The Big Picture
In this final lesson, we take a broad overview of the Bible to examine the overarching story it tells, its religious orientation, unifying themes, archetypes (recurrent images, character types, and plot motifs), and style.
The Bible’s Main Character
“The principal character, or actor, or protagonist of the Bible is God. Not even the most seemingly insignificant action in the Bible can be understood apart from the emerging characterization of the deity. With this great protagonist and his designs, all other characters and events interact, as history becomes the great arena for God’s characteristic and characterizing actions.”
— Roland M. Frye, The Reader’s Bible
The Bible as One Story
Up to now, we have looked at the Bible as an omnibus of diverse genres, not unlike an anthology of English literature. However varied and expansive the Bible may be, it is far more unified than other anthologies of its size and scope. Ultimately, the Bible is one book, and it has always been viewed as such since it first appeared in its final form.
What holds the Bible together is its narrative unity. Despite the many stories it contains, it ultimately tells one overarching story. The Bible fulfills Aristotle’s requirements for a complete story — it has a beginning, middle and end.
It begins with the story of creation. It ends with the apocalypse, a vision of the end of history. Between these cosmic events stretches the history of the human race and God’s involvement in that history.
This overall story has its own driving plot conflict: the conflict between good and evil. It is played out between a host of characters: God and Satan, God and sinful creatures, good and evil people, good and evil within individuals. Every story, poem, and proverb in the Bible contributes an individual “chapter” to this massive plot.
Every story has a protagonist, and the overarching story of the Bible is no exception. God is the main character in the Bible. His presence unifies the story. The narrative progression of the Bible’s story is the evolution of God’s purposes throughout history. Those purposes revolve around such “big ideas” as divine providence, judgment, and redemption.
The Bible as a Religious Book
“[The aim of Biblical stories] is not to bewitch the senses. Their religious intent involves an absolute claim to historical truth. The Bible’s claim to truth is . . . tyrannical. The sublime influence of God here reaches so deeply into the everyday that the two realms of the sublime and the everyday are not only actually unseparated but basically inseparable.”
— Erich Auerbach, Mimesis
The Bible’s Religious Orientation
Virtually everywhere we turn in the Bible, we find religious concerns, and this, too, unifies the book. The religious orientation of the Bible begins with the writers’ pervasive awareness of God’s presence in the world.
Beyond that, all of human life is regarded in a religious light. Seemingly mundane events like a harvest or the birth of a baby — as well as momentous events like the defeat of an army or a cataclysmic flood — are viewed in terms of God’s providence and experienced in terms of a religious response (such as worship or repentance).
Throughout the Bible, we are aware that two worlds exist simultaneously. One world is the visible world around us. The other is an unseen spiritual world consisting of angels, demons, heaven, and hell — a supernatural world governed by God.
At times, the supernatural world is shown reaching down into the earthly, human sphere. Just as often, we see people reaching upward toward the spiritual realm. For example, in the story of Abraham’s offering of his son Isaac (Genesis 22), we hear a divine voice speaking from some unknown height to Abraham, commanding him to offer his son, and then restraining him from doing so. But we also see Abraham journeying to the mountaintop to encounter God.
A further dimension of the Bible’s religious orientation is the vivid consciousness of values that pervades it. In the Bible, the concept of right and wrong is more sharply defined and more strongly held than in most literature. Biblical writers are constantly telling us “This, not that.” They also have an uncanny grip on what matters most and least in human experience. For biblical writers, the issue of good versus evil supersedes all other concerns.
The Big Questions
A good way to bring the Bible’s main themes into focus is to list the questions that the Bible continuously poses, including:
- What is God like?
- What are people like?
- What does it take to please God?
- What constitutes the good life?
- What is human destiny?
The Bible has many themes, but they are unified by a single subject matter — human experience in the world. On every page, we find authentic human experience. But what attitude do biblical writers take toward human experience?
Most significantly, in the eyes of biblical writers, human experience occurs in the context of God’s existence and supreme importance. It is a rare biblical passage that does not concern God explicitly or implicitly. Nearly every passage poses (or provides an answer to) the question, “What is God like, and how should people relate to him?”
The view of human nature that emerges from the very human stories and poems of the Bible is also a unifying element. In brief, the Bible postulates:
- Human beings have the potential to be either good or bad.
- Human beings can choose between good and evil.
- Human beings are both physical and spiritual beings.
While people are viewed as good in principle, the Bible shows time and again that, in practice, people are naturally inclined to make foolish choices and do bad things.
Merging the twin themes of God and human experience, one of the Bible’s chief concerns is the divine-human relationship — the question of how God and people relate to each other. We might say that the Bible is a continuous exploration of how God and human beings ought to relate to each other. (How people relate to each other morally and ethically is another key preoccupation of the Bible.)
