Literate writing and literate reading

I have a lot on my heart today, but I am going to post something here which I think I have mentioned often in the last 6 years. Yesterday, I tweeted the following:

Of course, my iPod corrects a lot of typos (whether they need it or not), but it didn't catch that one. So much for actually-literate. But some have asked, “well, what do you mean by that?” That’s a reasonable question, and I have a reasonable answer.

The biggest book in the Bible is the book of Psalms, yes? It’s huge. Nothing compares to it as a feat of literature, or, if I may be so bold, as a feat of theological exposition. And you would think that, for the latter to be true, it would have to be rote seminarian essays in somewhat-bloodless prose. But instead we get stuff like this in Psalms:
    Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!
    Let Israel say, "His steadfast love endures forever."
    Let the house of Aaron say, "His steadfast love endures forever."
    Let those who fear the LORD say, "His steadfast love endures forever."
    Out of my distress I called on the LORD; the LORD answered me and set me free.
    The LORD is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me?
    The LORD is on my side as my helper; I shall look in triumph on those who hate me.
    It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in man.
    It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in princes.
    All nations surrounded me; in the name of the LORD I cut them off!
    They surrounded me, surrounded me on every side; in the name of the LORD I cut them off!
    They surrounded me like bees; they went out like a fire among thorns;
    in the name of the LORD I cut them off!
    I was pushed hard, so that I was falling, but the LORD helped me. [Ps 118:1-16]
That’s not an essay. That’s not a book report. That’s not “exposition” in the sense that it has a topic sentence, three examples and a summary statement. It’s a poem about the grace of God.

Now, that should be enough to run after the idea of literate reading – for example, is this poem about a promise being made or a promise being kept? Why is that distinction necessary to comprehend and therefore interpret the meaning of the Psalmist’s thanks to YHVH? A literate person would grasp this immediately and know it’s part of what we’re getting ourselves into here.

But there’s more to it than that. This poem occurs in the Old Testament, and speaks to both some event in the history of Israel, and ultimately to the victory of Christ. Therefore the literate reader sees this psalm occurring in the narrative of the Gospel; that is, somehow the story of which it is a part is necessary and meaningful for the reader who is actually reading the psalm. The ESV study Bible tells us that this is the Psalm the crowds sang as Jesus entered Jerusalem in triumph, and that Christ intimated it would be sung at his second coming.

Now seriously: so what? Is this just another kind of internet snobbery about to make the rounds? Is this just another way to look down the nose at other people and dismiss their use of Scripture and their kind of faith in Christ?

It could be. In fact, I would say that in some circles it is. For me, I bring it up for one reason only.

We love the Bible: all you readers and me love the Bible. Let’s not love it like we love Ice Cream – that is, for the short and self-centered moment in which it tastes sweet and cold. Let’s love it like a living and active thing which will cut us meat from bone, and also equip us, and inform us – if we treat it like what it is.

But this was said to me yesterday, also via Twitter:
I agree. It's most common to tell stories in Scripture. But it is not the way the apostles taught the Church ab Christ.
There are at least three things wrong with this view of the NT which point to a deficiency in having or showing knowledge of literature, writing, etc.:

[1] The apostles preached the Gospel, but they aren’t hardly the only place where Christ is expounded and extolled. For example, the letter to the Hebrews is almost entirely a book about Christ fulfilling the Old Covenant – which is a narrative point, requiring all the types and symbols, and yields a rich theology of salvation in the Bible.

[2] This completely overlooks the role of the four Gospels in presenting the Gospel, and neglects the book of Acts as a book which informs us on everything from soteriology to evangelism to ecclesiology.

[3] This denigrates the Old Testament in an entirely unacceptable way because it ignores the apostolic use of the OT, and it ignores the nearly-complete apostolic reliance on it as the firm foundation of scripture.

The bottom line is that the Bible – not our doctrines of the Bible – will do more to help us reform ourselves and evangelize and inform others than our cultural pup tents set up for a short time in the changing world will do. We have to read it as if it was literature and not as if it was merely the annotated and unabridged version of the reformed confessions.


Logan Paschke said...


Luke 24.

Great post Frank.

John said...

Frank, this is awesome. Good word.

Matt Gumm said...

I need to read more carefully. I thought you said literally.

Now I agree even more than I did before!

Rachael Starke said...

But that would presuppose that we were a people who actually knew and studied literature, so that we could recognize it when we saw it. We'd probably have to fill our minds with less mindless T.V. and Internet and actually read more!!

That's crazy talk!

I like it.

Neil said...

good stuff.

Pierre Saikaley said...

Would this have implications for how we read the Bible viz a vis Covenant Theology paradigm or Dispensational paradigm.

Is there one "theological" frame by which we read the bible, or read it as given as the progressive story of God glorifying Himself through his work in the world, in all the ebb and flow of history in which it was revealed?

Unknown said...

wow man this was a great post. I love the underlying theme throughout it: We love the bible. Amen!

Indydisplays said...

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