Friday, April 10, 2009

Tod Linafelt on the Bible's literary merits

In this article published at The Chronicle Review, Tod Linafelt critiques James Wood's approach to the Bible in the latter's recent book, How Fiction Works.

Linafelt, an associate professor of biblical literature at Georgetown University, opens the article on this note:

It is hard to deny that in many respects the Bible is the most unliterary work of literature that we have. Saint Augustine, already in the late fourth century AD, confessed that biblical style exhibits "the lowest of language" and had seemed to him, before his conversion, "unworthy of comparison with the dignity of Cicero." It is easy to see what he means. Biblical narrative especially (things are different with biblical poetry) tends to work with a very limited vocabulary and consistently avoids metaphors and other sorts of figurative language, evincing a drastically stripped-down manner of storytelling that can seem the very antithesis of style.

Then, readers have not traditionally gone to the Bible in search of literary artfulness but rather for its religious value — that is, as a source of theology (What can we learn about God?) or of ethics (What can we learn about morality?). For Augustine, as for so many religious readers after him, the Bible's theological truths and ethical teachings won out over its literary art or lack thereof.

Linafelt goes on to explain how Wood's approach to biblical narratives and characters missed a few things, and in the process, he offers some fascinating insights into biblical literature. Read the full article here.

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