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A Literary Approach to Teaching the Bible: Part 1

The Greatest Literary Work

Classical schools are known to be preservers of the great literature of the Western tradition. Homer, Milton, Dante, Shakespeare, and Donne – these authors and their fellows are commonly elevated as those that Classical schools commit to passing on to the next generation. But do we remember Moses, Isaiah, and Paul on our list of great authors?

Classical Christian schools certainly teach Biblical truth and Christian doctrine, but students often experience less hands-on reading of the primary source when comparing the Bible to other Classical literature. Consider your own courses: What portion of the Biblical canon will students have read and studied together before they graduate? Are students coming away equipped with doctrinal ideas and a theological perspective, yet unable to explain the themes of Deuteronomy, Samuel, or Lamentations?

We often assume students are reading through the Bible at home or being discipled by churches to read through the canon. But polls within our own classical school reveal that this is often no longer the case. Students have heard abbreviated versions of well-known stories, but they nearly all admit that they have not been reading through the canon. Reading through a full book from beginning to end is a new endeavor.

We propose a new (ancient) method for Biblical Studies: apprenticeship style courses built on the communal reading of Scripture in class, practicing skills of reading and interpretation across the full canon before graduation. The instructor becomes a coach coming alongside students as they make direct encounters with their subject matter — the very words of God that we want them to read and desire lifelong.

Nothing about this approach is novel; it only requires a shift in perspective. Are we willing to rethink dispensing information through lecture? Do we trust the Bible to be the very Word of God, with power to change the heart of our students? We say with Aquinas that we prefer even the slightest knowledge of great things to great knowledge of slight things. Is God’s Word not the very greatest work, of which we seek the greatest knowledge?

Reimaging Bible literacy for a secularizing culture requires thinking outside the box, but this is nothing new to classical schools. Yes, the seminary taxonomy handed to us says course titles should read: Old Testament/New Testament survey, Doctrine, Church History, Apologetics, Ethics, or Worldview. But this structure rarely allows time to do justice to the biblical text. Why not bring those topics in through primary source readings, all within a literary structure through the canon? Pentateuch, Historical Books, Poets, Prophets, Gospels-Acts, and Epistles is a rich six-part course of study, easy to implement now that publishers of the NIV, ESV, NLT and other translations are producing four to six-part volumes. Their reader Bibles look and read like a novel, removing the numbers, cross-references, and headings that do too much of the work for students. We have a more ancient format available to us once again, to mark up and enjoy as we would another work of ancient literature.

We recommend seminar-style courses built on applying literary skills to the text, reading through whole books in a whole canonical section, and utilizing formal discussion to watch students do the work of interpretation. This should be the foundation of Biblical Studies, with more abstract, analytical approaches added only after students are well-versed in the canon itself.

The Canon: Tools for Interpreting all Other Literature

Is this amount of class time warranted? Won’t it belabor the basics for students who are reading the canon at home or in church?

Our deep hope is that K-12 schools will pair Bible reading with the academic discipline best suited to Bible class: Biblical Theology. Haven’t heard of it? It is a branch of study distinct from historical theology and systematic theology (doctrine). ‘Biblical Theology’ and ‘a literary approach’ are nearly synonymous, because biblical theology is the work of first reading each book using the tools of its genre, then discerning the plot and themes of each book, and finally connecting motifs from one book to another, across the whole canon.

Applying literary skills is reading each book according to its genre, whether using tools of poetry to interpret poetry or tools of story to interpret story. Our summaries of each book should be true to the key words and themes present inside the book. Careful and close reading skills are necessary for comprehending any text, let alone an ancient and often ambiguous text like the Bible. When students are properly trained in the skills of reading the Biblical text it opens up their imagination to the depth, beauty and complexity of the Bible.

Classical schools are committed to the revival of ancient wisdom through the great works of Western culture. Biblical Theology is itself a revival: a return to methods of reading Scripture that prevailed prior to the Enlightenment. It is ‘classical’ in that it is true to many Jewish, ancient, and medieval intuitions about Scripture, it fits the symbolism found in liturgical church traditions, and yet it perfectly suits and fulfills the goals of modern Protestants to know and cherish the Bible book-by-book.

This is not merely our deep hope as teachers of 6-12th grade Biblical Theology. We also know it to be the deep hope of some of the foremost academics and academic publishers in the field. The discipline of Biblical Theology has grown so significantly in seminaries of all denominations — from Southern Baptist to Anglican to Methodist to Reformed to Catholic — that we look forward to the resources soon becoming available to K-12 schools. The Bible publisher, Crossway (ESV Bible), speaks of Biblical Theology as a “renaissance.”

Where to Begin

The Bible’s largest genres are narrative and poetry (a combined 75 percent of Scripture), while didactic writing makes up roughly 25 percent. Even those didactic writings were artfully crafted letters sent to specific churches or groups of churches. Therefore, the skills of interpreting story, poetry, and letters used in literature class should be brought over to Bible class and applied to the Biblical text.

A literary approach requires students to cultivate close reading skills. When reading narrative, consider tracking characters, settings, plot development, motives, dialogue, scene changes or conflicts. Coach students to read with a keen eye for detail, since Biblical narratives are more concise than modern stories. Lecture might be used to present certain ideas or information surrounding the text, but class time should otherwise be active. This creates an environment in which the teacher is the master craftsman and students are apprentices, practicing the same skills of reading and interpretation.

Annotating the Bible is an exceptional way for students to have a conversation with the writers of Scripture as they read. A reader’s Bible allows students to write their own summaries, since there are no section headings provided. And it helps students become comfortable reading large sections at a time, removing the temptation to stop at every verse.

Further Learning

The Biblical text can be difficult at times, but reading difficult texts is a powerful practice for our students. And reading the Bible well serves as a gateway into the rest of the Western tradition. Northrop Frye, a literary critic and William Blake scholar, noted:

“I found myself teaching Milton and writing about Blake, two authors who were exceptionally Biblical even by the standards of English literature. I soon realized that a student of English literature who does not know the Bible does not understand a good deal of what is going on in what he reads: the most conscientious student will be continually misconstruing implications, even the meaning.” (The Great Code)

Scripture was not only a theological but also literary inspiration for Western authors, serving as the source of the imaginative tradition of symbols and imagery used across Western poetry and story. Even popular literature like J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series continues to rely on the symbolic tradition of the Bible. We will unfold this further in our next article.

Let’s commit to giving our students the richest experience of the Biblical text — the experience that the greatest poets, saints, and sages of our Tradition had. We are educators of the Great Books; let us recommit to unfolding the riches and beauty of The Greatest Book.

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