I remember engaging in several angsty conversations as a teenager when a local school proposed a class called The Bible as Literature (or something like that). There was a prevailing sense of discomfort among the Christians I knew about what we’d be doing to the Bible if we approached it as we would a work of literature in our English classes. The text would somehow be made less holy. We would engage in an act of irreverence. We would lower the status of the holy Word by equating it with explicitly human creations. Something like that. It was a big deal at the time.
We missed something crucial as we sorted through those concerns. We missed our subtle implication that if we dug too deeply into the text of the Bible, it wouldn’t hold up. That its authority would evaporate. That its beauty would be found lacking when put alongside literary masterworks.
That it’s author, perhaps, knew what he was doing when he chose to reveal himself in this way.
This column is born out of the belief that, contrary to whatever we might have been afraid of in my hometown all those years ago, the Bible rewards the sort of analysis we use to unpack other narrative texts.
I’m now an English professor. Each time I teach my World Literature class, I ask the students to consider the shared human dynamics of stories and poems and essays and plays written in all corners of the world and all times in history. I do this because I believe that God has wired us to respond to certain rhetorical techniques, certain storytelling devices and inclinations, certain delicately-structured moments of human tension. This divine wiring, in my view, allows us to empathize with Homer’s and Shakespeare’s flawed characters, with the speakers in Tang Dynasty poetry, with those who challenge tribal customs in Nigerian village narratives, with the heroes and heroines of Victorian sensation fiction, with those South American characters whose everyday lives are blended with magic, with postmodern fiction’s playful meta-narrators, and yes, with the characters in the Bible.
Can we call them characters without somehow undermining their historical reality?
Yes. They are agents who move through stories; they have discernable characteristics, desires, motivations.
Can we call them stories and still remember their truth?
I think we can. We share our true stories through a narrative act; we consider audience and pacing and structure and the order of events to convey our truths most effectively. We do this every day.
Might God have considered those same dynamics as he revealed himself to his people?
This is how people tell and receive stories. Why wouldn’t he have spoken in the narrative structures we already employ? Or better, the narrative structures we learned from him?
With these thoughts in mind, this column will consider the narrative techniques at play in familiar Bible stories. I hope to learn to read these stories through fresh eyes by taking their genre seriously and reading them as they were intended to be heard – as stories. I am eager to see if such an examination will bring added depth to our understanding of these stories and the lessons they have been used to illustrate.
I come to this project with a background both in literary scholarship and creative writing; both of those fields will influence this column. But my goal here is not scholarly analysis, nor will I focus too much on writing theory. Instead, I come to these stories as a fellow reader. I’m interested in looking a little more deeply into these stories so that we might better perceive the mind of the author. And I invite you to this discussion. I’ll tell you what I see. Feel free to respond and share what you see. Let’s meet within these texts, as we might meet within a novel or poem, to make meaning together. In doing so, I pray that we might come to know ourselves and each other and our God more fully.
Picture this: it’s the Feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem. The city hums with visitors, seekers. They stay in makeshift hovels and lean-tos clustered everywhere. The city is alive.
Jesus is there. John 8 opens with a picture of Jesus sitting – this physical position is important – in the temple grounds, teaching. I see him in a chair. You might see him on the steps (though he needs to be able to reach the dirt later), or sitting on the ground, as you prefer. I don’t see too much theological bearing on where’s he’s sitting. For me, he’s in a chair.
And soon the Pharisees and church leaders arrive. They bring with them a woman “caught in adultery” (verse 3, NIV). And now we have the elements of a story: setting, characters, conflict. Off we go.
I ask my first-year creative writing students to consider two particular narrative facets as they draft their stories: early tension and a meaningful setting. I ask my more advanced students also to consider what we call “blank space,” those left-unsaid details that allow a reader to join the story, to plug in and participate. We see all three of these facets at play in this brief exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees.
The first two appear as we consider the position of the church leaders and the Pharisees. The introduction of tension is immediate: John tells us they bring forward this woman in order to set a “trap” for Jesus (verse 5), and indeed, they seem to have him cornered. They claim that the woman was “caught in adultery,” presumably in the act itself. The evidence is solid; there would have been several witnesses, as required by Judaic law, and here’s the woman herself. In my mind her clothes are disheveled; they’ve stood her before the group to illustrate her shame. You can almost imagine the giddiness the Pharisees felt in catching this woman in such a damnable position.
Let’s pause the action to be clear about two things. First, this is a serious offense. It isn’t one of those minor technical infractions that seem to fill Leviticus, the tithing of spices or whatever. This is adultery, one of the Ten big ones.
And second, the accusers, in this case, are no spiritual lightweights. Christ is the fulfillment of the Law, but it’s not too much to suggest that the Pharisees were the embodiment of the Law. They knew the Law of Moses (which they cite in verse 5) more deeply and precisely than anyone; they had dedicated their lives to its study and application. Jesus himself uses the Pharisees as an example of how far legal living can take you towards righteousness: “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). He doesn’t say this because the Pharisees are bad, but rather the opposite. They are the very standard of (severe) virtue. They are on the path of earned righteousness, and even though it’s a dead end, they are as far down that path as anyone could get before the Advent of Christ.
The Pharisees hold the correct position.
Thus the case brought before Jesus is rock solid and prosecuted by the spiritual all-stars of the time. The Pharisees hold the correct position. Hear that: they are precisely and perfectly right according to the Law, and they know it. Which is why the setting here is crucial: we’re in the temple grounds, crowded with pilgrims in the city for the Feast of Tabernacles. This is a public accusation in a holy spot at a holy time.
