A Theology of Literature

The Bible as Revelation in the Tradition of the Humanities

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William Franke
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Cascade Books
    , July
     2017.
     112 pages.
     $17.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781532611025.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The genre of William Franke’s A Theology of Literature, a study itself deeply interested in genre, is that of a manifesto. Franke is the author of several monographs that turn around questions of “the theology of literature” (3)—explorations of prophecy, revelation, and apocalypse in sacred and secular texts. Here he sets out to describe in nuce and for a broader audience his argument that poetics and theology work along the same axis. The indeterminate nature of language, which poetry takes as foundation, opens infinite possibilities of interpretation, and this quality, Franke argues, aligns seamlessly with the revelatory technique he finds in the Bible. “A certain sense of divinity can be found reflected already simply in the language that humans use to express the deepest roots of their existence and consciousness” (79), he writes. The Bible, through a series of genres—myth, history, prophecy, apocalypse, liturgy, and gospel—creates a framework for ongoing revelation to every new reader by eschewing attempts to establish definitive truth and embracing instead a theological/poetic technique, employing the multiple, elastic signification we recognize from literary texts. Readers perform acts of cultural translation that open up the most fully prophetic and revelatory nature of the Bible, Franke argues, and this nature is built into the very texture of the book.

This manifesto is brief, fewer than a hundred pages. As a result, it does not provide answers to questions one could justly ask of a longer study. For instance, because Franke believes scripture works through an ongoing act of revelatory translation, he gives a great deal of authority to tradition. If centuries of commentators have discerned an allegory in the eroticism of the Song of Songs, if pietistic readings of Ecclesiastes and Job have long justified their inclusion in the canon, then Franke considers his approach of poetical theology justified. But certain readings are thus excluded from the tradition, including those that would use textual analysis to question traditional allegories and exegesis, readings which include a strong humanistic element: ironically, the very thing Franke is attempting to assimilate to his approach. A kind of poststructural relativism protects him from worrying the truth claims of scholarly work that examines original context and intent. There is, of course, a now well-established tradition within literary criticism itself, one that focuses on reader-response and the horizons of interpretation, that justifies Franke’s approach. My point here is only that in this brief treatment, a reader new to biblical and literary criticism might not understand the force of Franke’s intervention.

Franke’s declared audience is, in fact, “more diversified … including confessional readerships beyond the walls of the academy” (ix). His manifesto, therefore, has the welcome goal of introducing to such an audience a more critical way of approaching the Bible that is still ultimately affirming of faith, allowing for a refreshed practice that connects the “confessional reader” both to the tradition and to his or her own evolving culture. In that regard, the book does not always succeed in escaping scholarly habits of language, as when Franke writes, “Language is not merely an adventitious, extra something supervening upon a world fully determined in its ontological constitution already before and without respect to the advent of language” (24). But such lapses are not the norm, and in general the book is clearly written and set out, returning often to its major themes and tying together its explorations of the different generic strands of biblical literature. Franke also manages, despite the brevity of his book, to point readers to other important scholars in the field and to provide a primer on biblical scholarly approaches. All said, this is quite an accomplishment.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kevin Dunn is Vice Provost and Associate Professor of English at Tufts University.

Date of Review: 
September 22, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

William Franke is a philosopher of the humanities and a professor of comparative literature at Vanderbilt University. He has also been Professor of Philosophy at the University of Macao (2013–2016); Fulbright-University of Salzburg Distinguished Chair in Intercultural Theology and the Study of Religion; and an Alexander von Humboldt-Stiftung research fellow. His single-authored books have been published by the university presses of Chicago, Stanford, Notre Dame, Northwestern, Ohio State, and the State University of New York.

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