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History Against Literature

Situating God: A Biography among other books.

A talk given at Samuelson Chapel, California Lutheran University, March 10, 1997.

"God: A Biography might be described very loosely as a formalist reading of the Bible offered as an alternative to an overwhelmingly dominant intentionalist school of Bible reading. "

Over the past year or two, especially since winning the Pulitzer Prize at about this time last year, I have received more lecture invitations than I had previously received in my entire checkered career, but this particular invitation is a bit special, for I am invited not to spend an hour but to spend a day with you here in a place that takes history, literature, religion, and the Bible with lively, cross-disciplinary seriousness.  I look forward with real pleasure to the day's conversations.

The starting point for these conversations is the book that won the prize, my book God: A Biography.  But what I proposed to Prof. Deborah Sills some months ago as the topic for this morning's symposium is a larger topic: "History Against Literature."  Why "History Against Literature"?

Here's why.  You are going to hear this morning a number of reactions to God: A Biography.  "History Against Literature" is a rubric that will permit me to put on display that to which God: A Biography was itself a reaction.  In this way, I hope to situate my book in relation to other books about the Bible that you may know of and to open a conversation to which there will be several different points of access.

God: A Biography might be described very loosely as a formalist reading of the Bible offered as an alternative to an overwhelmingly dominant intentionalist school of Bible reading. Let me immediately say what I understand those two terms--formalism and intentionalism--to mean.

To intentionalism, the meaning of a text is located in the mind of its author, and the text is simply the means by which a reader reads the author's mind.  To formalism, meaning is located in the form of the text, and the author is simply the means by which the form came into existence.  I myself tend to see formalism and intentionalism as simply two options which, however mutually exclusive, are simultaneously valid.  But this is not how formalists and intentionalists tend to see each other. 

One of the most influential statements ever made in this country about the nature of literature was a formalist manifesto by W.K. Wimsatt, published in 1946 under the title "The Intentional Fallacy."  This is the article that, in my judgment, launched the entire, still continuing dominance of critical theory within the study of literature in this country.  Wimsatt wrote that a poem "is not the critic's own and not the author's (it is detached from the author at birth and goes about the world beyond his power to intend about it or control it).  The poem belongs to the public...." 

To Wimsatt and kindred formalist thinkers, the notion that any text remains connected to its author and must be interpreted accordingly was a fallacy.  To intentionalists, however, it was Wimsatt's view that was nonsense.  They took and still take the common-sense view that understanding any text involves understanding who produced it for whom and when and where and why.  Anything that contributes to understanding the who, the whom, the when, the where, and the why contributes to understanding the text, and unless a few such questions can be posed and answered, there is really very little for a critic to do.

Intentionalists, I must now point out, do not generally call themselves intentionalists.  What they call themselves is historians.  If they happen to work in literature departments rather than in history departments, what they call themselves is historicists or historical critics.  They are right to do so, for when an author is not one's immediate contemporary, it is only by using the conventional tools of historiography that authorial intention can be recovered. In the United States, intentionalist, historical criticism was dominant in the study of the modern vernacular literatures, notably the English, for the first half of this century.  Historicism was the "Old Criticism" with which "New Criticism" of the sort espoused by W.K. Wimsatt was tacitly comparing itself.

The historicism of the teens, twenties, and thirties was not vanquished by the formalism of the forties, fifties, and sixties.  The old lived on alongside the new.  In fact, historicism might seem to have won a final, come-from-behind victory with the rise of neo-historicism in the eighties and nineties, but there is a crucial difference between paleo- and neo-historicism which can only be understood by reference to the 1970s, which I take to be the high-water decade of deconstruction. 

What deconstruction showed was that the structure of a text was not univocal in the way that structuralism or formalism tended to assume nor even merely ironic or amgibuous or otherwise subtle.  Rather, every text could be shown to be ultimately self-contradictory and therefore self-subverting.  Just how a text would subvert itself in the reading depended on who was reading it, deconstruction said, but by saying just this much deconstruction reintroduced intention into the discussion.  Even if the goal was to deconstruct rather than reconstruct an author's intention, the author was now reattached to the work.

