Reclaiming the Bible as Literature: An Evangelical Approach
Evangelicals as a whole are suspicious of literary analyses of the Bible, and, though that suspicion saddens me, I fully understand it. Throughout most of our century, those critics who have used literary methods of analysis to “unpack” the scriptures have, in the great majority of cases, done so to the detriment of biblical authority. Such, of course, has not always been the case. The “science” of literary theory, with its attendant tools and procedures, owes as much to Pauline typology as it does to Aristotle’s Poetics; indeed, the “four-levels-of-meaning” hermeneutic which dominated the Middle Ages is as much “literary” as it is “theological.” However, since that eighteenth-century phenomenon (that we still refer to by its very partisan title: the Enlightenment) gripped the emotional, intellectual, and spiritual psyche of the Western world, literary analysis has slowly surrendered its prerogative as a legitimate and reliable vehicle for pursuing and uncovering truth. For modern Christianity (particularly Western Evangelical Protestantism) which continues to be rooted deeply in the Enlightenment tradition, the truth claims of the Bible are seen to rest more on a scientific view of inerrancy than on a poetic view of inspiration, more on mathematical logic (systematic theology with no contradictions) than on carefully nuanced readings of the complex, at times paradoxical nature of the triune God (particularly as it is revealed and refracted through various genres and various points-of-view), more on syllogistic proof-texts than on narrative explication.
Now the above claim that evangelical thought is in part an outgrowth of Enlightenment ideology is one that has gained fairly wide acceptance over the last two decades. Among the many fine scholars who have worked in this vein are philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre (After Virtue, 1981, 84), theologian-missiologist Lesslie Newbigin (Foolishness to the Greeks, 1986), and historian-sociologist Mark Noll (The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, 1994). Central to the critiques of these three scholars, and, indeed, to those of most of their colleagues, is the inevitable conclusion that our Enlightenment heritage has proven to be more a liability than an asset to Christianity. For MacIntyre, the initial attempt and final failure of the Enlightenment Project to provide “a rational vindication of morality,” resulted in “a world of secular rationality [in which] religion could no longer provide . . . a shared background and foundation for moral discourse and action.” In the wake of the Enlightenment zeal for freeing man both from his traditional social functionality and from any sense of a final purpose (telos), modern man was left adrift with no fixed moral or ethical signposts: taking his eyes off that higher citizenship which is above, he sought the more secular rights of the eighteenth-century political reformers; rejecting the joy of heaven as his ultimate goal, he sought the more earthly, pain-avoiding-pleasuring-pursuing happiness of the nineteenth-century Utilitarians.
Newbigin too laments modern man’s substitution of efficient for final causes, and he locates the source of this substitution in Newton’s disclosure of a world “governed not by purpose but by natural laws of cause and effect.” In a world so structured, the private sphere of values (defined by an individual’s or group’s relativistic assessment of their purpose) must needs be separated from and subordinated to the public sphere of objective, observable facts. This is the “modern scientific world-view” bequeathed to us by the Enlightenment and accepted by both believers and non-believers. Within this world view, “the gospel is treated as an account of something that happened in one of the enclaves where religious experience took place. It has to be brought out of that private enclosure into the public world to be weighed in the scale of reason along with all the other varieties of religious experience.”
Indeed, argues Noll, it is precisely because American evangelicalism was prepared to accept Enlightenment assumptions as her groundwork and to argue from this groundwork that she thrived and grew, while European Christianity, clinging fast to old ideologies and cosmologies, was quickly marginalized into near irrelevancy. But American evangelicalism won her victory at a great cost: the cost, that is, of her mind. We accepted too quickly and unproblematically the Enlightenment dichotomies of external and internal, public and private, fact and value, history and myth, science and poetry, etc. Worse for Noll, we bought in to the eighteenth-century notion that, just as an enlightened common sense rationality was the one thing needful for running the polis and the economy, so was it sufficient for extracting and laying bare the mysteries of God, creation, and the Bible. Noll sums up this (predominately evangelical) attitude powerfully and succinctly by quoting the preface to Charles Hodge’s Systematic Theology (1872-3): “‘The Bible is to the theologian what nature is to the man of science. It is his store-house of facts; and his method of ascertaining what the Bible teaches, is the same as that which the natural philosopher adopts to ascertain what nature teaches. . . . The duty of the Christian theologian is to ascertain, collect, and combine all the facts which God has revealed concerning himself and our relation to him. These facts are all in the Bible.'” Such an approach, it need hardly be said, not only excludes the relevancy of literary forms of exegesis but renders them somewhat suspect as being counter-productive to true biblical study.
