historical reality that lies behind or within or under the text (the very death of reading), a new breed of literary critic is urging us to go ahead and read the text we have, read it as literature, as art with all of the subversive intent, playfulness, and imaginary resourcefulness of any other work of art.

In his earlier books on the Bible, "The Art of Biblical Narrative" (1981) and "The Art of Biblical Poetry" (1985), Robert Alter, professor and literary critic at the University of California, Berkeley, broke new ground. He applied the insights of contemporary secular literary criticism to the Bible. The results of his work give the Bible a fresh voice for a new generation of readers.

Not that the literary world of the Bible is immediately accessible to the modern reader. Alter notes how the anonymity of the Bible's writers, their relative silence about the specifics of their literary context, the seeming disordered patchwork of Biblical texts, all present formidable problems for the modern mind.

Yet it is amazing how much Alter hears when listening to the Bible. A patchwork these Biblical texts may be, but they are, in Alter's opinion, a purposeful patchwork in which seemingly disparate materials are skillfully combined in a complex literary creation. He revels in "the bumpiness of the biblical text," which Alter (unlike historical criticism) believes shows repeatedly "a strong synthesizing imagination that has succeeded in making once disparate voices elements of a complex, persuasively integrated literary whole."

When one encounters a similar "bumpiness" in the text of Joyce's "Ulysses," one does not scurry to the historians for help in peeling away layers of text, in identifying different authors, or in attempting to reconstruct the possible historical context. One realizes that the bumps and jolts within the text are aspects of the author's literary intent, something that the author is attempting to do to the readers. Why not assume the same in reading the Bible? In fact, Alter argues that there is a sense in which, until the creations of modern writers like Franz Kafka, modern people had forgotten how to read the Bible on its own terms. …

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