This remarkable book is written within a venerable tradition of literary reading of the Bible and of reading the Bible as literature. Its immediate predecessors in the past few decades include works by James L. Kugel, Robert Alter, Frank Kermode, Meir Sternberg, and others, both Jewish and Christian. And yet at the same time it has a power and a directness that are entirely new and singular. Franke’s writing reminds me vividly of the time when I was a student of theology in an English university almost 50 years ago, being taught the Bible (especially the Hebrew Bible) and wondering how such wonderful literature and poetry could be made so dull by the preoccupations and impositions of theology and history. Should we not begin with the literary life and vitality of the texts and their forms in narrative and poetry? Franke, a professor of comparative literature with deep theological knowledge, well known for his work on mysticism and the apophatic, reminds us that words and literary form lie at the very heart of religious revelation, and, beginning with Genesis, he leads us through the major literary forms of the Hebrew Bible up to the New Testament and the gospels. The books of the Bible are a human response to and expression of divine revelation beginning with Genesis and the creative word of God that brings all things into being. From there we move to the epic history of the book of Exodus and into the prophetic tradition that lies at the heart of the Hebrew Bible. Prophecy in Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and others is essentially a poetic form, rooted in the present and its place in human history under the eyes of God. And the poetry of the Bible never allows us to escape the deepest and most immediate matter of human experience in the self-referential reasoning of Ecclesiastes or the deeply sensual verbal melodies and lyricism of the Song of Songs of which the ‘intrinsic indeterminacy’ links together, as only the poetic can, the bodily intimacies of the erotic with the infinity of divine love for humankind. The synchronic life of the poetic allows us to connect, in Franke’s careful analyses, the ancient sensualities of the Song of Songs with the Symbolist poetry of Baudelaire and Mallarmé, and thus the Bible with all of literature—a sacred text that is never separated from the rest of the poetry of world literature. In the book of Job (and after that, in poets and writers from John Milton to Muriel Spark and many others) we cannot forget the deep poetic nature of religious revelation, and in the Psalms the poetry that rests at the heart of the ancient liturgical traditions of Judaism and Christianity. Most of this book is concerned with the Old Testament, but in some ways the key chapter comes towards the end, focusing upon the literary genre of the gospels. Here Franke demonstrates his deep knowledge of the art of biblical criticism and its processes in form, source, and redaction criticism. But these can never be merely academic exercises. For the gospels are alive in a faith community as testimonies of that faith and as exercises in theological imagination as it seeks in words to express the mystery of the resurrection in Christ. Franke refers to the work of the philosophy Paul Ricoeur, with André LaCocque, in the art of thinking biblically, and this is exactly what he demands of his readers in his own book. Like Ricoeur, he never forgets the living communities that have created and interpreted the texts of scriptures through history, living within their metaphorical and poetic structures as catalysts for life and thought in faith through the millennia. The academic pursuit of literature and theology, it seems to me, has not always been as fruitful as it might be in recent years. It has never gained proper attention within the curricula of either religion or literary studies in our universities and colleges, caught between disciplines and often at fault in its own lack of intelligent imagination. William Franke’s book, however, comes as a learned, lively and intelligent reminder that when we begin again in the study of the Bible it must be with a literary sensitivity and a theological imagination that recognises in ever-fresh ways the literary and poetic heart of faith as it arises from the life of words and language. The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge once wrote memorably of the ‘living educts of the Imagination’ in Scriptures, and here, for our own time, we are reintroduced to them in this lucid and articulate book that finds theology to be inherent in the biblical text and its textures rather than something outside and imposed upon it. This is a profoundly important book for anyone in the humanities and for general readers, as well as theologians, liturgists, and biblical critics. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press 2017; all rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Literature and Theology – Oxford University Press
Published: Sep 25, 2017
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