A Hebrew Bible/Old Testament scholar looks at the Bible and culture…

Ancient Literature for Modern Healing

A recent New York Times article reports that the U.S. military has turned to a new resource  to help soldiers name and heal from the trauma of war:  the very old literature of Sophocles.

The Pentagon has provided $3.7 million for an independent production company, Theater of War, to visit 50 military sites through at least next summer and stage readings from two plays by Sophocles, “Ajax” and “Philoctetes,” for service members.


The hope is that these productions, which explore the emotional impact of war, can help contemporary soldiers name their own situations.

“Through theater we’re trying to offer some ideas and experiences for our troops and veterans to think about when they don’t feel comfortable opening up about their private thoughts,” said [writer and director] Mr.[Bryan] Doerries.

Especially for those who find talk therapy difficult or taboo, watching and discussing performances provides another means of healing.

This way of engaging literature is not new. There’s a long history of literary criticism stressing readers’ transactions with literature and the power of fictional tale to move the reader to greater insight and the catharsis of feelings.  And there’s no lack of books, films, and other pieces that attest to literature’s ability to play that role.  One  movie in this genre that I find both sappy and moving is Renaissance Man, starring Danny deVito, in which “loser” soldiers find their own voices in the process of learning to read Shakespeare.


The premise of my Reading the Bible as an Adult project is that biblical literature, in addition to its other crucial roles, can provide these kinds of opportunities for people to think deeply and talk meaningfully about the truth of their lives.

2 Responses to Ancient Literature for Modern Healing

  • Julia,

    I was just at AAR last week. Our Bible, Theology, and Postmodernity Group focused this year on trauma and biblical studies. We had 9 very good papers. Shelly Rambo’s work on bible, theology, and trauma with military chaplains is extremely interesting. Do you have ideas for the use of specific biblical texts?


  • As you might imagine, my mind goes to Nahum. Especially chs. 2 and 3, but most especially 3:3: the disjointed images of the battlefield. The literature captures visual images in words. Thea Portier-Young told me that she had a student at Duke who did a project using Nahum for work with Iraq vets with PTSD. Not to brag, but Thea said the student found my Nahum commentary from Sheffield helpful in that study.

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