Reading good fiction will help you understand the Bible

Today was the first day of class at Southern, and I’m taking a class called “The Messiah In the Hebrew Scriptures” with one of my favorite professors: Dr. James Hamilton. He blogs over at For His Renown, and has a couple books recently published which are really excellent.

During the lecture today, Dr. Hamilton said something which reinforced a passionate belief of mine. That belief is the title of the blog: reading good fiction will help you understand the Bible better, and will help you preach/teach the Bible more skillfully and winsomely. What prompted my thoughts on this (again) was when he said something along the lines of, “There are some people who believe that the serpent in the Genesis story of the fall is just that – a snake, as if that’s ALL there is to it. Sure, there really was a snake, but there is also a symbolic importance to the snake being there, doing what it did. It’s not just a story about a serpent.”

Symbolism is heavily used in the narrative of Scripture, and those who cannot deal with or understand it miss out on so much! If one cannot understand the symbolism of the serpent, and the subsequent curse on him from God, one will miss a vast theme running throughout the entire Bible – that the seed of the woman will crush the seed of the serpent. Learning how to recognize, interpret, and use symbolism is a vital skill in biblical interpretation, because the Bible is laden with symbols: Jesus as the paschal Lamb, Jesus as the Lion of Judah, Jesus offering living water to quench eternal thirst, Jesus the Bread Life…the list could go on and on.

And to re-iterate a third time: reading good fiction will help equip us to more capably deal with symbolism in general, and biblical symbolism in particular. How? Well, good authors use imagery and symbolism to weave together a story with multiple layers; a story in which the various ropes holding the narrative together are composed of multiple threads which each have meaning. Good fiction pushes us to cope with (and rejoice in!) many-dimensional language.

An example:

What came to mind as Dr. Hamilton was discussing the symbolic importance of the serpent, as it embodies evil and rebellion against God, was the epicenter of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy: Sauron’s great ring of power, forged in the heat of Mount Doom, created to bring all the other ring-bearers under the dominion of his will.

“One ring to rule them all; one ring to find them. One ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them!”

The entire plot of the book is built around the ring after it is found, passed down, and then is sent with 9 companions on a quest to destroy it. The ring comes to symbolize (among much else) the terrible threat of limitless evil in Sauron, but also comes to symbolize the great hopes of those on the side of good as they seek to destroy it, since by doing so they will finally and fully destory Sauron, whose life force and malice are tied to the ring.

Saying that the story of the serpent is the garden is nothing more than a story about a snake slithering through a garden is like saying that Sauron’s ring is nothing but a round piece of metal. To do so is to almost totally miss the point of the story! Yes, there was a snake in the garden, but there is MORE meaning in the story. Yes, Sauron’s ring was a round piece of metal, but it was FAR more than that. To miss this means to misunderstand the story.

So again, reading and interacting with good fiction – as the authors build layers of meaning in symbolism and imagery – will help you understand the Bible – in which the authors do the same thing. Pick up some good extra-biblical writing and learn to read it well. Preachers especially – start reading fiction, study imagery and symbolism, and USE that to preach better. It wouldn’t hurt to read some poetry either! The ability to take lumpy words and turn a smooth, shiny, beautiful phrase will serve you and your flock well.

For the sake of your soul as you feed it with the rich and many-layered story of God, read some good fiction!

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