The Bible as Art, Music, and Literature

Once in a graduate class, a fellow student stormed out when the teacher asked us to think about how Christianity connects to and informs the contemporary American literature we were reading.  The student later told me that he was offended because he isn’t religious and he thought it unfair that the professor was forcing religion on us.  I explained to that student that the professor was, in fact, not religious at all, but that he understood, and wanted us to understand, that in order to make sense of Western literature, we must comprehend its influences.  The Bible informs most, if not all, of Western literature.  This is perhaps why it is included on the BBC book list as number six.

When the BBC book list first went around Facebook, I remember reading others’ lists and pausing when I’d get to The Bible and their claim that they had read it.  Had they really read each and every book, chapter and verse?  How many people have actually read The Bible cover to cover?  Well, I truly have.  Here’s how.

As a teenager, I took some classes as part of my church.   Each year, we focused on a book of scripture.  I wanted to be named a “seminary scholar” by going above and beyond the curriculum and actually reading the entire book and completing some memorization and service projects.  Well, I did this.  Each evening, after finishing other homework, I would read The Bible.  One year, it was the Old Testament.  The next year it was the New Testament.  I have a vivid memory of one Sunday afternoon sitting on my mother’s bed and reading aloud to her.  I’ve always been good at reading, and I remember her being impressed by my ability to read quickly the long and tongue-twisting verses of who begat whom or which lands were inhabited by whom.  The place names and Bible names could be confusing, but I had a knack for rolling them off my tongue with ease.

I have since read the New Testament again.  It is always fun to review the nativity stories at Christmas time, and for me, one of my greatest goals is to develop charity.  I’m far from good at it, and a bad day of driving on a crowded freeway will take any goodwill toward men out of my soul, but I frequently try to develop this Christ-like virtue.  Reading about Christ’s own life in the New Testament is a great way to be reminded of charity and how to best practice it.

I have not reread the Old Testament.  Sometimes I review parts of it during a church class with the lesson and teacher, but I honestly have no desire to read it again.  It was long and arduous, and to my teenage mind it didn’t make much sense.  Of course, the Genesis creation story is familiar and beloved, but once I got to Jeremiah or Ezekiel, I did not understand much of what was going on.  I’m sure such reading would be made easier through familiarity with historical events surrounding the time.  I find that context always helps with understanding any text.  Maybe someday, I’ll brave more than just the first five books again.

I did, however, revisit some of the stories of the Old Testament in my Bible as Literature class in college.  My favorite reading, because I had not ever been exposed to it, was the apocryphal story of Susanna, a bathing beauty who refuses many lusty elders despite their threats to have her killed.  She stayed true to her morals and was delivered from the elders’ trap.  Below is a depiction of her story by famed Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) of the Baroque period.  The painting is dated 1609 to 1610.

In my Bible as Literature class, we also explored King David’s fall.  Did Bathsheba seduce King David, or did she comply because of his status as king?  One piece of evidence that may suggest her innocence is the fact that she bathed on the roof.  That’s not usually a visible place, and it was evening, when it is usually dark.  However, the use of the word “eveningtide” actually means anywhere from 3:00 p.m. on, so it could have been broad daylight, not good evidence for Bathsheba’s innocence.  In addition, David has just awoken from a nap, and he would likely wake from this before it was dark outside.  If she did not wish to be seen, then she should have waited until dusk or dark, but maybe she didn’t expect the king to be on his roof.

She may have consented out of fear for her life and the life of her husband.  But her husband paid with his life, anyway.  Uriah the Hittite was a valiant man who stayed true to his duty, and is a foil to King David’s wickedness.  He may also have been a foreigner, which is suggested by his name.  Because Bathsheba was his wife, she was probably a foreigner, which could explain another reason why she could have feared the king enough to give in.

But the protagonist of the story is King David, not Bathsheba.  Although it is tempting to speculate about Bathsheba’s motives, the story is ultimately about King David and his fall from grace.  From this view, we see Bathsheba as a pawn, somebody who had to play the role in order for the king to fall.  The heart of the story lies in the extreme lengths David carries out to cover his lustful sin.  Below is Michelangelo’s famous Renaissance sculpture of David created from 1501 to 1504.

Public domain photo via Wikimedia Commons

Despite David’s sins, his Psalms are beautiful and inspired present-day hymns.  They served as a hymn book for his day and have inspired the current tradition of congregational singing.  Using the Psalms to create modern music may have begun with an anonymous, primitive document, the Apostolic Constitutions.  Stated therein: “Sing the psalms of David, and peruse diligently the Gospel . . . If thou desirest something to sing, thou has the psalms . . . Assemble yourselves together every day, morning and evening, singing psalms and praying in the Lord’s house” (Ryden 4).  These admonitions began the Christian fixation with singing the psalms.

In early Christianity, only the monks and church officials sang.  This is due to the fact that the Bible and religious music were not printed in the vernacular until Martin Luther participated in the Protestant Reformation and began translating the hymns.  This began a move toward a hymnal and ultimately, our modern hymns.

