The Soul in Paraphrase | Book Review


The Soul in Paraphrase is “an anthology of the best devotional poetry in English” edited by Leland Ryken, a long-time professor of English at Wheaton College, now retired. It takes its title from a line in George Herbert’s “Prayer,” which describes praying as “The soul in paraphrase,” among other things.  The anthology presents 98 poems from “Caedmon’s Hymn” (the oldest extant English poem) to works by T. S. Eliot. Ryken’s scholarly remarks follow each poem.

Ryken defines devotional poetry in both objective and subjective terms. Objectively, it “takes specifically spiritual experience for its subject matter,” which for Christian poets can include topics such as “the person and work of God, conviction and confession of sin, forgiveness, worship of God, and the church calendar with events like Christmas and Easter.”

Subjectively, devotional poetry has an “effect on a reader.” It “fixes our thoughts on the spiritual life and inspires us toward excellence in it.” Because of this subjective effect, Ryken includes in his anthology poems of what he calls “the poetry of common experience or clarification.” Such poetry “does not signal a specifically Christian identity but is congruent with Christianity.” Because of this, it need not be written by Christian poets.

As noted above, each poem is followed by Ryken’s “Notes on selected words” and “Commentary.” At first, I thought the definitions and commentary had an unweaving-the-rainbow quality to them. However, the deeper into the volume I got, the more I valued Ryken’s scholarly remarks because they helped me better understand what I had read.

Because of that, I would recommend that you read the poem first, then read Ryken’s explanatory words, then go back and re-read the poem. Doing so will help you better appreciate the literary art and spiritual insight of each poem. These poems repay careful and repeated reading.

I should add that I took two courses on English literature from Prof. Ryken when I attended Wheaton College (1987–1991). I thoroughly enjoyed both classes, especially the one on John Milton’s poetry. If you like this volume, I would encourage you to read his books on reading the Bible as literature, especially Words of Delight, A Complete Handbook of Literary Forms in the Bible, and Literary Introductions to Books of the Bible.

One final note: Crossway is to be commended for printing an anthology of poetry in a beautiful hardcover with thick pages. Good poetry is a marriage of form and content, so it’s nice to see a publisher recognizing that good books are too.

Book Reviewed
Leland Ryken, ed., The Soul in Paraphrase: A Treasury of Classic Devotional Poems (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018).

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Review of ‘Short Sentences Long Remembered’ by Leland Ryken


Leland Ryken, Short Sentences Long Remembered: A Guided Study of Proverbs and Other Wisdom Literature (Wooster, OH: Weaver, 2016).

For the past six months, I have read one chapter of Proverbs every day as part of my daily quiet time. Proverbs is delightful, instructive, and challenging, not to mention occasionally repetitious and boring. Sometimes, it also seems to make promises that real life doesn’t bear out. “The Lord does not let the righteous go hungry, but he thwarts the craving of the wicked” (Proverbs 10:30). In my experience, that’s not always true (even if it is often true or eschatologically certain).

Leland Ryken’s Short Sentences Long Remembered describes itself as “a guided study of Proverbs and other wisdom literature.” Ryken is professor of English emeritus at Wheaton College—my alma mater, and I took classes on English literature and John Milton from him. His focus is on the proverb as a literary genre.

The proverb genre is found most prominently in Proverbs (the book), but it is also present in the Bible’s other books of “wisdom literature,” (e.g., Ecclesiastes, James, etc.). Its core is a simple, epigrammatic sentence. In poetry, the proverb most often appears as a two-line unit, with the second line paralleling the first in some way. Over time, the poetic forms of the proverb become longer and more complex. In prose, the proverb is part of a paragraph that spins out “a series of individual thoughts related to it.”

Short Sentences Long Remembered can be read profitably by an individual or a group. It includes interpretive exercises in each chapter, titled “Learning by Doing.” Most of the examples are drawn from Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and James.

The book does not deal with the theological tension in wisdom literature between the promise of divine blessing for righteousness (Proverbs) and the experience of suffering by the righteous (Job). Indeed, Job doesn’t factor into the book at all. So, if you’re looking for a theological introduction to Proverbs, this is not the book for you.

If you’re trying to understand the proverb literarily, however, this is a good book to start with. I do wish, though, that Ryken had included a “For Further Reading” section in the book, so people could move from his introduction of the topic to more advanced works on the subject.

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Review of ‘Augustine’s Confessions: Christian Guides to the Classics’ by Leland Ryken


Leland Ryken, Augustine’s Confessions, Christian Guides to the Classics (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015). Paperback | Kindle

Augustine’s Confessions is a spiritual and literary classic. He began to write it in A.D. 397, ten years after his conversion to Christianity, when he was bishop of Hippo in Roman North Africa, partly to respond to his critics. Books 1–9 are largely autobiographical, while Books 10–13 include meditations on memory, time, and the Book of Genesis.