You can see the confidence, perhaps the eagerness with which the accusers stand before Jesus. This could be their crowning moment: either Jesus will follow Scriptural mandates and condemn this woman (which they seem to know he won’t do), or he’ll show mercy to this woman and thus, here in front of all these spiritual seekers, break the Law. They have him. It’s one or the other.
But now the story takes a turn, as every good story does. Rather than rising to confront the Pharisees on their own terms, Jesus, already seated, instead bends down and starts to write on the ground with his finger (verse 6). That is, he lowers himself even further and starts scratching in the dirt.
Let’s pause again. There are several blank spaces in this text. John does not reveal the identity of the woman or the names of the church leaders and Pharisees, omissions that render those people as flat characters ready, perhaps, to be inhabited by readers. John never discusses the size and make-up of the crowd, either, asking us instead to fill in that space with our imaginations. These are places of invitation, points of access through which we might each place ourselves in the story.
But for me, Jesus scratching in the dirt provides one of the most poignant blank spaces in all of the Gospel stories. Jesus touches the earth, an intimate act. But what does he write? And why?
You might imagine that he writes the names and sins of the accusers. You might read His gesture as dismissive, a bit of doodling in the dirt to pass a tedious time as though to undermine the church leaders’ self-importance. John leaves this space blank, inviting us to speculate, to peer over Jesus’s shoulder to see.
I like to think he writes in the dirt the scriptural references the Pharisees could use to make their case. For his next statement to have any sort of spiritual credibility, Jesus needs to show the accusers that he knows the Law as well as they do. It would be disingenuous, even evasive for him to defy the Law’s either-or mandate if he’s ignorant of the Law itself. So, again in my reading, he scratches down the scriptures in question and then says his famous line: “Let any of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (verse 7). This is the spiritual and narrative climax of the story, both credible and convicting. Then he writes a little more, waiting for them the convicted church leaders to disperse. And you know the rest.
I was invited to write this column at about the same time as the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood issued their “Nashville Statement,” which seemed to me at the time to be an egregious example of church-leader stone-throwing, and still does. In the days that followed the release of that statement, several friends and churchy people I follow defended the Statement, generally on the grounds that it was spiritually correct. We’ve got the Bible on our side, they said. It’s right there in black and white.
I was particularly bothered by Article X of the Statement: “We affirm that it is sinful to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism and that such approval constitutes an essential departure from Christian faithfulness and witness. We deny that the approval of homosexual immorality or transgenderism is a matter of moral indifference about which otherwise faithful Christians should agree to disagree.”
My concern here hinges on the word “approve.” I don’t know quite what that means or what it looks like. The Pharisees were often critical of Jesus because of the people he seemed to “approve” – the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the lepers, and yes, the woman caught in adultery. He was kind and loving to them; he ate dinner with them, visited their houses, touched them, healed them. To the woman caught in adultery, he says, “Then neither do I condemn you” (John 8:11). The Pharisees might make the case here that Jesus “approves” adultery in regard to this woman by refusing to condemn her. Yet it would be hard to see in Jesus’s actions an “essential departure from Christian faithfulness and witness,” wouldn’t it?
The Statement seems to suggest that if I’m a faithful Christian, I must express disapproval to those who identify as homosexual or transgender and that if I don’t express that disapproval, then I’m no longer in the faith. That position, to me, feels antithetical to the Gospel. And worse: it feels like these Christian leaders have positioned themselves as holy gatekeepers, just as the Pharisees did.
So when my friends at Off the Page invited me to examine storytelling in the Bible, I knew this story of the woman caught in adultery would be the first I’d explore. The Pharisees had letter-of-the-law scripture on their side, just at the CBMW would claim to have. But in their defense, the Pharisees had never known the grace of Christ, had never truly seen it deployed. Our present-day church leaders should know better, I argued. They should be more gracious and welcoming. They at least have John 8 to guide them.
But please catch this: As I wrote this column, and as I continued to bristle about the injustice the CBMW had committed, I found myself moving farther and farther away from the peace I feel when I know the Spirit is near. I was experiencing an angsty, and yes self-righteous, sort of pain.
I’m finding now, as I reach the end of this column, that I had put myself in the wrong role in the John 8 story.
I am tempted to place myself in Jesus’s chair. That’s the message of the story, isn’t it, that Jesus showed mercy and grace beyond what those mean old Pharisees could muster. But his chair is the one and only spot in the story occupied by a round character. All other spots are blanks, but not that one.
My position on the Nashville Statement hasn’t changed; if anything, I’m more against the spirit of it than I was. And what I’d really like to do is sit in Jesus’ chair, but then throw rocks, which isn’t how it works. I’m reminded now that Jesus’s chair in the temple grounds is not mine to occupy.
And what I’d really like to do is sit in Jesus’ chair, but then throw rocks, which isn’t how it works.
I believe it’s appropriate to offer loving, sometimes corrective counsel to representatives of the Christian faith when they seem to veer away from the spirit and message of the Gospel, when their words fail to carry the aroma of Christ, but that’s not what I was doing in my heart as I railed (quietly) against the Statement. I was staring at the Pharisees, digging through the hardpan to find rocks to throw. The pain I felt emanated from my scraped, dirty fingers.
I need to read John 8 again and remember that at times I’m the woman standing in need of grace, and at times, sadly, I’m one of the Pharisees ready to throw stuff. But at my peaceful best I’m to be one of the seekers. I’m to imagine my own face in that crowd of pilgrims watching Jesus, absorbing his teaching, witnessing his mercy and his gentle defiance of either-or legalism. That is the blank spot this story invites me to occupy, not the already-filled chair. I pray for the grace to do so.