Critical Critiques: How Literary Analysis Changes Lives

Open Bible - photo by jypsygen on Flickr

Julia M. O’Brien is Professor of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament at Lancaster Theological Seminary in Lancaster, PA.  She is the author of Challenging Prophetic Metaphor:  Theology and Ideology in the Prophets and several commentaries on the prophetic books.  This entry is adapted from her on-line project, Reading the Bible as an Adult, a guide for book clubs, Bible studies, and anyone else who wants to read the Bible like a grown-up, found at her website:


Great writing can guide souls.  Many voices over the centuries have advocated the ennobling power of the well-told tale.


Theirs is a soapbox on which I can stand. Having taught Bible to undergraduates and now to seminary students, I’m convinced that teaching students to read Bible as literature helps it become more, not less, relevant to their lives. 


Reading the Bible purely as an instruction book gets in the way of the reading process. While of course the Bible does offer some explicit rules, most of it, especially the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, is narrative and poetry. Reading a story or a poem only for its moral bottom-line not only leads to odd doctrine but also but makes readers to miss what stories and poems do best:  incite the imagination and let people lose (and find) themselves within the worlds they create.


And yet, I’m equally convinced that the critique of great literature can change lives.  I can affirm that multicultural interpretation and ideology criticism also touch people’s deepest concerns.


David Clemens, author of “Great Books 2.0” sharply contrasts a curriculum focused on “fine literature” with “militant multicultural and squash-you-all-flat postmodernism.” He defines his mission as “to save students who want to study only pop culture from teachers who want to teach only pop culture and administrators who want only packed classes.” 


In his moral universe, the choices are stark:  either lift students up to the mountaintop of meaning by nourishing them on the great Western classics or throw them into murky, meaningless swamp of postmodernism.  Suddenly, I hear echoes of Harold Bloom’s 1994 manifesto The Western Canon and Frank Lentricchia’s announcement several years ago that he was tired of theory and just wanted to read literature.


I’ve witnessed too much to the contrary to believe Clemens, and I can tell stories that challenge his own. 


Take Lyn, for example, whose story I tell in a longer version in my book Challenging Prophetic Metaphor. Lyn, a mid-career seminarian, struggled mightily in class with the story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22 and even more mightily with Carol Delaney’s challenge of the text’s ideology in Abraham on Trial

Lyn kept finding ways to make this text more palatable-insisting that Abraham must have known God wouldn’t really make him kill his son or that perhaps a key element of the story had been lost in transmission.  She could not stomach Delaney’s claim that the biblical text reflects understandings of fatherhood that are dangerous and worthy of resistance. 


But years after her graduation, Lyn emailed to tell me how struggling with our challenge of this text (along with counseling) had helped her re-evaluate her relationship with her children, as well as to weep for all the choices that people believe they have to make.


There’s Pat, who came to seminary after working as a counselor with abused women.  The most engaged Pat ever got with Old Testament study was when we read feminist scholars tracing patterns of domestic violence in Hosea 1-3.  We worked carefully through Hosea but we also read Renita Weems, took a spin on the power and control wheel used in domestic violence education, and compared it all with our textbook.


Pat and the class came alive.  Discussion turned not only animated but personal in ways that don’t happen enough in a classroom.  Those who had experienced the kind of abuse narrated in Hosea felt they had been given permission and language for resisting not only this text but their own victimization. With Weems’ arm around their shoulders, Pat and others in the class stepped up and taught their peers, not only about domestic terrorism (which is what Pat calls it) but also about the logic that holds Hosea 1-3 together.   Pat even came back to teach a class session on Hosea two years later.


The stories could go on:  students whose thinking and lives have been changed by reading Palestinian responses to Joshua’s land conquest; by encountering queer readings of Leviticus; by learning that the portrait of David in the book of Samuel may include a lot of spin; by seeing the dynamics of ethnicity in texts and their interpreters.


Transformation doesn’t only happen when students consent to what they read.  It also happens when they push against what they read.  The transformations are most profound when students have vocabulary and analytical skills for critique than help them go beyond “thumbs up” or “thumbs down.”


Literature matters.  That’s why it deserves a good conversation rather than simple assent.


View O’Brien’s original essay on her blog.


8 thoughts on “Critical Critiques: How Literary Analysis Changes Lives

  1. Thanks Julia: Yes, it’s as if a good story is filled with voices that we then respond to. We add our voices to the voices of the stories in an ongoing and expansive conversation. In this context, take a look (when you have time) at Bert Stern’s poem “Midrash: Abraham” in his new book called Steerage.
    “…his knife raised and the
    cascading weight of everything
    crashing down, to leave him
    broken there, complete and alone,
    bent by perfection.”

  2. Julia, your post reminds us that stories beget stories. If we carefully read, discuss, and analyze stories, they make us think in new ways–give us new vision–to write and rewrite our own stories: All part of Bob (and others) keeps insisting is “the power of stories.” Reading Lolita in Tehran dramatizes beautifully to what you argue.

  3. Thanks for the plug, Bob. For those who would prefer not to send me $17.50 for the book, here’s the poem Bob refers to:


    Midrash: Abraham

    While the boy stands by, restless,
    sifting his eyes this way and that
    over the barren rock, the old man
    swings his ax, murmuring to himself
    God’s promises. His part? Only walk
    before me and be perfect. Now
    perfection rests in killing the boy,
    hilarious surprise of Sarai’s old age
    and his own.
    The air on fire before the fire is lit,
    Abraham trembles and chokes, but
    swings his ax, again, again, against
    the dead pine branch. When he’s
    done, he gathers the scattered logs,
    stacks them in the boy’s outstretched
    arms, grasps his knife and a burning
    brand, and they climb.
    Halfway up the goat path the boy
    wonders and asks: the fire we have
    and the wood, and the bright knife
    in your hand, but where is the lamb
    for this offering? Even after the old
    man ties him to a tree and places
    the logs around, even as he raises
    his arm to plunge the knife into
    the boy’s breast, the absurdity of
    this is impossible. How could God
    want it, yet He bends the old man’s
    head to stony necessity.
    And though the angel comes now,
    in the flash of the blade coming down,
    and the ram comes, horns caught
    in a thicket, it is too late already.
    In his heart, Abraham has killed
    his only son, and though later
    he is fruitful and multiplies,
    and knows great mercy and
    loving kindness, he walks bent
    by the blow God smote him with
    under stark skies, on a mountain
    altar, his knife raised and the
    cascading weight of everything
    crashing down, to leave him
    broken there, complete and alone,
    bent by perfection.

  4. Hello Julia,

    I am discovering the benefits of reading the Bible as literature through the process of literary crtique. It seems to be very interesting.

    Cam you suggest an author who clearly explains the procedure?

    I enjoyed reading your article, thanks for the added confidence


  5. Vincent,

    What I’m doing is both literary criticism and also what’s sometimes called transactional or psychological analysis (along with feminist and other approaches).

    here are some books on the literary aspects:
    Yairah Amit, Reading Biblical Narratives (Fortress, 2001)
    Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (Basic, 1983)


  6. Thanks, Bob, for the poem.

    I’ll add it to my huge file of Abraham-Isaac poems and art.
    Some of my favorites are
    * Eleanor Wilner, “Sarah’s Choice”
    *the 12th c poem by Ephraim of Bonn included in Shalom Spiegel’s _The Last Trial_
    * poems that set the story in the context of the Israeli army (I’ll have to find those)
    * Caravaggio’s “Sacrifice of Isaac”
    * George Segal’s sculptures in honor of Kent State


  7. Pingback: The Sacrifice of Isaac in Visual Art and Poetry | Julia M. O'Brien

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