And with this statement we return to the topic at hand, which, I may now state plainly, is not only to trace the historical reasons for the evangelical suspicion of literary analyses of the Bible, but to mount an apologetic for the reclaiming of such analyses in an evangelical framework.
If we accept the past several paragraphs as a prologue, we may now plunge ourselves fully into our exegetical drama. For it not so much the Enlightenment itself that concerns us as one of its offshoots: the so-called higher critical movement that arose in Germany in the late nineteenth century. It was these critics more than any who brought the full weight of the Enlightenment to bear on biblical scholarship. It was they who would first co-opt the word “critical” to refer to a kind of scientific, historicist, evolutionary approach that erected a sharp wall of division between subjective, privatized faith claims and objective, public truth claims. “Faith,” writes Rudolph Bultmann, one of the key higher critics, “must not aspire to an objective basis in dogma or history on pain of losing its character as faith.” At first, this may sound like an attempt to create a separate but equal sphere for faith; however, as is the upshot of most such attempts, the “equal” is far from equal. Objective, textual-historical “facts” are privileged above transcendent, theological “values.” Flesh-and-blood individuals like Moses become but mere metaphors for vast and finally de-humanizing textual-historical processes; the writings of one of the most passionate figures in history, St Paul, become but a label (impersonal text rather than personal epistles) for progressive (i.e., evolutionary rather than revelatory) church doctrine. Secure in their Enlightenment faith that morality and ethics could be (and indeed had been for a century) grounded on rational grounds, there was no need to build a wall of protection around the revealed morality/ethics of the Bible. The pronouncements of Moses and the Prophets, like much of the doctrine of the New Testament, could be relegated to the more “literary” sphere of personalized, relativistic experience.
The evangelical reaction to this new school of thought was swift and decisive: too swift and too decisive. For it may be said of us, as it was of Othello, that we loved our Bible not wisely but too well. We rushed in with zeal to protect the authority and integrity of scripture from those who would de-authorize, de-sacralize and de-mythologize it, but, in our mad rush, we made the terrible error of agreeing to wage our scriptural war on their grounds. We accepted, lock, stock, and barrel, those very Enlightenment dichotomies (fact/value, public/private, history/myth, etc.) that, if I may so express it, “started all the trouble in the first place.” The fundamentalist and dispensationalist schools erected a vast structure of systematic theology that owed its impetus and methodology to Enlightenment notions of science, logic, and common sense rationalism (see quote by Charles Hodge above). Rather than reclaim literary analysis as a way of seizing and empowering (as opposed to deferring and relativizing) the truths of scripture, they–sometimes passively, sometimes actively–branded it as a tool of the opposition for converting the Holy Word of God into mere stories and myths. Fiction was fiction and non-fiction was non-fiction, and never the twain should meet. Now this is not to say that all evangelicals reacted the same way to Bultmann and his colleagues. The great British critic C. H. Dodd, for example, though firmly devoted to the evolutionary historicism of the higher critics, was able, in such works as The Authority of the Bible (first pub, 1929), to make fine use of literary terminology and methodology and to create a sphere for the Bible that was truly separate but equal. Still, Dodd’s voice was in the minority.
On the flip side of the coin, the various pentecostal and holiness movements, also accepting too hastily and naively Enlightenment dichotomies, abandoned the objective, public sphere of facts for a more privatized religion of charismatic experience. For them literary analysis was suspect as well, not so much because it threatened the status of biblical history as because it tended (like dispensationalism itself) to fix the work of the spirit within a relatively closed system. Furthermore, many pentecostals reacted to literary analysis the way many college students react to their English Professor’s attempts to analyze Poetry: stop killing the freshness and spontaneity of the poem with your rigid, paralyzing analysis. And so it goes.
