Literature and Theology: Faulkner on Biblical Interpretation

Hey, there. I’ve been meaning to write this post for over a month now. At any rate, I have quite a load of theological thoughts to unload.

My plan (we plan. God laughs) is to write one brief post each remaining Sunday up until Easter (which is not all that far away) regarding the relationship of theology and literature. The two, in word and deed, relate quite closely.  To this end, I intend to analyze one terse but powerful snippet of prose in each post.

Many theological texts, not the least which are books of the Old Testament, constitute a kind of literature, where literature, broadly speaking, is an intensified form of language, one that moves beyond everyday usage through devices such as metaphor, symbolism, and allegory. Theology, as a discussion of deeper transcendent realities, often relies on literary devices to construct meaning. As Peter Hodgson writes in a book on theology in the fiction of nineteenth-century English novelist George Eliot:

“Theology and art are both ‘fiction’ –  a term deriving from the Latin verb fingere, ‘to form,’ ‘imagine,’ or ‘invent’ – in the sense that they entail a shaping, construing, configuring of the real in imaginative as opposed to empirical-descriptive modalities.”[1]

Whereas scientific, empirical study provides us with useful data about the composition and workings of natural systems, literature—and really art at large—constantly insists that objects, sensations, and experience possess meaning beyond the immediacy of their material composition. For example, a bird flying across the expanse of blue sky is not just a bird, but a manifestation of loneliness. If scientific analyses provide us with material descriptions, the arts provide us with a narrative of meaning.

Theology often draws from literature in this way, and literature, I contend, also draws from theology, even when a work does not explicitly deal in theological terms.

Faulkner, “The Bear”, and the Bible

This week, I want to look at a section imbedded deep in the forested terrain of William Faulkner’s short story “The Bear,” which tracks the growth of Isaac, a young Mississippian boy, in the annual hunt of a bear as old and thick-skinned as the trees that hide his fierce ursine form.

The section below, however, appears in the fourth part of the story in which the young boy has aged into a young man. When he debates with his cousin McCaslin, the text takes a theological turn:

 ‘There are some things He said in the Book, and some things reported of Him that He did not say. And I know what you will say now: That if truth is one thing to me and another thing to you, how will we choose which is truth? You don’t need to choose. The heart already knows. He didn’t have His Book written to be read by what must elect and choose, but by the heart, not by the wise of the earth because maybe they don’t need it or maybe the wise no longer have any heart, but by the doomed and lowly of the earth who have nothing else to read with but the heart. Because the men who wrote his Book for Him were writing truth and there is only one truth and it covers all things that touch the heart.’ And McCaslin

‘So these men who transcribed His Book for Him were sometimes liars.’ and he

‘Yes. Because they were human men. They were trying to write down the heart’s truth out of the driving complexity, for all the complex and troubled hearts which would beat after them. What they were trying to tell, what He wanted said, was too simple. Those for whom they transcribed His words could not have believed them. It had to be expounded in the everyday terms which they were familiar with and could comprehend, not only those who listened but those who told it too, because if they who were that near to Him as to have been elected from among all who breathed and spoke language to transcribe and relay His words, could comprehend truth only through the complexity of passion and lust and hate and fear which drive the heart, what distance back to truth must they traverse whom truth could only reach by word-of-mouth?’ (Faulkner, “The Bear” pt. 4)

Now read that through once more.

Powerful prose, no?

Two main theological points surface here: the Truth of the Bible, and the Bible as Revelation, an inspired text, humanly written and divinely mediated.

Isaac’s basic Biblical hermeneutics, that is, his means of interpreting scripture, are the following: the Bible is not a text that appeals only to the brain; rather, it is a text that resonates with the human heart, yet in a way that is clear and universal to “the doomed and lowly of the earth who have nothing else to read with but the heart.” Since the Bible speaks to the heart, it must speak in terms that the heart understands, that is, “everyday terms which they were familiar with and could comprehend.” These terms require the divine Word to be processed through the human heart, such that it not only speaks to the heart but also from the heart, “through the complexity of passion and lust and hate and fear which drive the heart.” This translation from divine knowledge to the human heart transforms and expands the simple perfection of God’s simple message by passing it through the filter of human language, yet this filter must be passed through for the message to be registered universally and clearly by the human heart.

