Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The Bible as Poetry

One might go through all the Psalms and single out certain 'repulsive' passages for special opprobrium. This would be a consequence and reaction to the fundamentalist's biblical attitude and perspective that it's the law, it's holy writ, it's inerrant and to be understood literally.

"Not so", I say; if you can perceive the Bible as poetry, then it becomes much lighter; then the 'repulsive passages' scattered through the Bible become no heavier than Jack and the Beanstalk or Little Red Riding Hood. No one needs to feel condemned; humor may be more appropriate. Can you laugh at the Bible? Sure! Jesus had a terrific sense of humor.

Two men had the most healthy minded approach to the Bible that I know; they were in fact my primary Bible teachers:

William Blake was described as a 'Bible soaked Protestant'. He pointed out that our only approach to reality is our imagination (not very highly esteemed in our culture). Blake superimposed ancient Judea on England; he saw Jesus walking around Albion:
"And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England's pleasant pastures seen?"
(from Jerusalem)

A radical rebel against the conventions of society he nevertheless came into possession of a beautiful positive faith. He referred to Jesus as the Forgiveness. (This poem would take considerable study to begin to understand- like much of Blake for that matter.)

My second teacher was Northrup Frye. First of all he was the one who showed me how to read Blake. His Fearful Symmetry, a book I read five times, made Blake begin to come through. Later (at the end of his life) he published a two volume work, a Study of the Bible and Literature. The first was called The Great Code and the second Words with Power.

Frye was an ordained minister, but his approach to the Bible was more literary than religious. I think most of us would benefit from trying a similar approach; it might spring us loose from the "mind forg'd manacles" that keep us from the full truth of God's Word.

8 comments:

anonymous julie said...

Good thoughts - I've been amazed lately how my approach to the Bible can radically change what speaks back to me.

It seems that a more literary approach might also be a more... integrated? one. Instead of trying to pick apart pieces of grass, to understand the flavor of the whole landscape...

Larry said...

"the flavor of the whole landscape.." Yes!! Looking at every detail the Bible is a mass of contradiction; 'this' may be more valuable than 'that'. You need an interpretive principle:

Mine is the Great Commandment(s): love God and neighbor. What doesn't meet this standard I discount. I find it of less value than the story of the Prodigal Son, the 13th chapter of 1st Corinthians, and those other passages that set forth God's love. His anger doesn't interest me; most of the condemnations violate the principle of God's love.

Another equally valuable interpretive principle is found in the parable of the last judgment Matthew 25. We're not judged by what we believe, but have we fed the hungry?, visited the sick and in prison? (these are metaphors for the acts of love and kindness to the universal neighbor that we encounter as we go through life.

The true secret of happiness is to know that you're doing God's will in that particular.

SinnaLuvva said...

A wonderful posting, once again Larry; many thanks. I've always found Blake a wonderful visionary, the only pity is that too many people forget the question marks in Jerusalem!

Your 'interpretive principle' chimes perfectly with mine, so I'm somewhat prejudiced. And as for the Prodigal; I always tend to think of the Prodigal Father, the prodigality of His love ... now that's what I call grace!

anonymous julie said...

Ugh, my first sentence should have been "how changing my approach..."

Anyway, glad the message wasn't lost.

It really all does come back to love, doesn't it...

Larry said...

It does as far as I'm concerned, Julie. Of course very large books have been written trying to explain what love is.

Love as we use it here is a theological term. Then love is expressed in a multitude of different ways. For example a Probation Officer may love his probationer enough to have him arrested.

I think we may spend a life time learning just what love is.

Larry said...

The Prodigal Father: that's a beautiful idea, Mal. We usually think of the prodigal as one who wastes his resources to no end.

The Father does everything right. He makes the sun shine and the rain fall on the just and the unjust. He loves all unconditionally and expects all to come home in the end.

What a great faith.

david said...

I never really got into Blake's poetry -- though I love his watercolours. We're on the same page with Norry Frye though.

Chris M. said...

I was catching up on some posts I saved in my Bloglines reader to get back to... and I'm glad I finally did. Yes, this post's title speaks to my understanding and experience of the Bible, as well.

There's a conversation going on in the comments over at Gathering in Light, "Christendom is not over yet," that -- somehow -- gives me the feeling it might benefit from your understanding...

Chris M.