Reading The Art of Biblical Narrative: how story shapes Scripture

Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative has been sitting on my shelf of to-be-reads most of the year. As people who follow Jesus, we inherited God’s story. It’s not a dissertation, an instruction manual, a bulleted list of doctrine. When we open its pages, we step into a story that came from a culture radically different than our own with different styles of storytelling. Saying that Scripture is story doesn’t mean that it’s not true; it means we need to read it the correct way. Alter is here to help us learn to read the narrative that we find in Scripture.

The Art of Biblical Narrative is a meaty read. I saved it on purpose for a break from seminary classes because I don’t work through this type of material on top of coursework. My brain needs a break. (Here’s what I’m reading for a “break” now so take that for what it’s worth.) But I picked it up between summer and fall classes and quickly realized, however uncomfortable I occasionally felt with some of Alter’s assumptions, this book will change how I read Scripture.

What I read this summer: June-August

Moving is exhausting. Everyone who has moved is nodding, but since we had lived in Kentucky for 17 years, including college, I was not prepared for boxing everything up, sleeping on air mattresses, untangling the mess of dates and closing and paperwork, and then moving into a completely new place with our belongings still in boxes. Cognitively I understood what it meant, but emotionally, it took much more than I expected. I promise I have a much greater level of sympathy if anyone says they have to move. Even if the move is anticipated and not dreaded, you are welcome to cry on my shoulder and I’ll make scones for consolation and nourishment.

I might not have updated the blog with summer reading, but I did still write it all down. If you’re questioning whether or not moving is exhausting (did I mention that moving is exhausting?), please note that I only read three books in July and one of them was for my summer seminary class.

What I Read in May

In May, I read half the number of books I’ve read every other month this year. I also waded through the depths of my second quarter of Greek in seminary, spent at least half the day outside with the boys, bought a house in a different state, and sold our home here. I don’t set numerical reading goals and this is precisely the reason. Different times in life (or just the year) make different demands on my time. I refuse to feel behind over something I made up, like a reading goal. (You can also note that the last post here was what I read in April.)

May Reads

What I Read in April + stretching my reading muscles

A few months ago, I admitted to a friend that when I read N.T. Wright’s academic work, I’m only absorbing a small portion of it. It stretches my mind. It’s work that I can reread in a few years and there will be so much untouched, it will be like new. I read this type of work because it’s how I grow. Toni Morrison’s work referenced below is also like this. I’m skimming the surface and not mining the depths, but it’s enough for now. I’m gaining the nourishment I need to put down deeper reading roots.

It’s the same for my second-grader. He regularly reads sentences and paragraphs that are slightly beyond his competency. They make him uncomfortable. He’s a little afraid he can’t do it. But, with help, he does and his reading ability grows. If either of us stays inside our comfort zone, we don’t increase our capacities.

What I Read in March + starting to read well

Two weeks ago, I did a shorter Instagram live where I talked about reading with discernment. How do we read an author we respect and disagree with some of what they say? How do we read people who have differing world views and come away with knowledge we need? I talked about those things in this video, but I’m always left considering the conversation later and I have two thoughts to add.

First, I take my questions about the faith to orthodox believers. They might not be in the same denomination or the same church circles, but I go to faithful believers who profess Jesus with my doubts and my questions. It might take a few tries to find some that are ok with doubts and questions, but I’ll stick around while I’m searching. Then I read deconstructionists to understand what they are experiencing and believe. To be honest, I think most of us have done some sort of deconstructing, even if we haven’t called it that; but there’s a different type who, after they tore apart their faith, never built anything back. Personally, I don’t look to them to answers.

Second, I also think it’s imperative that we have these conversations and that we equip people to deal with questions. For one thing, we can stop living in fear of everyone else if we are no longer scared of their ideas. For another, we cannot truly hide out from these ideas without living a cramped life. We send our college students off to school moaning about how they fall away from the faith, but did we teach them to dig in? To ask questions? To be unafraid of other people’s questions? Did we teach them to evaluate ideas and statement in light of the Bible? To wait in the tension of not knowing an answer? We cannot short-circuit this process and yet we often skip it entirely.

What I Read in February + how I evaluate stories

Over the years, my metric for good fiction has changed. I jumped into the Christian fiction realm as a young teenager, read excessively and honestly, found it lacking more and more as I got older. Since my goal here isn’t to critique (some forms of) Christian fiction, I’m going to leave it at that. What I want now is a story that accurately portrays humanity with all the beauty and flaws that come with being human. I don’t want performative sin in an imaginative world where consequences aren’t real. I also don’t want to see evil glorified, that’s a different narrative altogether. But neither am I looking for a pretend world that shows no parallel to reality. Even stories that at first glance seem far removed from our everyday lives such as fantasy or dystopian fiction only work when they reveal the world that we thought we knew.

Some of these stories might have themes that are outside of a kingdom ethic. We will all encounter people whose stories fall outside of kingdom ethics. All of our stories fall outside a kingdom ethic in places. Reading fiction can help prepare us for these encounters around our dinner tables. We need to wrestle with concepts in embodied life and not just academic theories. If this person, from this book, were drinking coffee in my living room, how would I respond to the story?

Of course everyone has different limits. The stories you can read/watch/listen to will be limited by your experiences, past trauma, your age and maturity, personal temptations, and so many other things. I cannot prescribe those limits to you and I have no desire to do that. This is just a potential opportunity to reframe the point of stories.

What I Read (or finished reading) in January

Mary Oliver wrote this lovely poem that I discovered in December.

Wherever I’ve lived my room and soon
the entire house is filled with books;
poems, stories, histories, prayers of
all kinds stand up gracefully or are
heaped on shelves, on the floor, on
the bed. Strangers old and new offering
their words bountifully and thoughtfully,
lifting my heart.

But, wait! I’ve made a mistake! how
could these makers of so many books
that have given so much to my life–
how could they possibly be strangers?

I’m going to have it printed and framed just like the poem in our bathroom (which is “The Genius” by Billy Collins, in case you were wondering). I love to read and I love books on shelves; we just added some more shelves in our home. I don’t aim for a certain number of books every year and I don’t force myself to finish books that I don’t like, but I do read intentionally and I keep a record. For the past few years, I’ve kept my reads in an Instagram highlight and I’m still doing that this year. But I’m also recording them in the back of my planner (a Get to Work book– this is the sixth year I’ve used one and I love it) and I’m going to catalogue them here every month.

When 2020 ended, I looked over the years’ books and decided I wanted to sprinkle in some variety. But I don’t make a reading list for the year; I read what I feel like reading. In order to navigate this tension, I decided that every month, I would aim for some poetry, fiction, and/or essays along with my nonfiction. In an effort to relieve my stress about deciding on fiction (and since we still aren’t hanging out at the library) I splurged on a subscription at The Bookshelf  and will get a new fiction book every month, picked out by Annie Jones. Yes, it’s a treat and it will be a delight.