We are left then with our deeper, more pressing question: can literary analysis of the Bible be reclaimed in an evangelical setting. Can we find a middle road between higher criticism and fundamentalism, or, better, can we find a higher road that transcends them both?
Significantly, our search for an answer to this question begins not with the theologians but with the literary critics themselves: with a school of critics who, in the middle years of our century, sought with passion to preserve poetry itself from the all-corrosive influence of scientism, rationalism, and positivism. These critics, most of whom hailed from the American deep South are known collectively as the “New Critics,” and they include amongst their ranks such noted scholars as T. S. Eliot, I. A. Richards, John Crowe Ransom, R. K. Blackmur, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, Yvor Winters, W. K. Wimsatt, Monroe C. Beardsley, and Cleanth Brooks. Common to all these theorists (many of whom were poets as well) was a fear that the growing influence of science was rendering poetry irrelevant to the modern age. The reigning “religion” of their day, positivism, held that science, progress, and technology would take us into the millennium, that fact, not feeling, was what was needed to usher in a new age of happiness and prosperity (as opposed to joy and purpose). In writing (and language in general) they sought a one-to-one correspondence between the word (the signifier) and the object or idea that it signified. Irony, metaphor, symbolism, paradox, ambiguity: all such things pointed back to the old, unenlightened days of religion, mystery, ritual, and superstition.
It was against this force that all the New Critics, in one way or another, struggled. They saw it, finally, as an anti-culture, anti-Beauty, anti-Truth (in its transcendent sense) force that would leave us not more, but less human: that would convert us, to use C. S. Lewis’ apt phrase, into “Men without Chests.” In the minds of the positivists, and, the New Critics feared, in the mind of a society that they were rapidly (though unconsciously) converting to their views, the “truths” arrived at in poetry (not to mention those uncovered by metaphysical philosophers) were too abstract, too private, too “emotional” to be taken seriously by an empirical, scientific age that had purged itself of “non-factual” truth claims. I. A. Richards was one of the first literary critics to realize fully the disastrous consequences of positivism for those devoted to the composing, analyzing, and teaching of poetry. Unwilling to accept the groundwork assumptions of his Enlightenment opponents, Richards sought to create a separate status for poetry that would exist alongside (rather than in opposition to) science. In fact, in Science and Poetry (1926), he coined the phrase “pseudo-statements” to distinguish the statements made by poets from those made by scientists. By this phrase, he did not mean that poetry was false (to do so would be to accept the dichotomies of the Enlightenment), but that the claims and resolutions of poetry must not be judged by the same criteria (or from the same perspective) as those of science.
Three years later, in Practical Criticism (1929), Richards refined his terminology and began to speak, not of factual statements vs. pseudo-statements, but of intellectual belief (science) vs. emotional belief (poetry):
Intellectual belief more resembles a weighting of an idea than anything else, a loading which makes other, less heavily weighted, ideas, adjust themselves to it rather than vice versa. . . . The whole use of intellectual belief is to bring all our ideas into as perfect an ordered system as possible. We disbelieve only because we believe something else that is incompatible . . . Emotional belief is a very different matter. In primitive man, as innumerable observers have remarked, any idea which opens a ready outlet to emotion or points to a line of action in conformity with custom is quickly believed. . . . Given a need (whether conscious as a desire or not), any idea which can be taken as a step on the way to its fulfillment is accepted unless some other need equally active at the moment bars it out. This acceptance, this use of the idea–by our interests, desires, feelings, attitudes, tendencies to action and what not–is emotional belief.
Richards goes on to assert that, though emotional belief can sometimes accompany intellectual belief, it can (and in much great poetry does) exist by itself. On this point, Richards is adamant, for he knows all too well that “the habit of attaching emotional belief only to intellectually certified ideas is strong in some people; it is encouraged by some forms of [positivistic] education; it is perhaps becoming, through the increased prestige of science, more common. For those whom it conquers it means ‘Good-by to poetry.'” Finally, in a note appended to the above quote, Richards defines clearly why he feels so driven to make the distinctions he does: “The standard of verification used in science to-day is comparatively a new thing. As the scientific view of the world (including our own nature) develops, we shall probably be forced into making a division between fact and fiction that, unless we can meet it with a twofold theory of belief on the lines suggested above, would be fatal not only to poetry but to all our finer, more spiritual, responses. That is the problem.”