If we ask what aspects of human experience are most often portrayed in the Bible, interesting answers emerge. Surely the quest to define “the good life” recurs frequently and in many forms. The experience of suffering runs strong in the Bible, but so, too, does the experience of joy.
Jung on Archetypes
“(Archetypes) make up the groundwork of the human psyche. It is only possible to live the fullest life when we are in harmony with these symbols; wisdom is a return to them.”
— Carl Jung
Literary Archetypes in the Bible
Archetypes are recurrent patterns in literature and life. They are the building blocks of the literary imagination — the stuff that stories are made of. Generally, archetypes fall into three categories: plot motifs, character types, or images.
Archetypal plot motifs are story patterns that reappear throughout all literature. One common story pattern is the hero’s journey (a journey is almost synonymous with storytelling itself). Within the journey motif, we can discern popular variations, such as the quest or initiation story. Other famous archetypal plots are the “fall from innocence” story and the “crime and punishment” story, among many others.
Character types also fall into familiar archetypal patterns that you know all too well. Most common are the hero/heroine and the villain. The list is ever expanding — the trickster, the outcast, the ideal ruler, the tyrant, and many others.
Images, symbols, and settings also constitute archetypes. Light and darkness are classic archetypal imagery. Earthly paradise is an idealized archetypal setting that appears throughout literature, as is the desert or wasteland (a common negative archetype).
Writers could not avoid archetypes if they tried. They are simply the basic materials from which literature is built. You will find them wherever you look, in novels, in movies and throughout the Bible. (For a 1,000-page survey of archetypes and motifs in the Bible, see A Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, edited by Leland Ryken and others.)
While the Bible shares archetypes with all other literature, it has a style that is distinctively all its own. This is the subject of the final section of this lesson.
The Style of the Bible
“The simplicity of the Bible is the simplicity of majesty.” (Northrop Frye)
“The Biblical vocabulary is compact of the primal stuff of our common humanity — of its universal emotional, sensory experiences.” (John Livingston Lowes)
“[The Bible] engenders a new elevated style, which does not scorn everyday life and which is ready to absorb the sensorily realistic, even the ugly, the undignified, the physically base.” (Erich Auerbach)
The Harmony of the Bible
Much of this course has been devoted to exploring the diversity of styles in the Bible, from the sprawling storytelling of biblical epics to the intense brevity of its proverbs. Now it is time for us to step back and look at what brings these many distinct voices into harmony.
One unifying stylistic quality of the Bible is its prevailing realism. By and large, the Bible is concerned with ordinary, flawed people. Everyday events — birth, marriage, work, death — are important. Even in the realm of poetry, biblical writers generally prefer concrete, natural images — rock, tree, stars — to grand abstractions.
We may also observe that throughout the Bible, simplicity is a stylistic hallmark. Everywhere we look, the writing is plain and unembellished. The vocabulary is relatively limited. Biblical writers prefer a few brief, but meaningful, words to an extended discourse.
Because so much of the Bible existed originally in oral form, oral speech patterns are common. It is a book where people talk — to each other, to God, to us. You will find more dialogue in the pages of the Bible than in any other book up until the modern novel.
At heart, the Bible is deeply elemental. It tends to deal with experiences that are true for all people, in all places, in all times. As we read the Bible, we move in a world of sun and rain, countryside and road, seedtime and harvest. Archetypes are the very “air” that we breathe as we read the Bible. This universality, no doubt, accounts for its influence throughout the centuries and across cultures.
Finally, the style of the Bible is an affective style. It moves us. It catches us up in the spirit of the events that are portrayed. The Bible confronts us, shakes us to view our lives and the world around us through the prism of its stories and poems. By virtue of its scope, its artistry, and its all-pervasive humanity, it is the story of humankind. It is, ultimately, our story.
Goodbye and Good Luck!
This course has been an introduction to the literary dimension of the Bible. We have looked at the Bible both as an anthology of diverse literary genres and also as a unified story with a singular voice. Among the “big ideas” that we have touched on, and that you may be inspired to explore further in other readings and courses, are:
- Literature as the voice of human experience
- Narrative and poetry as the two major genres of the Bible, rounded out by a host of minor literary genres
- The Bible as a literary, religious and historical book
- The Bible as a book of kaleidoscopic literary variety
Together we have covered a lot of ground, but given the enormity of the Bible, we’ve barely scratched the surface. I hope this course will be a beginning rather than an end to your study of literature. The tools that you have acquired can be applied to the Bible, to literature in general, and to reading of all kinds. Thanks for your participation, and I wish the best of luck to all of you.