Summer/Fall  2000
Volume 5 Number 1

Literature and Scripture


by Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Helen H.P. Manson Professor of New Testament Literature and Exegesis

The first place I was allowed to travel on my own was to the public library. My parents must have regarded that walk of five blocks as a safe little trip, although it turns out to have been a dangerous place after all. The library housed stories that would take me captive, characters who would inhabit my imagination, and ideas that would send me exploring in uncharted territory (as in the book on reincarnation the meddling librarian believed was inappropriate for a child).

My journeys these days take me further afield, but they still begin with the local library or the bookstore. On a study trip to Israel, I took along the prose of Amos Oz and the poetry of Yehuda Amichai for traveling companions. A meeting in South Africa introduced me to André Brink’s Imaginings of Sand. Family vacations in Maine begin with the careful planning of the "book bag," which may contain the most recent from John Irving or Mary Gordon, as well as mysteries set in first-century Rome or nineteenth-century London.

What does any of this reading have to do with my vocation as a teacher of Scripture? Sometimes literature is sheer recreation, and I rejoice in that. The rich phrases of Arundhati Roy in The God of Small Things compensate for the impoverished language of scholarly monographs and commentaries. Trollope’s characters—especially the clergy—enable me to laugh at the characters around me, myself first of all. The latest mystery by P. D. James offers the grace of temporary distraction from daily duties.

Yet recreation is not the whole story either. Flannery O’Connor’s stories offend precisely because they fling grace at us in a manner that is both deeply consonant with the letters of Paul and seldom heard in churches that have successfully tamed him. Or Jeanette Haien’s The All of It catches us in our judgmentalism, revivifying the sudden turns in the parables of Jesus. In other words, literature can improve our hearing of Scripture by re-presenting the Gospel in ways that slip under the defenses of our professionalism.

Literature can also sharpen our hearings by its depictions of human need. When Pecola Breedlove in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye longs for blue eyes so that she will be thought beautiful, I ache for someone to introduce her to the table-fellowship of Jesus. And when Calvin Cohn, the central human character in Bernard Malamud’s God’s Grace, hears God’s declaration of the consequences of human sin in terms that forcefully recall Romans 1, I long for Romans 8 to make its way into the story as well.

Such conversations can illumine and enliven the study of Scripture as well as that of literature. And for me both are occasions of grace.


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