If we pause at this point and return to the issue of biblical criticism, we will quickly note that American evangelicals as a whole refused to do what Richards does above: that is to say, they accepted the Enlightenment assumptions of their opponents and allowed scientific verification to become the touchstone on which biblical authority rose or fell. And this isa problem. For though it is not true that, as uneducated and/or propagandistic people often say, the Bible is full of contradictions, it is true that, when judged on scientific, “mathematical” grounds, the Bible does contradict itself. The Bible is not a textbook written to conform to truth tests that did not exist (indeed would not exist for over a millennium and a half) when Saints Paul and John were completing the New Testament. True, God has preserved his Word, and the fact that the Bible stands up to Enlightenment (and even more modern) forms of scrutiny better than any other work of antiquity should silence critics more than it has; still, to persist in an Enlightenment form of defense is, finally, to lose the struggle. And not only to lose it, but to lose it in three ways. First, as stated above, there will be contradictions. Second, even if we could come up with justifications for all the contradictions, the very positivistic thinkers (and society) we are trying to convince will merely dismiss the whole enterprise by falling back on the age old dichotomies, by saying that the Bible nevertheless dwells in the private world of values and opinions and can hold no claim on enlightened societies or individuals. Third, and most important to the topic at hand, we will impoverish our own spirits by cutting ourselves off from levels of truth and communion that far transcend those of our rational age.
But back now to Richards. There are, of course, problems in his attempt to create a separate but equal space for poetry that parallel those of the higher critics. His concept of emotional belief dwells too strongly in a world of psychologized experience. His dichotomies are still too close to those of the Enlightenment. His linking of emotional belief to primitive man smacks a bit too much of an evolutionary view of progress that actually forms the foundation of positivism (the belief, shared by higher critics and their heirs, that the intellectual growth of man is from myth to religion to science). As in the writings of the higher critics, poetry becomes too much an inner, need-based thing and the poet (like the prophet) becomes not a figure of awe whose words impress upon us a “true feeling” of accountability, but the subject of psycho-analytical studies.
Enter Allen Tate, who, though he respected Richards greatly, was aware too of his limitations. “Mr Richards,” writes Tate in a perceptive essay, “Literature as Knowledge” (1941), “like a good positivist, was the victim of a deep-seated compulsive analogy, an elusive but all-engrossing assumption that all experience can be reduced to what is actually the very limited frame of reference supplied by [experimental psychology’s] doctrine of correlation, or of the relevance of stimulus to response.” With deep insight, Tate saw that Richards, like Matthew Arnold before him, was too accommodating to the scientists, too accepting of their view of reality, too quick to surrender truth in return for feeling. “There is a certain uneasy piety in the extravagant claim that poetry is the realm of values; and there is no way, I think, to get around the conclusion that, since the values are not attached to reality, they are irresponsible feelings. They are, in fact, rhetoric.” Tate was more vigorous in setting up a sphere for poetry that would not just be equal but surpass science in the grasp for higher things. Consequently, he went right for the jugular, for the definition of meaning itself:
“Meaning” has been replaced [by the Enlightenment positivists] by a concept of “operational validity”–that is to say, the “true” meaning of a term is not the definition; it is the number of statements containing it which can be referred to empirically observed events. Along with meaning and definition, universals also disappear; and with universals, cognition. A proposition does not represent an act of knowing by a knower–that is, a mind; it is, in a chemical metaphor, the expression of an interaction among certain elements of a “situation.”
At all costs, writers and critics of poetry must reject this definition of meaning, and they must do so, not merely by retreating to a world of psychological needs, but by offering an alternative. Poetry, says Tate, “is neither the world of verifiable science nor a projection of ourselves; yet it is complete.” Great poetry achieves a higher, fuller integrity in which the individual knower touches on something universal, in which a deeper balance is achieved, a greater harmony that reveals itself in what Coleridge (in Biographia Literaria, Chapter XIV) calls “the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities.” Tate explores this balance somewhat under the rubric of “tension”; however, it is Cleanth Brooks, under the rubric of “irony,” who offers the fullest explication of this mysterious quality of poetry.
