I enrolled in Harvard College after graduating from high school. While I was at college, my life continued to trace out the trajectory defined by its most important influences. I participated in Christian activities, joining the Harvard-Radcliffe Christian Fellowship, leading Bible studies, serving on the group’s executive committee, and becoming its president in my senior year. Literature was equally prominent in my life at college. In fact, it became the “business of my life,” at least for my college years, once I became an English major.
I had been uncertain of what I wanted to study when I first enrolled, but after taking a wide range of courses in my freshman year, I quickly realized that I liked my literature courses the best. I believe the “pleasure principle” that guides us in our vocational explorations was operative in this case. I liked my literature courses the best because they pointed to why I was there (at school) and why I was here (on earth).
To explain a bit further: As I have had the opportunity to study and teach in more recent years about the Christian doctrine of vocation (the doctrine that God has a special, knowable purpose for each one’s life), one principle I have accepted is that the use of God-given abilities brings pleasure and satisfaction—thus, these abilities are self-reinforcing and self-identifying.
During these college years I actually began to integrate, for the first time, the two strong interests that reflected my calling and the way I would fulfill it. The integration took place in one direction only to begin with: I asked what influence the Bible had had on literature.
In pursuit of this question, I undertook studies of the poems of Donne and Herbert, as well as works such as Paradise Lost. I eventually wrote two papers on Milton’s masterpiece, arguing in one that the seraph Abdiel was its “epistemological hero,” and examining Milton’s transformations of the epic genre in the other. My junior essay was on individual belief and social reform in the short stories of Flannery O’Connor, and my senior thesis was entitled “A Sense of Progress: The Spiritual Growth of Bunyan’s Pilgrim.”
It didn’t occur to me at the time to pursue integration in the other direction in which it might have taken place. I did not ask what influence literature had had on the Bible, that is, how the Bible’s character had been shaped by the conventions of the ancient literary genres in which it had been written. I continued to approach the Bible in the way typical of the broad movement within which I had come to a personal faith in Christ, as if it could be read meaningfully a verse here and a verse there.
I did take a couple of tentative steps in the direction of literary interpretation, however. For two of my literature classes I had the same teaching fellow, who introduced us to the concept that every work of literature has a “shaping principle,” some overriding goal that accounts for its specific elements such as plot, themes, imagery, and characterization. The better the work of literature, the clearer the shaping principle, because the goal has been more effectively reached.
After writing several “shaping principle papers” on works of English literature, I had the thought that it would be interesting to write a book one day on the shaping principles of the books of the Bible. The articles I eventually published on the literary structures of the biblical books of Revelation, Leviticus and Matthew reflected this longtime interest. (I feel that this dream was finally realized when I had the opportunity to draft introductions to all the books and sections of the Bible for an edition of the NIV that presented the biblical books in their natural literary forms, The Books of the Bible.)
We also did some “manuscript studies” in our Christian Fellowship groups, in which we considered a book of the Bible as an integrated whole and dispensed with potentially misleading chapter and verse divisions. This was a good introduction to the rudiments of literary interpretation of the Bible. But even in these exercises, we tended to treat books of the Bible as if they were unrooted in time and place. We did not ask much about their historical context, and we never even brought up literary genre.
One specific consequence of my failure to apply literary methods to biblical interpretation was that some questions I had heard asked over the years about the early chapters of Genesis remained lurking, unresolved, in the back of my mind. They were unresolved because they were unresolvable within the paradigm for biblical interpretation I shared with my Christian community, in which isolated verses or passages were read literally and non-contextually. In fact, although we didn’t realize it at the time, the only answers we could give to these questions were ones that would hold up only if we didn’t examine the rest of the text very carefully.
For example, when I attended the Creation Research Society program in high school, I heard a woman from my church ask Henry Morris a question during the break between two of his talks. She wanted to how the Tigris and Euphrates rivers could have been known in the pre-flood world if the deluge had been so great a transformation of the earth as the creationists described, with oceans washing over the continents and the like. Dr. Morris replied that she must not think the rivers we know by these names today are the same ones described in Genesis. Rather, he explained, our contemporary rivers were simply named after very different antediluvian rivers when the earth was resettled by Noah and his descendants after the flood. He cited as an analogy the way so many towns in New England were named after ones in “old” England. This made sense to the questioner, and to me, since I knew of towns such as Norwich and Greenwich in my home state of Connecticut. It was only years later that I noticed the Genesis text places the antediluvian rivers in precisely the same location as the ones called by their names today. Dr. Morris’s detailed and confident answer, by contrast, seemed to presume that they had moved.
Another time, again during my high school years, my family was camping at the Monadnock Bible Conference in southern New Hampshire, where we listened to a week of presentations from Calvin Chao, founder and president of a mission called Chinese for Christ. (He and his wife Grace later stayed in our home and spoke at my father’s church.) In one of his sermons he described his difficulties in coming to faith. He had attended a missionary school and had been assigned Bible reading as homework. He was told to write down and turn in any questions that occurred to him. After reading Genesis 1, he submitted the question, “How could there have been light on the first day when the sun was not created until the fourth day?” His professor returned his paper with the comment, “This is a very good question.” But no answer was ever provided. “And so,” Mr. Chao summarized, “it was difficult for me to believe the Bible.” And in all of his presentations that week, even though he told us how he eventually came to faith, he never gave us a solution to this problem, either. And so I was left with his “very good question” rattling around in my brain for the next several years.