Asian Literature

Western Christians tend to forget that the Bible is largely an Asian document. Israel certainly lies in close proximity to Europe, but the ancient Hebrew worldview had more in common with Eastern thought than with Western rationalism. Not that the Israelites were irrational or rejected reason—they simply understood divine authority to supersede mere human thought.

God's Word is notable for its use of direct narrative to impart deeper, more complex, and more spiritual truths. We learn about God's character not primarily through explanation ("God is omniscient, omnipotent, etc.") but through poetry and stories in which He is the major player. There are plenty of straightforward statements, but not enough to make the Bible merely a handbook of doctrine; it's the Word of God, and the story of His people and their redemption through the blood of Christ.

The closest analogy we have in Western literature is the novel. A good novelist writes an interesting story, but the story is only a vehicle for his or her ideas about life, reality and meaning. If there is nothing beyond the story itself, the action and the characters, it's not a good novel. The main difference between novels and the Bible is that novels are ficitonal and the Bible is true, but they effect their goals similarly.

Fortunately, the Bible is more easily understood than most Oriental writings. The East seems to revel in obscurity, its greatest poets and philosophers seemingly unable to speak except in riddles. Siddartha Gautama Buddha, the most famous of them, comes closest to plain speech, but even he employs strange metaphors and paradox, the latter being a favorite device of Eastern writers.

In the West, paradox often refers to no more than a verbal game; more importantly, it's often used to represent an impossibility by comparing two mutually exclusive truths. In the East, paradox is one of the primary means of expressing truth and the nature of reality. Of course, "reality" is a tricky word because many Eastern philosophies and religions see the physical world as an illusion, but as far as reality can be expressed (by their view), it can best be expressed in terms of paradox.

To them, it's not that any single statement is absolute (in the sense that it precludes any other statements). Instead, reality is broad enough and complex enough that it encompasses a variety of truths that may or may not be in conflict. The Buddhist attempts at nirvana are in fact attempts to release the attainee from the tension of existence.

Eastern writers and thinkers aren't simply preoccuppied with conflict, however. For them, every surface-level observation is indicative of something deeper. Understanding metaphor is essential to understanding everything from The 1,001 Arabian Nights to The Bhagavad Gita and The Epic of Gilgamesh. Most Asian literature has a distinctly religious feel because most of it is distinctly religious....and distinctly philosophical, and distinctly narrative, and distinctly mystical, etc.

In the West, we tend to compartmentalize. We have genres, and sub-genres, and sub-sub-genres so readers can know exactly what kind of book they're reading. Easterners have no such concept; literature is holistic and all-encompassing because life itself is all-encompassing. A spiritual thread runs through everything physical, and vice versa. All things connect, and affect one another.

Consequently, reading even modern Asian writings can be difficult. French novels don't seem all that foreign to Americans, or German, or Spanish novels, but Japanese poetry, Chinese philosophy, and Indian religious documents seem very foreign. Which is one of the reasons reading them can be so enjoyable. They open ways of seeing existence we'd never encounter or consider otherwise. Asian literature opens doors we didn't even know existed, and for more than one tired Western reader, it has even restored the love of reading. Ignore it at your own risk.

Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.

 

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