In the concluding chapter of his influential book, The Well Wrought Urn (1947), Brooks establishes a meaning for poetic structure that surpasses both Tate’s positivist definition of meaning and Richards’ definition of intellectual belief to arrive at that fuller integrity discussed above:
The [poetic] structure meant is a structure of meanings, evaluations, and interpretations; and the principle of unity which informs it seems to be one of balancing and harmonizing connotations, attitudes, and meanings. But even here one needs to make important qualifications: the principle is not one which involves the arrangement of the various elements into homogeneous groupings, pairing like with like. It unites the like with the unlike. It does not unite them, however, by the simple process of allowing one connotation to cancel out another nor does it reduce the contradictory attitudes to harmony by a process of subtraction. The unity is not a unity of the sort to be achieved by the reduction and simplification appropriate to an algebraic formula. It is a positive unity, not a negative; it represents not a residue but an achieved harmony.
The attempt to deal with a structure such as this may account for the frequent occurrence in the preceding chapters of such terms as “ambiguity,” “paradox,” “complex of attitudes,” and–most frequent of all, and perhaps most annoying to the reader–“irony.”
The key term here is “positive unity,” a unity of a different order from the elaborate systems of philosophers like Kant or Locke, economists like Smith or Marx, and reformers like Mill or Dewey. The mathematical desire to reduce all things to their lowest common denominator is anathema to Brooks (he calls it the “heresy of paraphrase”). The true critic (employing what Keats calls “negative capability”) does not feel impelled to simplify the poem into a formula or wrench from it its “plot summary” (or “paraphrasable core” as John Crowe Ransom termed it); he can rest in ambiguities, accepting the full complex of tensions, for he knows that irony (the key element in poetic structure) is both a “recognition of incongruities” and a deflection “away from a positive, straightforward formulation.”
And this should come as no surprise, Brooks says, for the unity of the poem itself “is achieved by a dramatic process, not a logical; it represents an equilibrium of forces, not a formula. It is ‘proved’ as a dramatic conclusion is proved; by its ability to resolve the conflicts which have been accepted as the données of the drama.” Neither the poem itself nor the critic attempts (as in math or science) to solve, but (as in architecture or music) to resolve. The ironic stability of a poetic structure, says Brooks in a slightly later work, Irony as a Principle of Structure (1949), “is like that of the arch: the very forces which are calculated to drag the stones to the ground actually provide the principle of support–a principle in which thrust and counterthrust become the means of stability.” The meaning, the truth, the force of the poem cannot be extracted from these tensions; they exist within them and through them.
If I may segue again to biblical criticism, it should be clear that dispensationalists like Scofield and Ryrie share much more in common with Kant, Locke, Smith, Marx, Mill, and Dewey than they do with Brooks and his fellow New Critics. For the Enlightenment-minded evangelical, the ambiguity of predestination and free will in the exodus account, the paradoxes inherent in Jesus’ teachings, the complex of attitudes expressed in God’s relationship to Israel, and the ironies that complicate such books as Job and Ecclesiastes are so many formulas that must be worked out: problems to be solved, not stresses to be resolved. They seek to abstract from the Bible a system that can stand on its own, like the Periodic Table of the Elements or the Laws of Thermodynamics, rather than attend fully to the biblical narrative itself with all its tensions and ironies. The Bible thus becomes less a drama of redemption than a laboratory for extracting formulas and proofs. Too often the dispensationalist prefers to “read the mind” of Moses or Isaiah or Paul or John (or, finally, God) rather than to wrestle (Jacob-like) with a narrative whose thrusts and counterthrusts are often, when viewed rationally and scientifically, contradictory. The pentecostal, on the other hand, too often prefers to read his own mind, to deal with scripture through the feelings and emotions it produces within him (i.e., the psychologized experience that, we saw above, Tate criticized in Richards) rather than to wrestle with a narrative that cannot be reduced to a personalized spiritual journal.
