Five works that changed how I read the Bible

Since no one over here at BBB is likely to get tagged by the theologically oriented Bible bloggers on the meme of books that influence how we read the Bible, I’m going to jump in on my own.

With some justification, literature types view us linguists as mere word-mechanics. We’re excited by the details of language: inflections, word order, and unexpected things like the fact that pronouns – which are inherently definite —can have indefinite readings under particular circumstances.

“They never tell you these things are important.”

(indefinite they OK, indefinite you OK)

The English majors yawn. Well, duh … of course that’s what it means.

And some linguists (like me) read phone books and dictionaries, because the names and the words were interesting. But in high school I sat in confused silence through three years of English, not really understanding what all the fuss was about. Hamlet and The Red Badge of Courage made no sense. At the same time I thrived in the first two years of Latin. It was mostly about grammar. But I found the third year less interesting and the fourth year went seriously downhill when we started reading the bigger, longer stuff.

In college I took German until we got to the third year and started reading literature. It was bad enough that so much was about war, which I didn’t relate to at all, but when the professor went on for an entire lecture about why Bärlach’s overcoat had to be gray (Der Richter und Sein Henker), I fled in horror. (The irony is that I still enjoy reading Krimis.)

I started French, but before I got to literature my undergrad career was mercifully over.

For me the light didn’t go on until one day scanning through an Ojibwe text in hopes of serendipitously turning up a rare verb form, it dawned on me that the story in the text was really interesting in its own right.

Because I came to literature so late and with a heightened linguistic consciousness, the works that most deeply affect how I read the Bible are the same ones that shape how I read literature in general. They are as much about how language means as about what it means. And they are as much about seeing the assumptions implicit in the text as about seeing the deeper implications of the text.

J. L Austin, How to Do Things with Words. This was the start of our understanding of speech acts. Austin showed us how language has communicative dimensions beyond being true or false and that there are layers of communication beyond simple reference.

Paul Grice’s lectures on conversational implicature. Grice took Austin’s work to the next level, talking about how people choose what they will say in particular communicative situations.

These lectures were delivered at Harvard in 1967, but were never published in full. The notes made their way around linguistic circles the way those things did in the 60’s and 70’s. The best basic summary can be found in Levinson’s Pragmatics (pg 100ff).

C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image. Although this work is focused on understanding medieval literature, it opens up a world of understanding about how to read texts that are distant from us, separated by time or culture – even those which at first blush seem not to be so remote. It’s where I learned that you can misread a text and not know it.

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By. This will open your eyes to see that metaphors are not just a matter of eloquence, but it goes to the heart of how people reason. It’s not an accident that Jesus teaches in metaphors. (OK, so we call them parables.)

Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind. If you want to learn about second order thinking, there is no better source. Much of the biology and psychology is outdated. Brilliant but outdated, so focus on the Metalogues.

If we were allowed more, I’d include books that tackle mythological issues from an anthropological perspective. Erich Auerbach, Mimesis and Sir James Frazer, The Golden Bough. But then I don’t find such analyses threatening to my basic evangelical beliefs as many do.

7 thoughts on “Five works that changed how I read the Bible

  1. Mike Aubrey says:

    Since no one over here at BBB is likely to get tagged by the theologically oriented Bible bloggers on the meme of books that influence how we read the Bible, I’m going to jump in on my own.

    I resent that.


  2. David Ker says:

    As an English major and a backdoor linguist I think this is a great list. And even approaching language as stories first and a system of communication second, I still share your loathing of literary reading of great works of literature. Give me a good ripping read any day over a classic work of “literature.” (I love Oliver Twist and hate Tale of Two Cities). As I mentioned in my response to this meme, I had a similar a-ha moment to yours in studying Nyungwe folktales that gave me a new appreciation for the antiheroes of Genesis and God’s gracious covenant with rascally humanity.

  3. Craig Blomberg says:

    A fascinating question. What would my five be? Hmm. 1) I. H. Marshall, Luke: Historian and Theologian, because he confirmed for me as an undergrad that the Gospel writers could be both things, despite what all my liberal profs claimed, and he would later become my doctoral supervisor. 2) D. A. Carson, Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility, because it came out while he was my advisor at TEDS and traced throughout the Bible texts that affirmed both simultaneously, convincing me of “both-and” here and in numerous other places. 3) G. R. Osborner, The Hermeneutical Spiral, when it was just a detailed set of photocopied notes in hermeneutics class at TEDS. 4) K. Bailey, Poet and Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes, on the parables, since I did theses at both Masters and Ph.D. level on them and his approach was so enlightening and refreshing. 5) S. Porter, Verbal Aspect in the Greek of the New Testament, because it introduced me, in glorious detail, to that “aspect” of Greek tense that I hadn’t previously learned.

  4. Sue says:


    I think Kenneth Bailey’s book has been mentioned on 4 or 5 blogs so far. Its a great book. I read Finding the Lost first.

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