Excess Baggage in Scripture—and Why It’s There

“The command tells the truth; the story shows the truth.”

By Leland Ryken

The best methodology for seeing recognizable human experience in the stories of the Bible is simply the conviction that the stories embody familiar human experience. If we are committed to the idea that the story of Jacob (for example) is filled with the experiences of everyday life, we will be able to see and name them.

[One way to do this is by] building bridges between the ancient biblical story and our own world. “Bridging the gap” is the familiar term for this process.

Bridging the gap

The gap between ourselves and the stories of the Bible requires us to take a two-way journey. First, we need to travel from our own time and place to the world of the story. Paradoxically, the more thoroughly we immerse ourselves in the world of the ancient text, the more likely we are to see recognizable human experience in it.

After we have traveled to the world of the story and lived in it, we need to make a return trip. When we do so, we bridge the gap. The full range of familiar experience is the menu of possible links between the story and our own experience. What is particularly required is the ability to name the experiences of the biblical story in the terms with which we are familiar.

Literary vs. expository discourse

An additional piece of information will aid the process. We need to grasp the difference between literary discourse and expository discourse. Expository discourse is informational and explanatory. It is the language in which we conduct most of our everyday business. A textbook and a news story are examples of expository discourse.

By contrast, literary discourse aims to embody and “image forth” human experience. While expository discourse relies on generalizations, abstraction, and accumulation of facts, literary discourse uses a range of techniques to incarnate human experience as concretely as possible. With literature, we do not assimilate facts and ideas but vicariously relive the experiences that the author places before us.

Showing the truth

It may appear that we have strayed from the topic of finding recognizable human experience in the stories of the Bible, but we have not. The reason we can find an abundance of universal human experience in the stories of the Bible is that the storyteller has incarnated and embodied the content of the story in pictures, images, characters, and events. It is a truism that history books and the daily news tell us what happened, whereas literature tells us what happens. American poet Ezra Pound famously quipped that “literature is news that stays news.” The permanence of literature comes from an author’s concrete portrayal of human experience.

How important is the concept that the subject of stories is universal human experience concretely embodied? It is crucial. People who never see the point of literature are the ones who have never developed the knack of seeing real life in it. Without that connection, it is hard to see the relevance of literature, which becomes a diversion and nothing more. The religious reverence that people have toward the Bible only partly negates this common situation.

For many of my readers, the new idea that I have put on the table is the concept of truthfulness to life as an additional category of truth beyond ideas that are true. I can imagine that someone might feel that ideas are a sufficient type of truth. This view is easily refuted. If ideas are all that matter, the writers of the Bible could have given us a list of ideas. Instead they gave us a book that is predominantly more than ideas—stories, for example, and poems made out of images and figures of speech.

Excess baggage

Compared to expository writing that gives us only facts or ideas, stories always contain what we might call “excess baggage.” Whereas history tells us what happened, a literary narrative fleshes out how it happened—not simply by accumulating details but by getting us to relive the events with the characters who were present, usually in the order in which the events unfolded. Truth is experiential as well as ideational. The “excess baggage” beyond facts and ideas that stories include is the added dimension that literature supplies. The ideas in a story do not require this extra material, but the literary dimension does.

We are touching here on the difference between expository (informational and explanatory) writing and literary writing. Teachers of literature and writing courses belabor the point that the task of literature is to show rather than tell. To show means to embody in concrete images (including the settings, characters, and actions in a story); to tell means to explain and generalize (as in an essay or news report). The same distinction is sometimes expressed by the formulas that literature enacts rather than summarizes. The command “you shall not murder” is an example of expository discourse. The story of Cain’s murder of Abel incarnates that truth in a story that does not use the word “murder” and does not explicitly command us to refrain from it. The command tells the truth; the story shows the truth.


This excerpt is adapted from Leland Ryken’s How Bible Stories Work: A Guided Study of Biblical Narrative. It’s March’s free book, so pick up your Logos copy now!




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