And when they (dispensationalists and pentecostals) do this, they fall, if I may return one last time to the New Critics, into two separate but related errors that W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley term the “intentional fallacy” and the “affective fallacy”:
The Intentional Fallacy is a confusion between the poem and its origins, a special case of what is known to philosophers as the Genetic Fallacy. It begins by trying to derive the standard of criticism from the psychological causes of the poem and ends in biography and relativism. The Affective Fallacy is a confusion between the poem and its results (what it isand what it does), a special case of epistemological skepticism, though usually advanced as if it had far stronger claims than the overall forms of skepticism. It begins by trying to derive the standard of criticism from the psychological effects of the poem and ends in impressionism and relativism. The outcome of either Fallacy, the Intentional or the Affective, is that the poem itself, as an object of specifically critical judgment, tends to disappear.
For Wimsatt and Beardsley, true criticism, what they and their fellow New Critics call “objective criticism,” is interested solely with the poetic object, analyzing it as if it were a microcosm, a complete world unto itself. “Poetry,” they write, “is a way of fixing emotions or making them more permanently perceptible when objects have undergone a functional change from culture to culture, or when as simple facts of history they have lost emotive value with loss of immediacy.” Poems are “concrete universals” (to employ a phrase used by all the New Critics) that, though they are generally set in a specific time and place (concrete), transcend that time and place (universal) to exist in a realm that, to paraphrase Wordsworth, does not feel the touch of earthly years. They are ever relevant; indeed, we may add ironically that, while the “facts” of science shift radically with each passing century (these days, it is more like every decade), the truths of poetry endure. “[T]hough cultures have changed and will change,” write Wimsatt and Beardsley, “poems remain and explain.”
I am ready now to return fully and finally to biblical criticism, and I intend to do so via the concluding chapter of Wimsatt’sThe Verbal Icon which is, serendipitously, titled “Poetry and Christian Thinking.” In this brief but thought-provoking essay, Wimsatt actually covers much of the same ground that I have covered above. Though in more general terms, he too notes the reluctance of American Christians to abandon their Enlightenment mind-sets and approach the scriptures from the standpoint of literary analysis. His opening remarks are well worth quoting in full:
There is certainly a broad sense in which Christian thinking ought to be sympathetic to recent literary criticism–a sense arising simply from the fact that recent criticism is criticism; that is, an activity aimed at understanding a kind of value, and a kind which, if not identical with moral and religious values, is very close to these and may even be thought of as a likely ally. Religious thinkers should be sympathetic to criticism because it is a branch of philosophy; it is an effort to get at certain truths about signs, knowledge, and reality. If these remarks seem at all platitudinous, let me add that I have taken the trouble to make them because it seems to me possible for the thought and scholarship of religious persons (especially in America today) to be too far sold in the cultivation of certain merely historical, informational, and neutral techniques. This may have been for a time a necessary phase of competition with secular science and secular education. But there is no reason why Christians should be the last (or even be slow) to transcend the limitations of such knowledge, to outgrow pedantic misconceptions and participate in literary philosophy.
Wimsatt hits the nail directly on the head. Evangelicals ought to be open to (not suspicious of) literary criticism; that it is their foe rather than their ally is a misconception that has persisted far too long. Indeed, Wimsatt goes on to emphasize, as I did in my first paragraph, that it is only in fairly recent times that Christians have abandoned literary analysis; further, he goes on to state that the New Critical focus on irony, tension, and paradox is actually in keeping with Medieval forms of scriptural exegesis:
One of the most distinctive features of recent criticism has been its realization of the inherently ambiguous or polysemous nature of verbal discourse, and especially of poetic discourse. But this is something pre-Cartesian and prescientific in spirit, and if it does not immediately derive from, is at least compatible with, an approach to verbal exegesis which persisted from remote antiquity to the Renaissance and has played a not inconspicuous part in the reading of Christian revelation. . . . Christian exegetes and theologians have traditionally claimed symbol and analogy as avenues of insight into the supernatural.