To be sure, the author's conscious or overt intentions were now replaced by his unconscious or covert ones.  Though authorial intention was reintroduced, it was not reintroduced with the deference that it had enjoyed before the rise of formalism.  On the contrary, the reconstruction of authorial intent in its full complexity, a complexity equal to the complexity of self-subversion as an effect, involved recognizing that the author was the intersection point of many competing social, economic, cultural, religious, and political interests.  Whatever, good or bad, the author seemed to do, it was those interests that were ultimately responsible.  And it was by pointing these interests out that deconstruction became midwife to neo-historicist or post-structuralist criticism.  The latter reattaches the author to the work only to lose both in the welter of authorial influences.  The author's own intentions are seen only to be seen through.

And so it happens that cultural studies has latterly emerged from deconstruction and neo-historicism.  I hardly need point out, apropos the rise of cultural studies, that these latest developments in literary criticism have coincided in the United States with self-empowerment movements in a number of groups defined typically by ethnicity, gender, or homosexuality.  By deconstructing classic texts written by white, male, presumptively heterosexual writers, by subverting these classic authors' intentions from within, by linking the classic works themselves to self-serving political and economic structures rather than to any single built-in literary structure, those who champion the interests of women, of homosexuals, and of blacks or other American ethnic minorities can believe that their literary criticism acquires a measure of social and political relevance. 

And thus, to conclude this capsule history of recent literary criticism, in the long battle between formalism and intentionalism, intentionalism has won, but only as a search for that special kind of intention which is disguised intention.  It is now commonly understood to be the critic's task not to recognize and explain an author's declared intention but to unmask and then refute the author's undeclared intention by the quasi-prosecutorial marshaling of evidence that betrays the author's ethnic, gender, or sexual agenda.

Now, you will have noticed that in all that I have said, my frame of reference has been the criticism of modern vernacular literatures, above all, English literature, rather than the criticism of the Bible.  Is the history of recent biblical criticism essentially the same history?

No, it is not; and having asserted, as I did at the beginning, that God: A Biography is a formalist reading of the Bible offered as an alternative to an overwhelmingly dominant school of intentionalist Bible reading, I must now establish how the intentionalist school achieved its dominance and why I choose now to oppose it with a variety of formalism.

In telling this story, the time frame must, of course, be enlarged: We must begin long before the 1940s!  But let me nonetheless recur to the quote from William Wimsatt that I gave earlier.  Wimsatt, you will recall, said that a poem "is not the critic's own and not the author's (it is detached form the author at birth and goes about the world beyond his power to intend about it or control it).  The poem belongs to the public...."  Substitute the word church for the word public, and you have the state of affairs that obtained for Bible criticism in the West until the Reformation.  The Bible belonged not to any author or critic but to the church.  For licensed church exegetes, so to call them, the divine inspiration of the Bible functioned as form functioned for licensed New Critics: Inspiration, like form, was built into the text, it was there, and one did not need to attend in any great detail to the who, whom, when, where, and why of how it got there.  What counted was the present, salvific meaning of the text, not its past, historical meaning.  The latter had no more than an instrumental importance.

The sovereignty of the text in Christian tradition was only intensified by the Reformation.  The Lutheran principle of sola scripture, at least in its early, radical form, sought to eliminate the church as a meaning-mediating institution and to establish the Bible as a truly and fully autonomous source of religious authority, a source directly accessible by any literate Christian, no historical preparation required.  Forgive the anachronism, but detaching the text to this extent from its human authors was a kind of New Criticism dream come true.  Conversely, one might well predict that New Criticism could only arise in a country like the United States whose Protestant religious culture enshrined the private interpretation of scripture.  New Criticism looks very much like the secularization of sola scriptura.

In any event, after the Reformation and after the Wars of Religion in the first half of the seventeenth century, an exhausted Europe was much less inclined to go to war over the Bible.  Respect for the Bible and sheer interest in the Bible sank drastically during the Enlightenment.  However, when the Enlightenment did read the Bible, it read it in a formalist way.  By that I mean that Enlightenment critics, having no more access to and only somewhat more interest in the historical world of the Bible than the Reformers had had, attended, just as the Reformers had done, to what the Bible meant to them rather than to what it had meant to its original authors.  In other words, respect for the Bible did not sink because Enlightenment historians were able to identify historical errors in the Bible.  It sank because Enlightenment philosophers saw myth and superstition where their forebears had seen inspiration and revelation.  A few of the best Enlightenment minds, to be sure, recognized the potential value of a history of biblical times against which the Bible's own history could be assessed and through which, perhaps, its internal contradictions and other puzzlements could be resolved. The means for such a history, however, were not at hand.

