Is the Bible story or poetry? Or something else?

This piece by Andrew Bunt on the Think Theology site caught my eye. He takes issue with the now rather commonplace view that the Bible is basically a story, running from creation to new creation, and asks whether perhaps “the Bible is better understood as poetry.” His brief analysis is based on a TheoEd talk by Brent Strawn, who is an Old Testament scholar. There is some point to the critique of the Bible-as-story hermeneutic, but I would suggest that neither Strawn nor Bunt have come up with the right solution.

There are two parts to Strawn’s argument.

First, he thinks that the Bible isn’t really a story. There’s too much stuff between the beginning of Genesis and the end of Revelation that isn’t story at all. Deuteronomy repeats what has gone before. Same with the books of Chronicles. Then you’ve got a huge mass of material—Wisdom literature, Psalms, Prophets—that is not narrative in form and has little to do with the story that begins in Genesis and ends in Revelation.

The New Testament doesn’t tell a story either, Strawn maintains. The story of Jesus is told four times in a row. That’s not how stories are told. And everything breaks down after Acts, because, well, letters aren’t stories, are they?

Secondly, he thinks that poetry provides a better literary paradigm for the overall interpretation of scripture. It’s just as much a “construction”, but Strawn thinks it’s a better construction than narrative. Positively, he argues that it has four particular alliterative benefits.

Poetry offers candour about life: it helps us think about the suffering of Job, or the Psalmist, or Jesus, and more generally to deal with the raw stuff of life.

Narrative demands coherence, but poetry accommodates for the contradictions that we find in the Bible.

Poetry allows for contemporaneity: it can be re-uttered and re-used by modern readers. “Story identification embeds a kind of difference or distance between the subject and the reader that poetry seeks to collapse.”

Finally, poetry entails continuation: there’s always more to say about poetry; no matter how many times we come back to the Bible we will never completely figure it out: it will always remain allusive, evocative, generative.

If we brush all that aside as boring history, we cut ourselves off from the river that gives us life and meaning. We become a self-absorbed, slowly stagnating, shrinking pond, soon to be left behind.

Andrew Bunt thinks there’s merit in Strawn’s proposal, but he points out that the same criticism can be levelled against the poetry construction as against the narrative construction: “What do we do with all the parts which clearly aren’t poetry?” Indeed.

So he proposes a good old fashioned compromise. Let’s combine the best of both models! Let’s have our cake and eat it! The Bible isn’t a story, but it contains a “story of God’s dealings with his creation which is told in parts of the Bible.” The Bible is not poetry, but there are poetic elements in it which may function as “commentary on the story and guidance for how to live in it.”

In my view, neither story, nor poetry, nor story-poetry serves as an adequate construction for explaining what the Bible is. They miss the crucial dimension that stares us in the face from a few chapters in to a few chapters before the end. Here’s my sketchy analysis.

1. It is clear that what Strawn means when he says that the Bible is not a story is that it does not have the literary form of a single coherent story. That’s just a statement of the obvious; I don’t think that any narrative hermeneutic would pretend that it does. To complain that there is repetition in the telling of the story is facile.

2. For an Old Testament scholar Strawn is remarkably dismissive of the stuff that lies between the beginning and the end. A big part of the problem here is that he assumes that the “story” at issue is the one about “God’s dealings with his creation”, in Bunt’s words. If the Bible has any relevance to the modern world, it has to be about God and humanity in the most general sense. So the stories about Samuel in Shiloh, David in Jerusalem, Paul in Rome are “boring” and of no interest to us.

3. I would say, to the contrary, that the story that holds the Bible together—the “canonical narrative,” as R. Kendal Soulen calls it—is the story of Israel’s “political” existence in he midst of the nations. It begins with Abraham, who is called in the shadow of Babel, it passes through the traumatic experience of exile, which is interpreted by the Prophets, and it culminates in the predicted fall of “Babylon the great”, which is Rome, and the confession of Israel’s king as Lord by the nations.

4. Anyone who can dismiss the historical fact of Paul’s presence in Rome as boring has completely missed the point of the New Testament.

5. By foregrounding the poetic mode Strawn is trying to turn the whole of scripture into Wisdom literature—a genre that helps us to live in the moment, verging on the therapeutic; note especially the emphasis on candour about life and holding together contradictions. This is an enforced contemporaneity, as bad as the Theological Interpretation of Scripture. The Bible quite carefully preserves the distinction between Wisdom and history. We should do the same.

6. There’s no reason why the complex narrative of a people should not be candid about life, accommodate contradictions, give meaning and purpose for the church in the present, and invite constant re-reading.

7. The Bible as a literary object is neither story nor poetry. It is a somewhat arbitrary collection of historical documents of extremely complex literary provenance, which bear witness to the self-understanding of a more or less coherent historical community, beginning with an exilic retrospective and running through to the late first century AD. Because historical experience is normally constructed as narrative (one damn thing after another), narrative constitutes by far the most appropriate literary model for any integrative reading of the Bible. The non-narrative material always presupposes the overarching narrative of God’s dealings with his people in relation to the nations.

8. That said, the Bible is much more like “Frodo went to Mordor” than “I am large, I contain multitudes” (Walt Whitman).

9. Jesus spoke in parables, not poetry, not haikus, and for reasons that are grounded in a solid political narrative about the obduracy of Israel and the prospect of catastrophic judgment. When he is asked why he speaks to the people in parables, he directs the disciples to the commissioning of Isaiah:

And he said, Go, and say to this people: “‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’ Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said: “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is a desolate waste, and the LORD removes people far away, and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land.” (Is. 6:9–12; cf. Matt. 13:13-15; Mk. 4:12; Lk. 8:10; Rom. 11:7-8)

10. I don’t see how anyone can read the opening verses of Romans—just as one example—and say, “This is just a letter. There’s no story here.” It is a letter about historical events that will bring about a radically different future for the ancient world and about the role that Paul is playing in that transition:

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ (Rom. 1:1–6)

This is why, in conclusion, I argue for a hermeneutic that is both narrative and historical. The Bible happens to give us the experience of a people over a long period of time. A lot can happen over a long period of time, and the experiences inevitably take on a narrative shape. Crises happen, and these crises become both the remembered past and the grid for imagined futures—return from exile, destruction of Jerusalem, triumph over pagan empire.

If we brush all that aside as boring history, we cut ourselves off from the river that gives us life and meaning as the people of the God of history. We become a self-absorbed, slowly stagnating, shrinking pond, soon to be left behind.