Looking at the Bible as literature

The Literary Guide to the Bible, edited by Robert Alter and Frank Kermode. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belnap Press of Harvard University Press. 678 pp. $29.95. The Bible is not just any other book, nor is it assumed to be by the contributors to ``The Literary Guide to the Bible.'' Drawn from mostly secular universities in six countries and reflecting Jewish, Roman Catholic, and Protestant traditions, the contributions reflect the wideness of the critical discipline at this time. That this has resulted in a coherent guide is remarkable.

A guide, may I add, whose time has come. According to editors Robert Alter and Frank Kermode, not only is the Bible the ground of Western literacy, the effects of reading the Bible wrong seem to be everywhere. Pointing out the need for ``a new accommodation with the Bible,'' Alter and Kermode write: ``The best reason for the serious study of the Bible - for learning how to read it well - is written across the history of Western culture: see what happens when people misread it, read it badly, or read it on false assumptions.''

Reading it right, say Alter and Kermode, means reading it as literature. By looking closely at, and indeed for, what in fact abounds in the Bible - parallels and substitutions, themes and variations - one begins to get a feel for the Bible as a whole.

As we are reminded throughout this ``Guide,'' the Bible, with its Old and New Testaments, was produced by editors conscious of it as a whole, even though the pieces derive from traditions that span millennia. For example, reading the Gospels backward, and noticing connections with the prophets, is all to the point.

This may suggest ``structuralism'' - the science of human systems identified with anthropology and Claude L'evi-Strauss. In one of the general essays included in the appendix, anthopologist Edmund Leach ejaculates: ``Mark and his editors were structuralists too!'' Maybe.

The ``Guide'' covers the whole Bible; some of the chapters are written quietly and graciously by Bible scholars for whom structuralism is simply unnecessary. Alter's chapter on the Psalms provides luminous pages in which the spirit and the letter inform each other as they do in prayer. Besides the chapter on Psalms, Alter contributes an introduction to the Old Testament, and an amazingly compact essay on ``The Characteristics of Ancient Hebrew Poetry.'' The contributions of Kermode are more problematic: There's a forced quality in his pages, which otherwise are distinguished by strength and delicacy of analysis. As his chapters on Matthew and John show, Kermode has mastered the primary and secondary texts with dogged diligence. But his concept of literature was nourished on the novel, and in his essay on John it's sometimes as if he were writing about Henry James! ``John's storytelling has the virtues of economy, connexity, and depth. He is bent upon making his narrative hang together, but in so doing he is always attending to his deepest purpose, which is the representation of the eternal in relation to the transient, of the manifestations of being in a world of becoming.''

The best chapters simply assume that a carefully wrought text preserves an analogical experience. The chapter on the Pauline epistles skips the problem of the genre of the letter (this is handsomely covered in one of the essays in the appendix - which alone is worth the price of the book). Michael Goulder focuses, among other things, on Paul's leadership. ``Leadership is a tricky business, and it is too easy to accuse Paul of manipulation; but he can still teach modern managers a thing or two.''

As for Paul's religion, Goulder writes: ``First Thessalonians is so perspicuous a letter that the centuries drop away: we are looking over the shoulder of a good and genuine man who has staked all he has on his religious experience and been rewarded with a few hours of intense happiness.'' And, of a famous passage in II Corinthians, he argues that the reader gets ``the sense that the writer has experienced all these things himself,'' which ``drives the reader irresistibly to recognize that this is authentic religion.''

Except when a writer wishes to make a specific point, the ``Guide'' uses the King James Version throughout. As Gerald Hammond argues in his general essay, ``English Translations of the Bible,'' that translation preserves more of biblical style than any other before or since. Repetition of key words (including, interestingly, ``and''), and fidelity to original syntax give this version ``the kind of transparency which makes it possible for the reader to see the original clearly.''

What the ``Guide'' does at its best - and this is often - is precisely that: move us closer to the Bible itself. If there are ups and downs in this big book - and there must be, for it is addressed by a heterogeneous group of critics to a pluralist reading public - they are the ups and downs of, say, the Sierra Nevada. It's all pretty much up there where the air is small, the atmosphere charged with light, and the views inspiring. As a gift this holiday season, the ``Guide'' would make a lot of sense. But start with yourself.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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