The book continues to fascinate and inspire readers, both scholars and laypeople, but it is not easy to read. Augustine mixes autobiographical reflections, biographical portraits of others, theological and philosophical arguments, psychological self-analysis, and biblical interpretation, among other things, in a continuous prayer to God. Modern readers who approach the book with contemporary autobiographical models in mind are likely to be confused and frustrated when they start reading it.

As part of a series of “Christian Guides to the Classics,” Leland Ryken has authored a literary introduction to Augustine’s Confessions that helped me prepare to reread the book, which I last read in college. After a brief overview of the book and its author, Ryken analyzes each of the Confessions’ thirteen books under the headings “Summary,” “Commentary,” and “For Reflection and Discussion.”

Ryken’s primary focus is on the literary qualities of the Confessions, so readers wanting a more detailed introduction to its theology and philosophy should look elsewhere. Evangelical readers, whether college students or otherwise, will appreciate Ryken’s positive evaluation of Augustine’s work, even as he criticizes aspects of the great saint’s theology. Readers may also want to check out Ryken’s A Christian Guide to the Classics, which I reviewed here. It provides a helpful introduction to what classics are and why they deserve to be read today.

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Review of ‘A Christian Guide to the Classics’ by Leland Ryken


A-Christian-Guide-to-the-ClassicsLeland Ryken, A Christian Guide to the Classics (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015). Paperback | Kindle

The more I watch television, the more I like books. The reason is not that there are few good television shows these days. On the contrary, television is experiencing something of a Golden Age, especially if you have cable or a streaming service.

The reason I like books more is because they have depth and require imagination. An actor must communicate in one take what an author can communicate over several pages. And the visual media makes decisions for you. Read Pride and Prejudice, and you can imagine Mr. Darby looking a number of different ways. Watch Pride and Prejudice (the PBS version preferably), and Mr. Darby will always look like Colin Firth.

So, books. But which books? Every reader has a preference, and mine tend to run toward mysteries and thrillers when it comes to pleasure reading. As a religion journalist, my professional reading—which I also enjoy—runs toward theology and ministry.

In A Christian Guide to the Classics, Leland Ryken makes a case for what used to be called “the Western canon.” These are the books, essays, stories, and poems that have endured and been considered influential through the ages because of their literary excellence and ability to inspire. They evince different worldviews (pagan, Jewish, Christian, secular) and encompass many genres (history, novels, poems), but they bring people together into a grand, ongoing conversation about life in its manifold variety.

The Classics are, by nature, elitist, but they have a capacious elitism, one that can be entered into by any who take them up and read. Ryken doesn’t quote her, but Maya Angelou’s comment that “Shakespeare must be a black girl” is apropos. If a dead white man can express universal human longings that a poor black girl can embrace, then he has written a classic.

For Christians, of course, the Bible is the classic to read. As Ryken argues, however, reading the Bible is not an alternative to reading other classics. Rather, it can be read alongside those classics, with the proviso that as Christians, we read the Bible humbly because of its authority over us, whereas we read other classics critically, knowing that they can err and mislead. God’s common grace is such that even in pagan texts that err, aspects of our common humanity come to light and find expression.

Ryken’s introduction addresses three questions: the nature of the classics, their value, and how to read them. His answers are workmanlike and analytical. His prose is clear and precise, though not necessarily memorable. The book’s back page contains a list of “Christian Guides to the Classics” that Ryken has penned on The Odyssey, Paradise Lost, Hamlet, The Scarlet Letter and other works. I have not read them, though I’m sure that they would make for helpful companions as you read those books.

I have this confidence because I took classes from Prof. Ryken when I matriculated at Wheaton College in the late 1980s. His workmanlike, analytical lectures helped me read literature in a different, better, more Christian way. Reading A Christian Guide was like a welcome return to his classroom, one that has encouraged me to get out my mystery/thriller rut and read the classics.

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Review of ‘A Complete Handbook of Literary Forms in the Bible’ by Leland Ryken


 Literary-FormsLeland Ryken, A Complete Handbook of Literary Forms in the Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014). Paperback / Kindle

In the introduction to this marvelous little book, Leland Ryken makes a distinction that helps explain why his book is necessary. Some people, he notes, argue that “the literary forms of the Bible are only the forms in which the content comes to us.” By contrast, he argues that the Bible’s literary forms are “the only form in which the content is expressed.” He concludes: “Without form, no content exists. Form is meaning. Meaning is embodied in form.”

If Ryken is correct—and I think he is—then we must pay attention to genres, literary techniques, motifs, archetypes and type scenes, figures of speech, rhetorical devices, stylistic traits, and formulas, for these literary forms are the vehicles by means of which biblical authors, inspired by God, expressed theological, historical, and moral content. Failure to understand the literary form correctly may result in a failure to understand the Bible correctly. We should not interpret a parable as a historical narrative, to cite an obvious example. If we do, we misunderstand both.