Narrative as the Language of the Heart

Philosopher Peter van Inwagen raises a similar point about Revelation in an essay on Genesis: sure, God could have revealed the exact scientific details about the age and formation of the earth to ancient Hebrew scribes, but such descriptions, first of all, would evade understanding, “for the result would be inaccessible to most people at most places and times.”[2]

Second and more importantly, such a description, with the listing of epochs and the tracking of atmospheric oxygenation, would not communicate the higher level Truth, the narrative of meaning that Genesis provides. For narrative truth, one requires (sensibly enough) a narrative, as van Inwagen writes:

“These truths, I believe, truths related to sin and knowledge of good and evil, can only be shown by telling a very concrete story. . . . something which could not have been conveyed by a story about trees and a serpent but which certainly had to be conveyed parabolically—that is, by means of some story about the actions of concrete, picturable beings.” (141)

Sure, one could define concepts such as sin and salvation, but these definitions would not go too far, floating in the realm of the mind as abstractions. To reify these concepts, one must speak the language of the heart, not simply defining but demonstrating through narrative. The Bible, indeed, frequently speaks in narrative terms, from Adam’s Fall to Jesus’ parables, for the sake of explaining truths that don’t have the same heartfelt effect when merely stated. Love thy neighbor. Ok. But show me how.

By linking together details in linear format, narrative passes on information in the same way that we experience it through the run of daily life. Toni Morrison said as much in her banquet speech after receiving the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature: “I believe that one of the principle ways in which we acquire, hold, and digest information is via narrative.” However, she did not merely say so, but went on to weave her own narrative to explain how literature combats oppression and gives voice to the voiceless.

A Narrative to Convey the Concept of Narrative

Perhaps to make sense of the abstract concept of narratives speaking better to the heart than mere statements of fact, I should tell a narrative myself. Better yet, I’ll let Scripture, the heart-speaking narrative in question, do it for me.

In 2 Samuel 12, Nathan confronts David about his adultery. While he could simple accuse David of stealing Bathsheba and condemning her husband to death, such a direct accusation of the monarch would be both uncouth and ineffective, so Nathan narrates thus:

“There were two men in a certain city, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a great many flocks and herd. But the poor man had nothing except for a little lamb he had acquired. He raised it, and it grew up alongside him and his children. It used to ear his food, drink from his cup, and sleep in his arms. It was just like a daughter to him. When a traveler arrived at the rich man’s home, he did not want to use one of his own sheep or cattle to feed the traveler who had come to visit him. Instead, he took the poor man’s lamb and cooked it for the man who had come to visit him.” (2 Samuel 12:1-4)

Upon hearing the story, David becomes enrages and decrees that the traveler deserves to die, only to be told “You are that man!” Taken on its own, Nathan’s narrative convinces David of his guilt by speaking to his heart. Taken as a narrative within the narrative of scripture, the story testifies to the potency of narratives to communicate what plain statements cannot.

Conclusions: Reading with the Heart

I suggest, then, that we understand theology more like we understand a Faulkner short story than a logical proof, reading theme and higher level meaning conveyed by narrative. This isn’t to say, however, that theology does not have factual content to add as well—just look at the Gospels, where historical foundations and theological themes develop in the same narrative. The language of the heart and the language of the mind operate together in the same text.

Similarly, we cannot hope to fully understand literature by observing it through an analytic magnifying glass, dissecting metaphors and piecing together meaning. Literature, too, is something experienced with the heart, something that emotes and bleeds. Perhaps Susan Sontag is on to something when she demands an erotics of art in place of hermeneutics in “Against Interpretation.” For now, I’ll try to unify emotions and analytics by keeping Isaac’s Biblical hermeneutics in mind while taking them to heart.

More to come in a week’s time.

Cum caritate



[1] Peter C. Hodgson, Theology in the Fiction of George Eliot (London: SCM, 2001); 149.

[2] Peter van Inwagen, God, Knowledge, and Mystery: Essays in Philosophical Theology (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995); 140.


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