The means began to come to hand when in 1821 the French scholar Jean Francois Champollion deciphered a trilingual stone discovered by one of Napoleon's soldiers near the town of Rosetta in northern Egypt.  Europe already knew that there were colossal ruins in Egypt, many of whose walls were covered with pictographic writing, but the ruins were historically unknowable, for no one could read the pictographs or hieroglyphs.  Once it became possible to read them, the cramped, nineteen-hundred-year block of recorded time in which Europe had been living rapidly quadrupled in size to its current a seven-thousand-year size.  The Bible was no longer the mythical beginning of recorded history but was a historical document to be situated somewhere in the middle and indeed well past the halfway point.

Filling in a historical context around this document was still a daunting task, but during the 175 years that separate us from Champollion, this task has been progressively accomplished.  Excavation by excavation, decipherment by decipherment, a body of information has accumulated that makes it possible for contemporary historical criticism to do for writers like Paul and Ezekiel what historical criticism has long since been able to do for writers like Dickens and Shakespeare.  The degree of historical credence extended to different parts of the Bible has waxed and waned, to be sure; but when, for example, a given biblical author is regarded as a fanatic nationalist rather than an ethical pioneer, he himself remains, for all that, still the focus of attention.  The questions asked of him are questions aimed at reconstructing his intentions: who was he? for whom did he write? when and where did he write? why did he write?

In the second half of the nineteenth century, as this kind of intentionalist, historicist scholarship began to have major impact in Europe through the work of scholars like Ernst Renan, David Friedrich Strauss, and Julius Wellhausen, the term applied to it was not historicism but "higher criticism."  Higher criticism was so called by fairly explicit contrast with the lower criticism whose task it had long been to establish the verbal accuracy of the text by comparing the extant manuscripts.  Higher criticism's great opponent was the established church, Catholic in Renan's France, Protestant in Strauss and Wellhausen's Prussia, but the conflict between the learned and the devout was different in the nineteenth century from what it had been in the seventeenth and eighteenth.  Back then, a Spinoza or a Voltaire could scoff at a story like that of the virgin birth simply because the rational mind knew that such an event was absurd.  The dispute was conducted in philosophical terms.  After the rise of higher criticism, a Strauss or a Renan, rather than dismiss the virgin birth on philosophical grounds, could offer a plausible historical explanation of how and why and when and by whom and for whom such a fiction might have been invented.    Not everything in the Bible, by any means, is historically worthless.  In the middle decades of our own century, a Bible historian and orientalist named William Foxwell Albright gained great fame by showing effectively that some parts of the Bible display a kind of inclusive historical plausibility.  That is, the historian may not know whether or not there ever was an Abraham, but he or she can know from extra-biblical sources that there were nomadic herders whose customs were like those the Bible ascribes to Abraham and who lived in the area the Bible indicates at about the time it indicates.  As always in historical research, Albright's work has been subjected to revisionism, but I stress that the revisionism has itself been thoroughly historical. 

This is just the trouble.  Once historical criticism became possible for the Bible, the temptation has been to forget that this kind of criticism is not the only kind possible.  And to the extent that historical criticism has by now been embraced by the church, it has acquired the endorsement of an inherently conservative institution and thereby further solidified its presumptively exclusive franchise.  When I refer to the church as a conservative institution, I do not allude to biblical literalism but to the very different conservatism of liberal divinity school professors who tend by inertia to be liberal today in just the way that they were liberal yesterday.  Historical criticism, as I see it, is yesterday's liberalism.

One way to make this point is to note that when in 1946 W.K. Wimsatt coined the phrase intentional fallacy, everything that is now possible for the historical criticism of the Bible was at least equally possible for the historical criticism of English literature, and yet he still found the whole thing a gigantic fallacy.  Exaggerating only slightly, I will say that Bible criticism in 1996 was about where poetry criticism had been fifty years earlier when Wimsatt published his essay.  It was ripe, in other words, for a radical correction.  The kind of highly theoretical Bible criticism advertised as postmodern had not delivered that correction, for it had leapt from paleo-historicism to neo-historicism without seriously confronting formalism.  It had never risked the real boldness of detaching the Bible from those historical figures who, by now, we all know full well were its authors and, without forgetting that fact, allowing the biblical text to play on the contemporary imagination.