The handbook presents literary forms in alphabetical order, beginning with “ABUNDANCE, STORY OF” and ending with “WORSHIP PSALM.” For each form, Ryken provides both definition and example. Most of his entries are noncontroversial, though I think “PARABLE” might ruffle a few pastoral feathers, since it argues that parables are “usually allegorical,” in the sense that “numerous details in most of [Jesus’] parables stand for something else.” My guess is that readers will agree the substance of Ryken’s remarks, even if they chafe at his use of the words allegory and allegorical.

Ryken’s entries, “COMEDY” and “TRAGEDY,” point to architectonic truths about the literary form of the Bible considered as a whole. “It is a commonplace of literary criticism,” Ryken writes in the former entry, “that comedy rather than tragedy is the dominant form of the Bible and the Christian gospel.” Why? “The story begins with the creation of a perfect world. It descends into the tragedy of fallen human history. It ends with a new world of total happiness and victory over evil.” By contrast, as Ryken writes in the latter entry, “The materials for tragedy are everywhere present in the Bible, but the Bible is largely a collection of averted tragedies—potential tragedies that are avoided through human repentance and divine forgiveness.” The biblical metanarrative of creation, fall, and redemption encodes a comic worldview, a hopeful story with a happy ending. No wonder joy is the predominant response to the gospel whenever it is preached!

Those wishing to study the literary forms of the Bible in greater depth can turn to several other works by the same author, including: How to Read the Bible as Literature, Words of Delight: A Literary Introduction to the Bible, Ryken’s Bible Handbook, and Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, which he co-edited with James C. Wilhoit and Tremper Longman III.

Finally, on a personal note, I was a student of Ryken’s in his classes on British Literature and Milton at Wheaton College (Class of ’91). I enjoyed those classes thoroughly, despite the bullwhip. (Don’t ask!) And I continue to profit from his many writings on the literary qualities of the Bible.

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The Legacy of the King James Bible


Leland Ryken, The Legacy of the King James Bible: Celebrating 400 Years of the Most Influential English Translation (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011). $15.99, 272 pages.

The Committee on Bible Translation of the New International Version (NIV) recently released a revision of that bestselling Bible. In an explanation of changes made to the NIV, the committee made the following remark regarding its revised translation of 1 John 2:16:

Has anyone really improved on the KJV [King James Version] rendering of these three expressions [i.e., lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, pride of life], to which the updated NIV returns? … The language still communicates, and the poetry and style to which the NIV has returned is magnificent.

I imagine that this statement warms the cockles of Leland Ryken’s heart. (Full disclosure: I was a student of Ryken in two classes at Wheaton College—British literature and Milton.) He has been a public critic of the NIV since writing “The Literary Merit of the New International Version” for Christianity Today (October 20, 1978), an article which concluded that the NIV had little of it. He is also a proponent of the “essentially literal” translation philosophy of the English Standard Version, on whose translation committee he served as literary editor. He has defended that translation philosophy in two books: The Word of God in English and Understanding English Bible Translation. According to Ryken, this translation philosophy undergirds the KJV and its modern progeny: the Revised Standard Version (RSV)—though not the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), the New King James Version (NKJV), and the ESV. These modern translations share the same philosophy as the KJV, but they also are conservative translations in that they seek to retain the vocabulary and cadence of the KJV, consistent with accuracy and readability, of course.

This year (2011) is the four hundredth anniversary of the publication of the KJV. In honor of that milestone, Ryken has published The Legacy of the King James Version, which outlines the KJV’s publication history, literary excellence, and cultural influence for a general audience. Ryken covers a lot of ground quickly and in an easy-to-read style, offering suggestions for further reading at the end of each chapter as well as endnotes that point the reader to more detailed sources of information. If you are going to read one book this year in honor of the KJV, I recommend this one for its breadth of topic and ease of reading.

In the Afterword, Ryken proposes that “we should celebrate a victory, lament a loss, and resolve to hold on to what is excellent.” The victory is the four hundredth anniversary of the KJV, a translation that continues to sell better than most modern translations, routinely coming in at second or third on the sales rankings. The loss fourfold: (1) “we have lost a common English Bible in both the church and the culture at large”; (2) “the authority of the Bible went into eclipse when we lost a common Bible”; (3) “biblical illiteracy has accompanied the decline of the King James Bible”; and (4) we have lost “the affective and literary power of the King James Bible.” In light of this, Ryken argues that we should use those translations that, like the KJV, translate in an “essentially literal” and conservative fashion as well as read the KJV itself on a regular basis.

I don’t know whether I agree with Ryken’s recommendations, although I am using the ESV this year in my reading, writing, and preaching. But I can’t help and wonder whether another wholesale translation of the Bible into English or thoroughgoing translation of an existing one really benefits the readers. I know it’s good business, but is it good for anything else?

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