Polysemous here, literally “many signs,” refers not merely to their being multiple levels of meaning but to the fact that these meanings exist all at once in that pattern of resolved stresses that, for Brooks, defines ironic poetic structure. As such, it not only describes the New Critical view of how great poetry works but the Medieval view, held most notably by Dante and Aquinas, that the Bible exists on not one but four levels of meaning: the literal, the allegorical, the moral, and the anagogical.
Surely it is time that we, as American evangelicals, not only reclaim our wider literary-critical heritage but make use of available methods and tools that can help us recapture and reassert the centrality of the biblical narrative in a society that has marginalized it. Our battle is, after all, not so different from the one waged half a century ago by the New Critics. We are struggling to make known in an age of reason and logic that there are things which transcend reason and logic. That there are things of permanent value and that those values are not divorced from our real world of facts and figures. That there are higher truths which cannot be expressed or contained in rational systems and proofs, that can only be hinted at through indirection: irony, paradox, symbol. In his Summa Theologica, Aquinas answers an objection to the Bible’s tendency to obscure divine truths by refracting them through the likenesses of corporeal things with the following words: “The ray of divine revelation is not extinguished by the sensible imagery wherewith it is veiled, as Dionysius says; and its truth so far remains that it does not allow the minds of those to whom the revelation has been made, to rest in the likenesses but raises them to the knowledge of intelligible truths.”
If the reader thinks at this point that I am advocating treating the scriptures as “mere” literature, then he has not been reading very closely. On the contrary, I am saying that it is mathematical proofs, scientific statements, and logical systems that are “mere” things; it is they that fade, that remain with “likenesses” and never move beyond them. Poetry is a higher thing than science, and scripture is the highest poetry.
Back in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, Percy Bysshe Shelley, sensing earlier than most the direction the Enlightenment was taking, mounted, in 1821, a magnificent apology for the supremacy of imagination, poetry, and synthesis over reason, logic, and analysis. This work, published posthumously in 1840, is entitled “A Defense of Poetry,” and it was written in response to a work by Thomas Love Peacock entitled “The Four Ages of Poetry.” In his (mostly satirical) essay, Peacock (sounding much like the positivists that the New Critics would attack a century later), argued that poetry was no longer of much use in a scientific, progressive age, that, in fact, it was a primitive thing whose heyday had passed. Shelley, discerning the implications (if not the satire) of Peacock’s essay, responded vehemently:
We have more moral, political and historical wisdom, than we know how to reduce into practice; we have more scientific and economical knowledge than can be accommodated to the just distribution of the produce which it multiplies. . . . We want the creative faculty to imagine that which we know; we want the generous impulse to act that which we imagine; we want the poetry of life: our calculations have outrun conception; we have eaten more than we can digest. The cultivation of those sciences which have enlarged the limit of the empire of man over the external world, has, for want of the poetical faculty, proportionally circumscribed those of the internal world; and man, having enslaved the elements, remains himself a slave. . . .
The cultivation of poetry is never more to be desired than at periods when, from an excess of the selfish and calculating principle, the accumulation of the materials of external life exceed the quantity of the power of assimilating them to the internal laws of human nature.
Shelley knew instinctively that science, progress, and material growth were, in themselves, apart from the synthetic, humanizing power of poetry, not only paltry and limited, but enslaving and atomizing.
Where are those evangelical apologists to defend the Bible in the same way? Today more than ever, when the information superhighway floods us daily with discrete facts and figures that form no higher unity, we must diligently and critically search the scriptures for those unifying symbols, metaphors, and myths that incarnate the divine purposes for which we were created. The mere accumulation of systematic theologies and biblical proof-texts will not equip or empower us to accommodate and assimilate a world-view that considers irrelevant the spiritual, the supernatural, and the eschatological; this will only occur as a by-product of an encounter with God and his Word that takes into account the full narrative complexity (paradoxes, ambiguity, and all) of both the Bible and the Triune God who is its source, inspiration, and theme. We must move, writes Newbigin, “from the place where we explain the gospel in terms of our modern scientific world-view to the place where we explain our modern scientific world-view from the point of view of the gospel.”
