A Literary Approach to Teaching the Bible: Part 2

Jan 20, 2021

Formation of Imagination

As Classical educators we believe that literature forms the imagination of students, and this conviction is at its truest in the Bible classroom. Through Scripture students imaginatively enter into the reality of the Biblical characters: the pain of loneliness and of long journeys, the loss of family and betrayal of friends, but also the joy of ascending to Zion, smelling the incense in the temple, and receiving manna from heaven. 

But “imagination” has an even deeper and broader role, hinted at in its root in “image” or “imagery.” English teachers note that poetry the world-over makes tremendous use of imagery, and this is likewise true of Biblical Hebrew poetry. Note the number of concrete images--nouns that are a person, place, or object--in just these few short verses of Psalm 36:5-9. 

Your love, O Lord, reaches to the heavens, your faithfulness to the skies.

Your righteousness is like the highest mountains; your justice like the great deep.

You, Lord, preserve both people and animals…

People take refuge in the shadow of your wings.

They feast on the abundance of your house;

you give them drink from your river of delights.

For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light.

The psalmist David is unfolding attributes of God that would be invisible and abstract, were it not for their connection to the concrete world of our experience. His invisible qualities of love and righteousness are seen in skies, mountains, people, animals, wings, feasts, houses and light. 

Imagery inside Narrative? 

We know that Biblical poetry makes abundant use of imagery, and that concrete imagery is food for our imagination. It helps our mind’s eye visualize a truth about an invisible God. But do the historical narratives of the Bible also utilize imagery? The stories of Genesis and Numbers at first glance seem to omit poetic flourishes and stick to brief, concise reporting of events. 

On the other hand, great literature is known to incorporate images even inside of stories. Great authors like Herman Melville construct their stories with characters, plot, and setting -- the staples of all storytelling -- but also with added artistry seen in images and motifs. Literature guides like SparkNotes list Images, Symbols, & Motifs as key to any great work of literature. For instance, a student who can summarize only the characters and plot of Moby Dick has scratched just the surface. Moby Dick is not a simple tale of a whale hunt. There is deeper meaning conveyed through interwoven motifs like the “whiteness of the whale.” 

Modern Hebrew scholars like Robert Alter helped spread the realization that Biblical stories also use images and motifs. The stories of the Bible were often thought to be dry, not crafted with much attention to beauty. But Alter’s Art of Biblical Narrative showed the literary artistry of the Bible’s stories, overlooked for a variety of reasons, the first of which is that motifs lie below the surface. A motif is a recurrence of an image, a pattern of actions, etc, that creates a thread that is picked up again. Motifs can be small, which is why we often benefit from an expert’s help in finding them. A film critic can help us see how a particular color or object recurs at important moments of the plot, as a visual thread that brings organization and symbolic meaning. Similarly, in the book of Joshua, there is a recurrence of piles of rocks at key moments in the story. Memorial stones mark the way through this book of the Bible. 

This prompts a second reason biblical motifs were overlooked: it’s difficult to see how a recurring concrete image like “rocks” really matters! When we’ve been taught to look only for spiritual and moral meaning, then we tend to discard observations like a recurring pile of stones. It’s not immediately evident what spiritual impact such signposts could have. But if we come to believe that the author utilized literary artistry, we will recognize that the recurrence of a word, phrase, or image is not mere happenstance but must have been interwoven for at least beauty’s sake, if not more. 

The work of Robert Alter and other scholars put the modern church back in conversation with theology of the ancient and medieval time period -- nearly all Christian theology prior to the Enlightenment. Early theologians revelled in the beauty of the text, the multi-layered meaning and symbolism it might have. This pursuit of layers of meaning at times became far-fetched and speculative. But the modern era over-corrected and largely lost sight of the symbolism, beauty, motifs, and typology present in Scripture. 