There are approximately 84 hymns in my church’s hymnal that have Psalms as a reference.  There are most likely others that were also inspired by the Psalms but do not specifically cite them as a source.  Also, in my church’s hymnal, Psalm 119 has the most hymns attached to it.  There are six.  Psalm 100 and Psalm 55 come in next with five hymns each attributed.  The purpose of these authors/composers may not have been to mimic David’s Psalms, but the hymns reflect the power of scripture and music combined.

Whether or not you’ve read The Bible cover to cover, its value is varied and important.  In studying it as literature or personally, it is didactic and inspiring.  This great work of scripture has moved and motivated people for centuries, whether through art, architecture, music, or literature.

Ryden, E. E.  The Story of Christian Hymnody.  Illinois: Augustana Book Concern, 1959.

24 thoughts on “The Bible as Art, Music, and Literature

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  1. Beautifully written and very thoughtful! I love this piece-and I like the pictures! (Off-topic: I’m intrigued by the picture of Susanna and how beauty was portrayed so differently. I suppose this actually wasn’t so different until just a couple decades ago).

    1. So true, about beauty standards having changed. You might like Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth if you are interested in that. As to the painting, Rubens is known for his voluptuous women. I think that’s why I like his work so much.

  2. I just recently read the account of David according to Jewish interpretation. This interpretation would be an interesting addition to your piece here.

    Such a thoughtful read. The influence of religion cannot be removed from any discussion on literature, history or art. Religion has and will continue to influence all areas of the human experience no matter what each individual beliefs are.

  3. Great post! I love analyzing the different parts of the Bible and meditating on their literariness. Songs, myths, poems, fiction, parables, letters…it’s all there. As a Christian and writer, the Bible is not only my guide for life in general, but also my guide for writing.
    P.S. – I’m also working on reading the Bible straight through, from start to finish. The Old Testament is hard to get through, but I’m rediscovering some good gems. It’s worth it!

      1. I am enjoying reading all of the Bible via a One Year Bible, which happens this year to be the New Living Translation. I think you would enjoy this arrangement. It is pretty astounding, to me, how it is arranged simply, with a passage for each of 365 days from the OT, The NT, the Psalms, and a Proverb or two, begining with Genesis and going straight through Revelation. Yet there seems always to be something that ties at least two of the passages together. It sounds like it would be a scrambled mess, but it isn’t! and it breaks up the monotony of reading through all the begats and levitical laws.
        I think, now that you’re no longer a teen, and with world events being so different, you would now enjoy rereading Esther, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel. Joel is a great eye-opener, also.

        1. That sounds like a really neat version! I really should reread, but I do in bits and pieces as part of my church’s Sunday school. I do love Esther. It doesn’t get any better than that when it comes to women’s issues, even today.

          1. All my life, from childhood on, I’ve gotten the Bible in bits and pieces too, through Sunday School, various Bible studies, and Sunday sermons. However, when I got the NIV version of the One Year Bible several years ago, I found how truly fascinating, true, and inspiring it is to read it in toto. I’ve invested in some commentaries, also, to help me to further understand some of it. People will vary as to whom they want interpreting for them, so several commentaries might be a good idea. I have the two large volumes of Warren Wiersbie, plus some indiviual books on some of the other books by various authors, some especially by Barclay, that I ordered from Better World Books. Some of my college classes included Bible history.

  4. Hey Emily, I’m here via the Freshly Pressed and had a quick look around your blog. I’m really enjoying your critical perspectives on literature. I cracked up when I read Gandhi’s account of his reading the Old Testament: “I read the book of Genesis, and the chapters that followed invariably sent me to sleep. But just for the sake of being able to say that I have read it, I plodded through the other books with much difficulty and without the least interest or understanding”. He much preferred the words of Jesus… Goethe is an interesting case too, as he was favourably disposed to reading the Bible and it no doubt influenced his work, yet he scorned Christian morality and engaged in the occult.

    I haven’t read the account of Susanna yet, but I look forward to checking out the apocryphal books valued by other Christian traditions. When you mentioned her story, it somehow reminded me of Eusebius’ (the father of Church history, writing about 300 years after Jesus) accounts of female suicide-martyrdoms. The young women who refused to sacrifice to pagan gods were a prize for the Roman soldiers who kept them. When the time came that they would be raped, they asked for some time to prepare and used the opportunity to commit suicide, “For, she said, that to surrender their souls to the slavery of demons was worse than all deaths and destruction; and she set before them the only deliverance from all these things,—escape to Christ.” It’s such a horrible and enigmatic issue to reflect upon.

    On injunctions to sing psalms in church, the Apostolic Constitutions probably borrowed these from similar passages in the New Testament (eg. Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16). Thanks for the awesome post!

    1. You have some interesting insights! Thanks for sharing. I am especially intrigued by Gandhi’s perspective. I had never heard that before. And wow, to kill one’s self rather than be raped? What a choice and what virtuous women. Thanks for stopping by!

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