Truly comprehending the Bible involves knowing both what it says (content) and how it says it (form). Being able to identify and appreciate the many literary forms in which the Bible is written assists readers in more fully understanding God’s Word.
Bible Gateway interviewed Dr. Leland Ryken about his book, A Complete Handbook of Literary Forms in the Bible (Crossway, 2014).
What need among Christians does this book seek to meet?
Dr. Ryken: These days we hear enough about the literary dimension of the Bible that ordinary Bible readers have a vague awareness that this is something they need to know about. Many of them are looking for help but don’t know where to find it. My handbook brings together in one place what they need to know.
I believe that biblical scholars and preachers are in a similar position. They pay lip service to the literary forms of the Bible, but in actual practice they fall back on the traditional approaches of biblical scholarship. Biblical scholars have not provided the leadership that the average Bible reader deserves in regard to the literary forms of the Bible. They should have taken a refresher English course, but they have not done so. My handbook can supply what they need.
How many literary forms do you identify and define as being in the Bible?
Dr. Ryken: I was surprised to learn how many literary forms are present in the Bible. Part of my research for the book was in ordinary literary handbooks, but I also learned a lot from handbooks of classical rhetoric and scholarly articles authored by biblical scholars. By the time the dust settled, I had 240 entries in my handbook. As I say in my preface to the book, the most obvious lesson to be learned from this is that the Bible is more infused with literary forms and techniques that we realize.
The literary forms you describe go into greater detail than merely identifying literary genre, such as narrative or poetry. Explain the difference.
Dr. Ryken: The bias of biblical scholarship is to use genre labels and literary techniques for purposes of classification and to let the matter rest at that level. I see the same tendency in my students when we get started with explicating poetry. Merely identifying a literary form or figure of speech with the correct label is of very limited usefulness. The usefulness of correctly identifying a genre or literary form comes when we generate an analytic grid or methodology for analyzing a Bible passage. A knowledge of the form should program how we interact with the example before us. For instance, the usefulness of labeling a text as belonging to the genre of satire is that we immediately know that there are four ingredients that we need to explicate.
You write that “form is meaning.” Why is it important to know the literary form of the Scripture passage a person reads?
Dr. Ryken: The human race has a bad way of assuming that literary form and content are two separate entities. In Christian circles, this results in disregarding the literary forms in the Bible because what is regarded as the really important thing is the religious content. The literary principle that form is meaning disallows that practice right from the start. There is no content without the form that embodies it, starting with language but extending to further dimensions of literary form. There is no content to Psalm 23 without the poetic images that make up the actual text. If we fail to interact with the images, we are not interpreting the poem; we are instead operating with a theological construct rather than a biblical text.
Did God inspire the literary forms of the Bible?
Dr. Ryken: I absolutely love this question because it takes us right to the heart of my enterprise. If the biblical writers wrote as God carried them along and as God superintended the human process of composition, then it is a logical inference that the forms were inspired by God. If the authors wrote as God moved and intended them to write, then everything that they put into their works, including the forms in which they encompassed their message, is inspired. It is also relevant to refer back to the previous question: there is no content without the form in which it is expressed. The practical conclusion of this line of thought is that the literary forms of the Bible deserve an attention commensurate with their inspired nature.
You’re approaching the identification of these literary forms from a modern Western professor of English mindset. Yet the Bible is written from an ancient mid-Eastern Hebrew and Greek language perspective. Does that pose a challenge to you or the reader?
Dr. Ryken: I did not find this an obstacle in any way. I cast my net of research as widely as possible, meaning that I read material from biblical scholars as well as literary critics. Furthermore, as literary scholar Northrop Frye insisted throughout his career, the Bible is the prototype and foundation for our understanding of English and American literature. There are no literary forms covered in my handbook that are not demonstrably present in the Bible. I enjoyed enlarging my repertoire of literary forms while doing the research for my handbook.
