Stanley Fish recently wrote in the New York Times (now behind a paywall) about teaching the Bible as literature in public schools:
Stephen Prothero of Boston University… describes the project and the claim attached to it succinctly: “The academic study of religion provides a kind of middle space…. It takes the biblical truth claims seriously and yet brackets them for purposes of classroom discussion.” But that’s like studying the justice system and bracketing the question of justice. (How do you take something seriously by putting it on the shelf?)
The truth claims of a religion—at least of religions like Christianity, Judaism and Islam—are not incidental to its identity; they are its identity.
The metaphor that theologians use to make the point is the shell and the kernel: ceremonies, parables, traditions, holidays, pilgrimages—these are merely the outward signs of something that is believed to be informing them and giving them significance. That something is the religion’s truth claims. Take them away and all you have is an empty shell, an ancient video game starring a robed superhero who parts the waters of the Red Sea, followed by another who brings people back from the dead….
Of course, the “one true God” stuff is what the secular project runs away from, or “brackets.” It counsels respect for all religions and calls upon us to celebrate their diversity. But religion’s truth claims don’t want your respect. They want your belief and, finally, your soul. They are jealous claims. Thou shalt have no other God before me.
Our purpose is not to evaluate Fish’s arguments but to point out that as a Christian you have a unique perspective on studying the Bible as literature. You’ve already internalized the Bible’s exclusive truth claims—you’ve accepted it as the Word of the one true God. Further examinations of the Bible (from theological, historical, cultural, literary, or other perspectives) deepen your understanding of the Bible, your neighbors, yourself, and ultimately God. You don’t need to “bracket” God from a study of the Bible: your perception of the Bible informs your understanding of God, and your perception of God informs your understanding of the Bible.
This integration of knowledge and faith helps explain why Crossway is publishing The Literary Study Bible: learning about the Bible’s literary forms deepens your faith because studying them helps you learn more about God.
How? A good analogy comes from C. S. Lewis, who writes in Prince Caspian about a meeting between Lucy and Aslan:
”Aslan,” said Lucy, “you’re bigger.”
“That is because you are older, little one,” answered he.
“Not because you are?”
“I am not. But every year you grow, you will find me bigger.”
Studying the Bible is like that. The more you grow in your faith—and studying the Bible is only one of many ways to grow in your faith—the bigger God seems. But at the same time you come to appreciate his personal love for you in particular and for humanity in general, a love that found its ultimate expression through Jesus’ death.
Studying the Bible as literature, for a Christian, presents you with a way to know God more—and in different ways—than you otherwise might.