I have long been struck by the fact that historical critics of the Bible do not generally refer to themselves as Bible critics but as Bible scholars.  They are right to do so, for as historians they are indeed scholars rather than critics.  A critic I define by his attention to the form of a work as it strikes him and his own contemporaries.  A scholar is quite properly concerned with original intent, but a true critic must be concerned with derivative effect.  New Criticism asserted the proper concerns of criticism against those proper to the valid but deeply different discipline of history.  Much more important, New Criticism asserted the autonomy of literature itself as art and therefore as an end in itself against history's will to make literature a means to its own extra-literary ends.

I see my own book about the protagonist of Bible as one way, by no means the only way, to valorize the Bible as literature against the tyrannical tendency of Bible historians to reduce it to nothing more than a source for their historiography of ancient Israel.  What I sought to do was read the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, from start to finish--that is, in just the way that historical criticism never reads it--and to attend throughout this reading to God as the central character of the work, allowing God to take shape as a cumulative literary effect rather than as a piecemeal series of authorial intentions.  I was not attempting to write a book about Bible criticism for other Bible critics but a book about God himself as a literary creation for all who might respond to that creation.  However, I was privately if only approximately aware that my venture lay athwart not just the established culture of historicist Bible criticism but also, given my formalist sympathies, athwart the counter-culture of "postmodern" Bible criticism.  It is my idiosyncratic placement that I have tried to lay before you today.

The literary critic is something of a mixed intellectual type.  With a stronger theoretical bent, he would be a philosopher.  With a stronger imaginative bent, he would be a novelist or a poet.  With a stronger documentary bent, he would be an historian.  On that tripolar field, I believe that I gravitate toward the imaginative pole.  I read fiction and poetry continually, criticism only intermittently, and I am rather more inclined to think about any given work of literary art by reference to other works of literary art than by reference to any critical theory, including any of my own.  As a result, though I have placed God: A Biography as well as I can on the grid contemporary criticism, I suspect that its success with readers may stem less from any theoretical originality than from its quasi-literary, representational competence.  This was also the strength of the New Critics at their best, the strength that made Cleanth Brooks's The Well-Wrought Urn, for example, the only work of literary criticism that has ever been an American best seller.  Formalist criticism is, if you will, the kind of criticism that a failed poet would be likely to write.  I am reminded as I say this that in my own formation as a Bible scholar, no adjective was more dismissive than the adjective fanciful.  Fanciful criticism, criticism that yields to the imagination is surely defective as historical criticism.  I insist only that there are several valid varieties of criticism and that fanciful criticism is one among them.

Before closing, and just to provide a structure of plausibility for what I have said about historicist criticism, I would like to quote to you from a sixteen-lecture audioocassette course entitled The Old Testament: An Introduction.  The lecturer is Robert Oden, as established a Bible scholar as one could hope to find: Harvard doctorate, postdoctoral work at Cambridge, pillar of the learned societies, former chair of the religion department at Dartmouth, and current president of Kenyon College. [1]  Oden's audiocassette series came to my attention through a lawyer friend of mine who had listened to it with pleasure.  I commend it warmly to anyone who wants a good, solid, conventional introduction to the historical criticism of the Bible.  If you would like to buy a copy, you may call 1-800-TEACH-12 and order one.

I include this little commercial for Oden because I shall now take him as an example of what I find most impoverishing and limiting in the school of Bible interpretation to which he belongs, a school which, as already noted, I find still quite dominant, despite many skirmishes at its margins.

In his opening lecture, entitled "The Hebrew Bible: What Is it?" Oden says the following:

It is a major part of our task to do what the Hebrew Bible itself does not do, and that is to talk about what kinds of groups wrote these different kinds of material, in what kind of social and historical context they wrote them, and when in the history of ancient Israel they wrote them.  And it is a part of our task because a presupposition of this course, with which by the way you may wish to disagree--and certainly very conservative evangelical Christians, Jews, and Muslims will wish to disagree--but it is a presupposition of this course that it is an important part of our task to talk about who wrote parts of the Hebrew Bible, when they wrote it, and in what social, economic, political context they wrote it.

And that, incidentally, is a different statement of what the seventeenth-century philosopher Spinoza said, and Spinoza really does begin modern biblical criticicism, because in the course of his other philosophical writing and thinking in the seventeenth century Spinoza said: the key to understanding the Bible, which for him meant the Hebrew Bible, was for us to begin to understand when it was written and to know that the order in which it was written might--and we now know certainly does--differ dramatically from the order in which it is now presented.    