You write that the literary form of motif in the Bible is the most difficult to pin down. What do you mean?
Dr. Ryken: The difficulty posed by the word motif is that it is so broad. I did not want to omit entries that are genuinely helpful (such as quest motif), but neither did I want to include items that are not really literary (such as “the providential motif in the story of Joseph“). The word motif is used in such a broad range of contexts that I could not allow the mere appearance of that word to count as a reason to include something.
How does the Bible show versus tell?
Dr. Ryken: The moment I saw an entry for “showing versus telling” in a handbook of literary terms, I knew that I wanted to include it in my handbook. The concept is basic to a literary approach to composition and texts, and it is a cliché in writing courses. To “show” means to embody or incarnate in concrete form—in a story about characters performing actions in a specific setting, for example, or a poet reflecting on a topic with images and figures of speech. To “tell” means to state truth propositionally, abstractly, and by means of summary instead of enactment. “You shall not murder” is “telling;” the story of Cain embodies (“shows”) that same truth, without using the abstraction murder and without telling us to refrain from it. “Showing” is a touchstone for regarding a given text as being literary, and by this criterion at least eighty percent of the Bible can be labeled literary.
Why should readers not be surprised that the Bible contains parody, sarcasm, and satire?
Dr. Ryken: Let me first answer the question of why I think most readers of the Bible are surprised by the presence of certain genres in the Bible. The Bible is a serious book that aims to impart spiritual and moral edification. Additionally, most people read only parts of the Bible. It is easy to come to view the Bible as a “nice” book where nearly everything is refined in taste. Certain genres and the literary technique known as realism do not fit this standard of refinement. Name calling (vituperation), ridicule (as in satire), and the realistic portrayal of sex and violence are something that most Bible readers do not expect to find in the Bible.
But you ask why readers should not be surprised by parody, sarcasm, and satire. Upon reflection, I would say that we should not be surprised by any of the forms that we find in the Bible because the Bible is so thoroughly literary. In composing my handbook I was continually amazed by the literary sophistication of the biblical authors. That sophistication is demonstrably present in the Bible. How the writers became so literary and rhetorical in their composition is something that I cannot explain.
What is the danger of quoting or memorizing a Bible verse without consideration of its literary form?
Dr. Ryken: One way to get at an answer to this question is the following: I have sometimes been surprised at how thoroughly students who engage in oral interpretation as an event at speech contests are expected to research literary criticism of the text that they recite. The same thing is true of actors who perform a Shakespearean play. They do not just memorize the lines; they study the plays and familiarize themselves with literary criticism of the play being performed. From this I draw the conclusion that in order for Bible memorization and quotation to be fully meaningful and correct, a person needs to know as much about a passage as possible. This includes knowing something about the form. In our circles we are familiar with the caution “don’t quote a text without knowing the context;” a good counterpart might be “don’t quote or memorize a passage without knowing its literary form.”
One of your book’s entries is “Unity of Text,” where you write, “No principle of literary analysis is more important to grasp than the unity of story, poem, or other text.” Unpack that.
Dr. Ryken: A great weakness of biblical scholarship and Bible commentaries is that they are too atomistic. It is as though a biblical text is a collection of details rather than a coherent whole. Additionally, when biblical scholars and preachers assert a unifying core for a passage, it is usually a concept rather than a literary form. I tell my students that storytellers do not have a thesis to prove but a story to tell. The unity of a story or poem is a literary unity, not a concept or proposition. My career in the literary study of the Bible is nearing half a century now, and as my students and readers of my books provide feedback on what they have learned from me, probably no theme has been more constant than that my literary approach has shown them how to discern the unity of a passage.
Bio: Leland Ryken (PhD, University of Oregon) served as professor of English at Wheaton College for over 43 years. He has authored or edited over three dozen books, including The Word of God in English and The Complete Literary Guide to the Bible. He is a frequent speaker at the Evangelical Theological Society and served as literary stylist for the English Standard Version Bible.