/ literature / Jeffrey A Stivason

The Reader, the Bible & His Presence

Recently, I have been reading Terry Eagleton’s book, How to Read Literature. Eagleton is as entertaining as he is insightful. He reminds us readers, for example, that Heathcliff does not exist outside of the pages Wuthering Heights or that if Ishmael is only a literary name, then he doesn’t have a real one, because Melville chose not to give it. Again, it’s not that we don’t know it. He does not have it!

But it’s another observation that caught my imagination. He cautions a reader not to confuse fiction with reality. Certainly this is something of a danger for the best of readers. There are women who long to recreate the culture of Pride and Prejudice within their home school coop while wistfully wishing such a thing could be extended even further. This is not to mention the men who sneak the “thee” and the “thou” into their prayers.

Into this context Eagleton reminds us of Prospero, the hero of Shakespeare’s, The Tempest, who comes forward at the end of the play to caution the audience of making a mistake.  Listen to Prospero,

Now my charms all o’erthworn,

And what strength I have’s mind own,

Which is most faint. Now, ‘tis true,

I must be here confined by you,

Or sent to Naples. Let me not,

Since I have my dukedom got

And pardoned the deceiver, dwell

In this bare island by your spell,

But release me from my hands

With the help of your good hands.

What is Prospero doing? He is asking the audience to applaud. Certainly that is what he means when he asks for release “with the help of your good hands.” But he is not simply asking for praise. Prospero is pleading with the audience not to confuse the play with reality. Why?  If they fail to do so they will diminish the effect of the play on the real world.  In other words, says Eagleton, the spell must be broken if the magic is to work.

As I turned Eagleton’s passage over in my mind, I thought about the way some authors treat the Scripture. For some, their treatments are cold and sterile.  They have the smell of erudition (which can be good) but it is missing the warmth of heart, which is obviously bad. For example, think of the liberal who believes that the early church created the fiction of the Gospels in order to regulate life in the church.  This is bad scholarship that is harmful to the heart.  But even evangelical scholarship spills a fair amount of ink arguing the position that the gospels are Greco-Roman biographies.  Here we have good scholarship but it leaves the heart cold.

As a tonic, I love to read Hugh Martin. Several years ago someone asked me if I had read The Abiding Presence. I had not, but I soon remedied my indiscretion and was glad that I did. Martin affirms reading the biographies of others. They are important especially when the persons themselves are no more and fellowship with them is rendered impossible.  But the biography of Jesus is altogether different. It ends with the assertion of Jesus, “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  He, whose biography is before us, is himself with us!

Martin almost sings of Christ’s presence in the following pages, saying,

"With his sure and spiritual presence, then, let it be my privilege to possess his clear and definite biography. Give me the presence of the Lord – not vague, indistinctive, and ghostly; silent, oppressive, and almost appalling – but as uttering the very sayings, and achieving the very works of grace and love that the biography details. Let me hear this Savior, present with me…"[1]

Again, he writes,

"Let him enshrine his promised presence within the very lineaments and limits of the biography: and I no more complain that his presence with me is indefinite, intangible, vague; difficult of apprehension; destitute of use; incapable of being practically improved, or rationally conceived of and asserted, or validly defended. No, he is present with me now in all revealed distinctness and precision. His own blessed voice speaks with me in the lively oracles. His own blessed face looks forth upon me from the now living picture of his biography." [2]

The Bible is unlike fiction to understate the matter. The characters of Shakespeare, Austin, Chaucer, Melville, Wharton and all seem very thin in comparison. And in fact, they are all too thin. Indeed, there is no comparison.

But the striking thing is this. Do you remember Eagleton’s point as taught by Prospero? The magic of literature’s influence can only come to realization in the life of the reader when the reader leaves the book behind. This may be true of literature, but it is not true of the Bible. The power of Scripture resides in an abiding presence, a presence which is neither imagined nor sentimental but a presence which is none other than He who is the subject of the biography. The Lord be with you. And, indeed, He is.

[1]Hugh Martin, The Abiding Presence (Scotland: Christian Focus, 2009), 19.

[2] Ibid., 19-20.

Jeffrey A Stivason

Jeffrey A Stivason

Jeffrey A Stivason (Ph.D. Westminster Theological Seminary) is a pastor (Grace RPC, graceingibsonia.org) and NT professor at RPTS in Pittsburgh, PA. He is also editor at placefortruth.com.

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