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

Reading Novels, Reading the Bible

I love to read. I read non-fiction for my professional work as a biblical scholar, and the information and new perspectives transform the way I understand the biblical text.  Learning about the pervasive malnutrition of ancient diets and the infant mortality rate in ancient Israel (1 out of 2 children died before the age of 5) changed the way I approach Genesis, the prophets—indeed all of the Bible.  I occasionally read popular non-fiction, too–related to the Bible (The Year of Living Biblically) or to issues that I care about (The Way we Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap).  Non-fiction changes my thinking in useful ways.

But I am passionate about novels.  I read them whenever I can.


I estimate that from January to August of this year I’ve read 15, which is far too few.  My favorites were The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and The Elegance of the Hedgehog.

Fiction changes my thinking just as non-fiction does, but in a different way.  I always finish a novel having learned new information, but more importantly I leave moved in some way. My spirit/soul/self has been led from one place to another.  Standing in a new place,  I see myself and my world differently than I did before I turned the first page.  Novels leave me with moods, attititudes, ah-ha moments.

Even if lovers of fiction aren’t the majority of the population,  I know I’m not alone.  Lots of people buy novels and join book clubs to talk about them.  They’re always on the lookout for something new to read, hoping that friends, bestseller lists, or Oprah will introduce them to a new treasure.  And, for centuries, intellectuals have hunted for words to describe the feelings stirred by stories.  Aristotle suggested that what’s at work is catharsis: people find drama pleasurable because it allows them to call up and then purge powerful emotions like anger or fear.  Psychoanalytical theorists like Louise Rosenblatt and Norman Holland claim that readers work out their interior lives by doing the “work” of reading:  in interpreting stories about the lives of others, we interpret our own, several steps removed.  In this way, Holland concurs with James Joyce:

“[in reading novels,]  we walk through ourselves meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love.  But always meeting ourselves.”  (Ulysses. The Modern Library Edition.  New York:  Random House, 1934, p. 210).


Of course, there are also those who protest that literature is actually detrimental.  According to Plato, viewers of drama are seduced into imitating the bad behavior of others, and, according to one of the characters in The Elegance of the Hedgehog, it’s very possible that literature substitutes “pleasure by proxy” for joys that should be experienced first-hand (p. 104).  I’ve wondered myself if I read novels (at least the ones I like) because they show the dignity and beauty of ordinary human lives and I want desperately to view my own life in the same light.

But, if  loving literature is wrong, I don’t want to be right.  In fact, what I really want is more literature.  I want to read more novels, and  I want to read the Bible more as the literature it is and less as a collection of facts, instructions, and propositions.  I want to talk more about what happens to me when I read biblical narratives—how I change the way I see myself, others, and the world.  I want to talk about how reading and rereading the book of Ruth has prodded me to name the religious and gender messages I’ve internalized and reflect on the life experiences that led me to identify myself as a feminist , as well as acknowledge my own social privilege.  I want to talk more about how reading novels alongside the Bible makes each one sparkle more brightly.   I now view the the biblical account of David and his family differently because I read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (I talk about this in one of my Reading the Bible as an Adult sessions).

Here again, I know that I’m not alone.  Other people care about the Bible as literature and the Bible and literature.  But it’s hard to hear these voices in public conversation. There is a smart, dedicated subset of biblical scholars who explore the interconnections of the Bible and literature, but their conversations tend to be with each other.

My observation is that most public discourse about the Bible takes one of two forms. The confessionally minded discuss how the Bible instructs people to live—its claims for what to believe, how to spend money, how to raise children.


Those of a more secular bent gravitate to a genre I call the biblical exposé—fiction or non-fiction that claims to tell “what really happened” in the past, before the religious “man” came along and suppressed the truth.  Mary Magdalene was really Jesus’s wife!   Religious scribes actually changed some of the biblical stories! Women in ancient Israel actually worshipped a goddess!  The Israelites didn’t really charge in and conquer the land from the Canaanites!


I like many of these books, some of which were written by friends of mine.

The two camps don’t like each other very much.  But, from my perspective, they have a lot in common.  Both treat the Bible as non-fiction.  Both read the Bible for its facts, its “real” history,  its guidelines.And both tend to ignore the very things about the Bible that I care about—how its stories work on and with readers.  Very little in the popular market encourages people to read and talk the Bible like they are do The Time Traveler’s Wife, My Sister’s Keeper, or The Kite Runner.

That’s what I’m trying to do in my Reading the Bible as an Adult project—help people who love to read love to read the Bible.  So far, I’m finding that it’s easier to get the attention of religious progressives than the non-religious.  Progressives are hungry for more inviting ways to read the Bible, but non-religious folks are turned off by anything with “Bible” in the title.  That’s sad, given how many great stories are passing them by.

My response to the situation is to keep speaking my own truth and see who wants to join in the conversation.  I’ll blog about what biblical stories do to me and with me and how they play alongside the novels I’m reading.  And I’ll keep asking others what happens to them when they do the same.

5 Responses to Reading Novels, Reading the Bible

  • Julia: ditto on all the above. I think religious and non-religious people miss alot in the “battle over the bible.” Sigh… When students say to me after a particularly engaging discussion over power, sex, intrigue, etc. in some biblical text “so you don’t believe the bible?” I just sigh. I sigh because I know for all my delight in the encounter, they have missed what I wanted them to see…. Thanks for a thoughtful blog.

  • We live in a time that has reduced life to facts. Mystery and wonder are relegated to “entertainment”. We know the price of everything and the value of nothing (as Oscar Wilde said). No wonder, if the Bible is important it must be full of facts, or if it must be dethroned then it must be full of errors.

    What we need is more readers and less students. But there’s the paradox, our profession produces Bible students 🙁

  • Terrific, Julia. You’re now on my feed reader and thanks to Tim for pointing you out.

    Good god you have a TOU?!? If I check it and say yes I’m lying. If I don’t I can’t submit my comment.

  • Could our profession cultivate more informed readers–people who know more than they used to but still come to all stories, including biblical ones, with a sense of respect, wonder, humanity?

  • I often think the bible to ancient people is like a novel to people living today.

    I read novels to discover and uncover more about my inner being. I enjoy reading about how others interact with the world around them which in turn helps me to better understand my neighbors, if I am to love them. Jesus’ stories were much the same and it is easier to imagine them like a collection of short stories. But, so too, you have taught me that the Hebrew scriptures are filled with these adventures and stories as well. Taking the time to read the bible from this lens helps me to relate to the characters in the story and find out what emotions they were feeling, or what struggles they faced.

    Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts (and for suggesting a few new novel titles).


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