Scripture and limericks

An odd pairing you might think, but surprisingly apt – or, at least, it seemed to make sense in the shower this morning. The reading for our ‘Method of reading the Hebrew Bible’ class this coming week was an introduction to, and a fairly robust criticism of, Historical/Literary Criticism. This particular branch of Biblical criticism seeks to ‘de-construct’ scripture as it stands and ‘re-construct’ the original documents or oral histories that make up our combined texts. The purpose is to get under the skin of the texts, analyse them for historical content and so be able to better place them in context and understanding. It is a ‘scientific’ approach to the texts, but that description should be used guardedly for it does not imply that ‘facts’ may be extricated from the text, rather that it is a very analytical approach.

The critique of this method, in my reading, comes primarily from Lou Silberman. In a nutshell he says that texts are best understood when the are ‘experienced’ rather than analysed. In the article I was reading he cites a number of examples where ‘analysis’ of the language of the text raises concerns over the technically correct usage of words, leading to considerations of scribal errors or questions over meaning. However, when one ‘zooms out’ of the text, it can be seen that the choice of words or phrases better fits the rhythm of the story or its poetry or its emphasis. It’s easy to forget that the Bible is literature – it has a dramatic story to tell and it tells it in a dramatic way. Remember too that much of it stems from oral tradition. When was the last time you heard a good storyteller use bland phrases and uninteresting delivery?

But for some, reading scripture as a story devalues it in some way. Rather, it should be a list of ‘rules’, examples of what’s right and wrong, guidance without ambiguity. How can a ‘truth’ be transmitted in a story when it would be better stated clearly? I think the answer is ‘impact’. If we have to work at getting the truth of a passage, the message of a text then it has much more impact on us. Moreover, it means that there are many paths that can be travelled to reach that truth and, what’s more, there are many truths that can be found along those paths.

And that brings me to limericks. I was trying to think of a more contemporary or literary example of this idea of valid truth within a form of literature that, at first glance, detracted from the truth it contained. For whatever reason the following limerick popped into my head:

An epicure dining at Crewe,
found quite a large mouse in his stew.
Said the waiter, “Don’t shout,
or wave it about,
or the rest will be wanting one too!”

Now, at first glance it’s mildly amusing – the absurdity of other diners also wanting a mouse in their meal. Then there’s the puzzling choice of the word ‘epicure’. Surely a word like ‘gentleman’ would be just as effective to communicate the absurdity? But then we consider who/what an epicure is and we realise that the limerick can actually be quite a biting social comment. Why is that? Well, here’s a definition of the word:


n. person taking care over the niceties of food and drink. epicurean, a. luxurious; sensual; n. such person; follower of philosophy of Epicurus, who taught that ultimate moral good is happiness.

The use of the word to indicate merely a lover of food is actually a relatively modern usage and departs somewhat from Epicurean philosophy. Nonetheless, let me suggest that it implies that the diner would be, identifiably, a lover of fine foods. And if the epicure had a mouse, then it must be good and so, in order to appear as ‘sophisticated’ diners, then the rest would wish to eat the same. So the ‘truth’ at the heart of this limerick is that we are always concerned about appearances and like to emulate those who, in our opinion, set a fine example to follow. And so we arrive at a ‘truth’ within an absurd form of literature.

The question is, is that what is intended by the limerick? Maybe it is, maybe it’s not but the point is that when we de-construct the limerick, we may understand the meaning of the words, but it’s only when we ‘experience’ the limerick in its entirety that deeper truths may be revealed. De-construction may help us to see the social comment (and even allow us to phrase it in more ‘rule-like’ form), but the humour and the absurdity and the style make it memorable and add emphasis to the truth it is imparting. The fact that we may need to do a bit of digging to appreciate it simply adds to the overall impact.

I quite like the analytical – it can highlight fruitful avenues of exploration but, ultimately, it can be dry with only an academic interest at its heart. So, I guess I’m firmly in the camp of scripture needing to be experienced and that means allowing the Spirit to open up the truths it contains, noting, carefully, the plural.

2 responses to “Scripture and limericks”

  1. The use of story and metaphor is an important way of unmasking truth. Remember Nathan and King David ? How about Jesus talking about planks in eyes ?
    I wonder sometimes at what point does analysis go too far ? When is a joke not a joke ? When it’s analysed to see why it’s funny.
    My opening illustration this morning probably fits in to the ‘experienced’ type of text analysis.
    When it comes to unmasking ‘truth’ in Biblical texts, I have to be aware of the literary type I’m reading. Sometimes the writer isn’t giving you ‘truth’ by a story that illustrates ‘truth’. The only trouble then is Pilate’s question… what is ‘truth’ ?

  2. The Lou Silberman article is interesting because it’s not just about about metaphor (in fact it’s not about metaphor at all), it’s about storytelling. One example he uses is the theme of ‘the True Heir’ than runs through much of the early history of Israel. Take, for example, the teasing story of Abram and Sarai – all the false leads about a possible heir. Of course, we know of God’s promise to Sarai but there’re all the ups and downs as the story unfolds and all the interruptions of seemingly unrelated narratives. Form criticism would unpick this and suggest that, for example, the Sodom and Gomorrah story is not part of the original and so can be ‘set aside’ as an independent narrative not really belonging to the main narrative. But… is it any different from a contemporary soap leaving us with a cliffhanger and digressing to another part of the story before returning to the main narrative. It’s this sort of technique that builds expectation, a heightened sense of anticipation and climax – it’s good storytelling!
    Now, maybe the digression wasn’t part of the original (and form criticism may well verify that) but nevertheless the ‘edited’ version still works as a story. Arguably, it works even better as a story. Where’s the excitement in a chronological listing of what happened to Abram and Sarai? And, arguably, it’s through the telling of it as a story that more of its ‘truth’ is revealed – God’s timing is not our timing, God’s methods are not our methods, God’s promises are to be trusted but fulfilled in God’s way, not by ours. These are just a few of the ‘truths’ that come out when the narrative is presented as a story that would be lost when presented as a chronological bulleted list, say. But, on the other hand, the ‘truths’ I’ve highlighted are my impressions and may be entirely different from someone else. The point, I guess, is that we can never apply one method as the correct one, for we can learn lessons on so many different levels.
    The problem is to keep an open mind about whether an interpretation is ‘valid’ but still be aware of when it strays too far from ‘acceptable’ doctrine. When we allow only our own interpretations, then we have usurped the place of the Spirit (which ties nicely into one of the themes in the Peterson book).

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