The Tree Motif 

A Southern Baptist biblical theologian, James Hamilton Jr., provided this explanation of one of the earliest images in biblical narrative. Genesis 2 begins with God planting a garden in Eden which contained trees that were good for food and ones that were not for Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve’s sin lay in the action of taking fruit from the tree that God had forbidden. Therefore, their judgement included being exiled from this garden. Isaiah then picked up on this idea of a tree when he compared Israel to a vineyard that became rotten (Is. 12). God sent Assyria as an axe to cut down the vineyard. Out of the chopped down vineyard, a shoot arose. This shoot was foretelling the regrowth of Israel and the coming Messiah (Is. 53). 

The Psalms are also full of tree imagery, as in Psalm 1: “He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither.” (v.3) The Psalmist compares a blessed man to a tree planted by water, thriving in and out of season. Here is a clear symbolic pattern: a healthy tree symbolizing a faithful relationship with God, while judgement comes in the form of the chopping down of a tree, death of the tree, or exile from the presence of the trees. The book of Revelation ends with the image of a tree of life beside a river, “with twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month, and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations” (Rev.22:1-3). The Bible begins and ends with a tree.

Tree of Life in Literature

Note how the motif of a tree is picked up in classic literature. John Milton’s Paradise Lost speaks “of man’s first disobedience, and the fruit, of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste, brought death into the world, and all our woe, with loss of Eden, till one greater man, restore us, and regain the blissful seat.” Or Dante’s Purgatorio, “Blessed are you, whose beak does not, o griffin, pluck the sweet-tasting fruit that is forbidden and then afflicts the belly that has eaten!” (Purgatorio 32) Consider Sonnet 5 by John Donne:

“If poisonous minerals, and if that tree,

Whose fruit threw death on else immortal us,

If lecherous goats, if serpents envious,

Cannot be damn'd, alas, why should I be?”

The richness of these texts only makes sense to a reader who has internalized the motif of the tree in the biblical narrative. So too with water, stones, temples or any other recurring motif in Scripture - reading the Bible through the lens of what the biblical authors continually repeat is the best way to cultivate a biblically informed imagination. 

Cultivating an Ancient Imagination

Meditating on the Bible’s images develops an ancient imagination in our students and is one way of combating the onslaught of materialism so prevalent in our culture. Pondering the image requires thinking about nature, about life before the modern era, and about the feelings evoked in us by the natural world. Pondering how biblical writers and the giants of our tradition thought about everyday experiences like a tree can cultivate what James Taylor calls “poetic knowledge.” It goes beyond mere scientific analysis to see the world as charged with the wonder and glory of God. 

Theologian Peter Leithart depicts the Enlightenment and subsequent disputes as having moved Christians toward only half of the equation: unfolding the literal meaning and the moral application. But in Rehabilitating the Quadriga, Leithart explains that modern readers have missed out on the riches of the medieval fourfold approach. We have ignored allegorical (or typological) reading and anagogical (or forward-looking reading, in light of final things). He urges us to recover these ancient ways of reading Scripture. 

In Closing

Biblical theology is a poetic form of theology, well-suited to unfolding the Bible’s stories and engaging a child’s imagination. It provides students with a storehouse of images and patterns that run across Scripture and then the great works of the Western tradition. It helps students acquire an ancient imagination, which is invaluable for ancient literature generally. And third, it connects the rich imagery of the Bible to the concrete world in which the students live. 

Over time biblical theology lays a rich feast of manifold, complex meaning. Relishing in the Bible’s concrete details and their symbolic significance connects the Bible with the world of the students, so that everything becomes illuminated by the light of Scripture. The concrete world takes on a deep poetry, a sacred beauty that we trust will keep students rooted in their faith long-term. How hard it is to move backward from sacred, poetic living into the non-meaning of mere atoms! The richer the biblical theology, the more lasting the faith. 

Heidi Dean and Zach Pritz

Heidi Dean and Zach Pritz teach biblical studies at Veritas Christian Academy in Fletcher, NC. Zach (M.A. Faulkner, pending) is head of biblical studies and teaches Old and New Testaments. Heidi (Th.M. Duke) teaches Old Testament and chairs the Bible Instruction Symposium hosted by CSI & Tyndale. The two share in common the vices of drinking too much coffee and running too many start-ups while raising young kids.

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

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