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Biblical literature

WORLD Radio - Biblical literature

A Virginia book club reads the Bible cover-to-cover to discover a bigger narrative

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MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Thursday, July 8th.

Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day.

Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: And I’m Myrna Brown. Coming up next, WORLD reporter Jenny Rough visits a book club in Charlottesville, Virginia.

The group of women decided to set aside contemporary novels and the latest current affairs read for the best selling book of all time: The Bible.

JENNY ROUGH, REPORTER: When Hannah Hadley moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, she wanted to make friends and meet neighbors. So she started a book club.

HANNAH HADLEY: I wanted something to stimulate my mind. And I think a lot of these other people did, too.

The group met once a month and took turns with the book selection. Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold.

Then COVID hit. The book club took a break. At home during the pandemic, Hadley picked up her Bible. She’d tried reading it cover-to-cover before.

HADLEY: And I could never get more than halfway through it.

Her neighbor had a suggestion: What if the book club read the entire Bible as a work of literature? Hadley sent around a text—with happy and nerd face emojis—to gauge interest.

HADLEY: Hi, Neighbs. Pre-COVID some of us had a book club with a big mix of genres and would meet monthly to discuss with snacks and libations. This year, we will read the Bible cover-to-cover as a literary piece. We’re coming from different perspectives …

Some said it sounded too daunting. Others, too controversial. But a handful were intrigued enough to commit. They gathered outside around a firepit, women with a mix of different faith backgrounds and views. Ground rules: keep an open-mind; listen respectfully; no expectation to conform to particular interpretations. The goal was to simply get through the text.

HADLEY: If there are questions or bumps or confusing parts, we are just keeping on rolling.

Brian Parker is a pastor in Arlington, Virginia. He says that Bible studies can sometimes get bogged down in minutia and lose the context of the whole. But Hadley’s approach can avoid that.

BRIAN PARKER: There’s a lot of strength to say, okay, sit down and just read a book. Read it through. And just try to get your mind wrapped around the structure of it, the flow of it.

If the whole Bible is too much, a book club could decide to read just one portion instead of the entire thing. Parker suggests reading the gospel of Mark in one sitting. It takes about 35 minutes. He recalls the reaction of one student:

BRIAN PARKER: She came back the next week and was like I read it once a day for five days. The whole book every day. She was just struck by the flow and the character development and the events and the sequencing and everything else. She was just struck by the narrative of it all. And I remember the excitement on her face.

For those who decide to tackle the whole Bible, it takes about 75 hours to read.

HOLLY BRITT: I’ve only ever read excerpts of the Bible. I’ve never seen it in its entirety.

Holly Britt is part of the Charlottesville book group. She says she rarely even glanced at Leviticus before the book club. After reading it all, she could see the bigger story.

BRITT: The mystery became real. So to see how Jesus became all of those things, in that, you know, there was the bread of the presence. I never understood, I am the body, I am the blood. I think that when I realized that the entire Jewish people, their communion with God was based on ritual. Then seeing how Jesus flipped the ritual to fulfill it himself.I was like that’s why we do this!

Pastor Brian Parker says there can be pitfalls to a book club approach though. Without deeper study, the tendency is to read the Bible flat. Think of it this way:

PARKER: We wouldn’t go to a love letter between a husband and wife and read it as a contract. That would make no sense. Same with if we go to an op-ed piece in The Washington Post, we’re not going to read it for a strictly historical account of an event.

In our culture today, we naturally take the context and genre into account.

PARKER: But yet when we get to the Bible, we read it and say it’s monolithic. And to do that actually does incredible injustice to the text itself.

The Bible is an anthology of writings. Many authors. Many genres.

PARKER: We have poetry, we have parables, we have didactic narratives, teaching narratives, we have law … and they all use different literary techniques whether it’s chiasm, acronyms, or acrostics or all these different tools to communicate what they are doing.

Biblical literacy will provide meaningful insights into other works of literature people might read in a book club. Song Cho is a professor at Hampton University. He studies Biblical allusions in literature. For example, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen draws on Proverbs.

CHO: I feel like maybe if we uncover more of these Biblical allusions, I think it helps to, I don’t know, maybe not just have a better appreciation of her works but kind of helps us to maybe helps us to interpret her works differently.

In Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge’s old business partner shows up as a ghost fettered in chains.

CHO: That description actually comes from the Gospel of Mark when Jesus heals a demon-possessed man who was covered with chains.

Scrooge, just like the man in Mark 5, is a recipient of God’s grace. A modern day example: Poet Amanda Gorman’s “The Hill We Climb,” read at President Joe Biden’s inauguration. She quotes Micah.

CHO: I know a lot of high school teachers asked their students to watch and they gave them homework assignments based on that. But I thought, wow, this would have been a golden opportunity for students to think about, you know, what’s with that Micah reference?

Cho points out that great works of literature are meant to be read again and again.

CHO: Just like people teaching Hamlet. They keep reading Hamlet again, again and again, and they still are learning new things. Literature is a mystery sometimes.

Brian Parker says it’s the same with the Bible.

PARKER: It’s not read once and it’s conquered. There are things we have to dig a lot deeper into.

Interacting with the text over and over gives keen insights into who we are and the world around us.

PARKER: And as we engage with that we’re kind of mending this heaven and earth divide and realizing a little bit more about who God is and who He’s created us to be.

This month, the book club is reading one of the Bible’s more complicated books: Isaiah. But they press on, undeterred.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Jenny Rough in Charlottesville, Virginia.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


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