As Christians, we worship the Logos, the Word made flesh, the ultimate “concrete universal” whose polysemous nature continually teases us out of thought. Neither Jesus (the Word of God) nor the Bible (also the Word of God) can be abstracted into a rational philosophical idea; the tension between physical and spiritual, temporal and eternal must remain, as it does in the greatest poetry. “The logos, writes Newbigin again, “is no longer an idea in the mind of the philosopher or the mystic. The logos is the man Jesus who went the way from Bethlehem to Calvary. In my own experience I have found that Hindus who begin by welcoming the Fourth Gospel as the one that uses their language and speaks to their hearts end by being horrified when they understand what it is really saying.” For too long, we, by accepting the Enlightenment dichotomies, have allowed the secular world to welcome too easily that two-edged sword that is the Christian Bible; we have allowed them to domesticate and pigeonhole it, to dismiss it as the “Good Book,” without any idea of the power and complexity of that goodness. It is time to reclaim the poetry of the Bible, for it is in that poetry that the reality of scripture, its concreteness and physicality, meets and blends with the ethereal and the divine in a cosmic dance of thrust and counterthrust. When, finally, it is presented that way, many, like Newbigin’s Hindus, will turn from it in disgust, for it will shatter their limited notions of reality. But others, I firmly believe, will respond as Coleridge did the first time he heard Wordsworth read his great poetic autobiography (The Prelude) aloud:
I sate, my being blended in one thought
(Thought was it? or aspiration? or resolve?)
Absorbed, yet hanging still upon the sound–
And when I rose, I found myself in prayer.
Alisdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, Second Edition (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 50.
Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1986), 24.
Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1994), 105.
Quoted in Noll, 98.
The New Historicist critic Jerome McGann mounts a similar co-option in his 1983 study, The Romantic Ideology: A Critical Investigation.
Quoted in Newbigin, 49.
Classicists quickly followed the lead set by the biblical higher critics and “did” to Homer what the documentary hypothesis had “done” to Moses. Indeed, in the seminal British study of the topic, The Rise of the Greek Epic (first published, 1907), Gilbert Murray offers a full review of the J, E, P, D theory before going on to apply a similar theory to the Iliad.
See, for example, this passage from The Authority of the Bible, Rev Edition (Glasgow: William Collins, 5th impression, 1986): “. . . the point comes in our investigation of the spiritual world at which we are bound to say that we cannot make sense of the facts of experience as a whole without taking the view that there is a righteous God who stands behind all life and calls men into relation with himself. The religious man does not hold that belief, any more than the man of science holds his beliefs, because it is so written. There is something in the nature of things that compels him to it. His belief is not any more ‘subjective’ than that of the man of science. . . . in both fields belief is grounded neither on absolute authority nor on individual opinion, but upon something in the very nature of that with which we are dealing, which leaves the individual no choice, if he is to make sense of the world of experience” (30). It should be noted here that Noll, inScandal, Chapter 8, applauds the British (along with the Dutch) for being instrumental in the preservation of what he terms the evangelical mind.
Noll is very helpful on tracing the Enlightenment roots of both fundamentalism and pentecostalism; cf. Scandal, Chapters 3-5.
C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: Macmillan, 7th printing, 1970 ), 34. All people involved in any way in the education of the young must read this brief but brilliant book that, in terms that are even more relevant today than when they were first written (1947), traces the consequences of a morality-free, value-free, tradition-free education.
I. A. Richards, Practical Criticism: A Study of Literary Judgment (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1929), 258-9.
Allen Tate, The Man of Letters in the Modern World: Selected Essays: 1928-1955 (New York: Meridian Books, 1955), 58-9.
Cleanth Brooks, The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1947), 195.
The three quotes are from Brooks, 209, 211, and 207, respectively.
Quoted in Critical Theory Since Plato, Revised Edition, ed. Hazard Adams (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1992), 970.
W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley, The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1967), 21. The Verbal Icon was first published in 1954; all the essays in the book, except “The Intentional Fallacy” and “The Affective Fallacy” (1946, 1949), were authored solely by Wimsatt. The quote is taken from the first paragraph of “The Affective Fallacy.”
Wimsatt, 268, 276.
Quoted in Critical Theory Since Plato, 117.
Critical Theory, 526.
Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks, 22.