The Bible and Literature

The Basics

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Norman W. Jones
  • Abingdon, UK: 
    , November
     180 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


With this short introduction, The Bible and Literature, Norman W. Jones has made a contribution to a field that should be of as much interest to religious scholars as to literary scholars and students. He introduces his readers to the reception history of the Bible, familiarizes them with core biblical myths, and helps them to better understand the many literary references to the biblical text. In addition, the book guides readers to a host of further resources on the topic. Most importantly, Jones seeks to explain why the Bible is relevant and “the single most influential book of Western civilization” (3).

In his cleverly titled introduction, “The Bible as Witness to the Power of Stories” (1-28), Jones refers to the story of David and Nathan (2 Samuel 12) as a way of thinking through the implications of narrative (4-10). He reflects on the properties of a literary text (its literariness, typology, hermeneutics, exegesis), distinguishes between the role of allusion and resonance, and concludes with a short “digression” into literary theory, broad cultural trends, and a survey of the book’s contents (21-28). In five well-written chapters, Jones surveys the Bible’s influence on a broad range of English, American, and other Anglophone literature from a variety of historical periods, offering a grand tour of the biblical myths that have most frequently inspired literary works.

He addresses the Bible’s relevance for contemporary issues in literary criticism, including poststructuralist, postcolonial, feminist, queer, and narrative theories, and he closes each chapter with a summary, discussion questions, and annotated suggestions for further reading. Whereas the discussion questions help to reinforce the chapter content, the suggestions for further reading introduce readers to the general field, including different genres, epochs, and critical traditions as well as important events such as the 400th anniversary of the Authorized Version of the King James Bible from 1611 (59). These suggestions invite one to read biblical passages and classical literary works influenced by the Bible, and to explore the outstanding scholarship in the field.

With clever segues for each chapter, for instance, that “the most important clue to the mystery of God is to be found in our relationships with other people” (60, in chapter 2, “Friends, Family, and Lovers: A Familiar God”), Jones creates a new perspective on the biblical text and its literary repercussions. On the whole, his account is convincing because it critically engages both the biblical presence in literature as well as the literary dimension of the biblical text itself. It also makes unmistakably clear why a basic knowledge of the Bible is essential to understanding key aspects of Anglophone and other literary traditions.

The third chapter, entitled “Crime and Punishment,” focuses on ethics—touching upon theodicy, apocalyptic writing, free will as an explanation for injustice, and two exemplary literary legacies of biblical ethics, namely, “radical love and the artistic imagination” and “monsters” (103-12). Chapter 4, “Unexpected Heroes and Miraculous Recreations,” focuses on biblical stories on redemption and renewal. The fifth and final chapter, “The Words and Their Afterlives,” introduces readers to the history of the Bible in English by paying special attention to Psalms and its literary legacies in free verse, concrete imagery, and haunted voices, for instance, in Tony Morrison’s Beloved (154-55).

Overall, for such a short book it is impressive how much literary terrain it covers. Its material ranges from Chaucer and Shakespeare to post-secularism, and it addresses authors such as Virginia Woolf, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy, and David Foster Wallace along with critics such as Mikhail Bakhtin, Amy Hungerford, and John A. McClure (160-61).

Jones is to be commended for making so many resources available in such a little book. Readers new to the field can benefit from references to websites such as Bible Gateway and Bible Hub (165), to journals such as Christianity and Literature and Religion and Theology (166) and to the many well-chosen secondary sources. These journals (along with Literature and Theology and Religion and Literature), some of which have been founded only recently, are evidence of the continued relevance and growth of the field. The only quibble worth raising here is that the index could have been improved with a commented survey of biblical passages for further reading.

Generally, this book is geared especially to readers with little prior knowledge of the Bible. As such, it should be mandatory reading for any student of literature who is not well versed in theology or the history of Christianity. Of course there are many introductions into the field, including an undergraduate textbook with the same title (Carol Dempsey and Elizabeth Michael Boyle, The Bible and Literature, Orbis, 2015), which Jones refers to in his list of additional secondary sources (167). Yet Dempsey and Boyle’s approach is less accessible and more focused on exemplary biblical passages than on providing the kind of sweeping overview Jones has attempted. In fact, both books in combination may offer a solid grounding in the fascinating relation of the Bible and literature, a field of enormous cultural importance.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Philipp Reisner is Visiting Lecturer in American studies at Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf and Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz, Germany.

Date of Review: 
October 11, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Norman W. Jones is Associate Professor of English at Ohio State University. He has published numerous essays and books about the interplay of religion and literature. His work has appeared in top journals such as American LiteratureChristianity and LiteratureModern Fiction Studies, and Studies in American Fiction.


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