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 integra ted 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 w hich, until the creations of modern writers like Franz Kafka, modern people had forgotten how to read the Bible on its own terms.
Be warned, Alter is a modern literary critic indebted to Jacques Derida, Roland Barthes, and others, so his is not an easily read reading of the Bible. In "The World of Biblical Literature" his detailed work on the narratives in I Samuel, while rich, is also slow going for most readers. Yet his devastating critique of Harold Bloom's "The Book of J" shows why a close reading of the Biblical text is essential if we are to listen to the Bible rather than our fanciful, though limited, imagination.
Alter pleads for a most fine-tuned attentiveness to the literature of the Bible, a critical playfulness with the text, "a kind of intellectual humility" before this monumental literary creation.
In the literature of the Bible, a new world is being described and thereby offered. Readers are drawn out of the limited confines of the present world and led to wander in a strange new world rendered by the texts of Hebrew monotheism. Through poetry, teasing possibility, reiteration, allusion, and "bumpiness," which is "intended precisely to bump our sensibility as an audience," the Bible draws the reader into itself. Unlike historical criticism's assumption of a vast gulf between our age and the ages o f the Bible, Alter's literary criticism presupposes deep continuity in human experience, which makes the concerns and purposes of the ancient text accessible. Before it is ideology, church canon, or moral prescription, the Bible is literature. It still speaks to us, entices us across the gap that modernity has interposed between us and the Bible.
After noting that so many of the Bible's narratives are "open ended," lacking a sure conclusion, Alter urges scholarly readers of the Bible to be more attentive to the Biblical text as a literary creation:
"Many of the historical scholars, for their part, still need to understand better that a literary text - even an ancient and canonical one - is more than the broken pieces of a potsherd in an archaeological find to be fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle. At least to the extent that the redacted text forms a coherent continuity, and it usually does in the Bible, it is artfully contrived, as are literary texts from other times and places, to open up a dense swarm of variously compelling possibilities, lea ding us to ponder the imponderables of individual character, human nature, historical causation, revelation, election, and man's encounters with the divine. If all literary texts are open-ended, the Bible, certainly in its narrative aspect, is willfully, provocatively open-ended."
Alter thus suggests that this provocative, open-endedness of the Bible is an invitation to you and me to read the Bible, to finish its stories ourselves as we dare to live in the world of the Bible and to allow its stories to lead our lives.