There are other tasks.  One can ask what the Hebrew Bible means to contemporary Judaism.  One can ask how the Hebrew Bible, which, of course, is called the Old Testament by Christians--one can ask how early Christianity interpreted the Old Testament.  One can ask the role, one can ask questions about the role, that the Hebrew Bible played in the formation of Islam and what kinds of stories from the Old Testament appear in the Quran, beause many of them do.

Those are interesting questions.  They're not ours.  Ours are going to be essentially historical questions: What did this material mean at the time when it was written? [2]

Let me observe, first, about this perfectly benign-sounding proemium that when Oden imagines disagreement with the presupposition of his course, he imagines only conservative religious disagreement.  If you cannot share his presupposition, then you must, he assumes, be some kind a conservative evangelical Christian or the Jewish or Muslim equivalent.  An intellectual establishment is never so utterly established as when it cannot imagine a coherent intellectual alternative to itself, and such is indeed the unfortunate serenity of mind that I observe in Oden.  In imagining that his only opposition must come from enraged conservative believers, he is fighting the higher criticism battle of the late nineteenth century, but that battle has long since been won.

Let me observe, second, that when Oden considers the order in which the books of the Bible are presented by the Bible itself, he is interested only in the fact that this order is not the order in which the various books were written.  In Spinoza's day, it took daring to speculate about this discrepancy.  Today, to put it mildly, it takes no daring at all.  Once we have stipulated that discrepancy, the question is rather: What interest, if any, does the Bible's own order--the order that Oden calls the order of presentation--retain?  I should think it obvious that this order retains an enormous aesthetic, artistic, authentically literary interest.  But to the possibility of any such interest, this single-minded historian seems quite blind.

Even when Oden turns with seeming magnanimity and open-mindedness to other tasks than the historical task that he has assigned himself and his auditors in this course, he thinks only of two clearly historical questions and one semi-historical question.  The two historical questions are: How did early Christianity use the Old Testament?  and What role did the Old Testament play in the rise of Islam?  The semi-historical question--by no means necessarily a confessional question--is: What does the Hebrew Bible mean to contemporary Judaism?

The study of the Bible as Oden understands it, and I stress that I have chosen to make his audiocassette course my example not because there is anything wrong with it but only because it so thoroughly conforms to the consensus view, boils down to just one question: "What did this material mean at the time when it was written?"  But if this be true, then the entire enterprise of historicist Bible scholarship boils down to one colossal instance of Wimsatt's intentional fallacy.  The authors and their intentions are the only thing historicist Bible scholarship knows how to think about.  I submit that Bible criticism, as distinct from Bible scholarship, begins when the Bible is detached from its many authors and, in Wimsatt's phrase, begins to go about in the world.  I honestly believe that my own work has enjoyed its surprisingly warm popular reception and its cordial critical reception outside the guild of Bible scholars because in it I allow the Bible this precious and long withheld liberty.


[1] Robert Oden, The Old Testament: An Introduction [sixteen lectures on eight audiocassettes] (Springfield, VA 22150: SuperStar Teachers/The Teaching Company, second edition, 1995), Lecture 1: "The Hebrew Bible: What Is It?"

[2] The printed brochure accompanying the audiocassette lecture series The Old Testament: An Introduction gives Oden's credentials as follows:

"Robert Oden was born in 1946.  He holds six degrees and speaks nine languages, including Maobite [sic] and Ugaritic. ... He received his bachelor's degree Magna Cum Laude [sic] at Harvard in History and Literature in 1969 where he was a member of Phi Beta Kappa. ...  At Cambridge, he earned an additional Bachelor's and Master's degree in Religious Studies/Theology....  He earned a Th.M. and Ph.D. at Harvard Divinity School/Harvard University, with highest distinctions....

"From 1971 to 1974 he taught English and Old Testament at Harvard, from 1975 to 1989 he taught Religion at Dartmouth serving as Chair of the Religion Department form [sic] 1983 to 1989.  ...  Dr. Oden is currently the President of Kenyon College.

"In addition to teaching, and serving on over 60 different committees throughout his professional career, Oden is the author of numerous books and articles, and has written over twenty-eight public papers and lectures."