Bible as Lit.
What I Know Now That I Didn’t Before
What Difference It Make
Intro: The Traditional Vs. Critical Approach To The Bible
The biggest thing I know now that I didn’t before is that the Bible is not only a religious text, it is simple literature, literally and letterally a text with pages and words that tell stories and images. Why didn’t I think about that before? Most likely I didn’t because I was intimidated by the faith and spirituality force people presume the Bible emits, a sort of aura. However, for me, the aura the Bible emits is not the traditional faith based, but the critical criticism, literary aura – one of immense curiosity, and growing curiouser and curiouser by the minute. And the biggest, apocalyptic difference this makes is the beginning of a new attitude, a metanoia, “an enlarged vision of human life” (Frye, 130). Rather than intimidated, I’m now motivated and inspired to experience this enlarged vision, to read, interpret and discover what the Bible has to offer in words, narratives, and images. Not to mention, I also have an entire new set of stories to read, err reread. ;-)
Before I took this class, and intensely before college, I was an ignorant fool towards the Bible, and kind of on purpose too. Although I was intimidated by the Bible, the church, and the force of faith, I honestly was also somewhat disgusted at how gullible devout churchgoers and fundamentalists can be, not to mention rich, wealthy, and therefore greedy. But now I even feel that’s a bit harsh. For many people the Bible provides support and answers for those uneasy, scary questions and thoughts about life, death, and what happens afterwards. Yet for me the Bible will remain ‘ta biblia,’ the little books (Frye xii), books to be read literarily, for the stories and mental pictures.
With that personal history out of the way, this paper shall charge headlong into the critical aura of the Bible. With the help of Northrop Frye, both from his book The Great Code and a little from Anatomy of Criticism, David, Plotz’s The Good Book, some quick references to Isaac Beshevis Singer’s novel The Slave, and some other brief glances of worldly literature, of course including the Bible, I want to discuss and investigate the Documentary Hypothesis; the prevalence and importance of typology in the Bible and literature; some fantastic new vocabulary words I’ve been introduced to; stages, levels, and modes of literature with emphasis on the Bible as an anagogic text; and finally, a short reflection on some of the amazing stories, images, and characters I’ve enjoyed in the bible as inspirational, motivating, passionate, didactic, surprising and downright entertaining. Hold on, it’s going to be a wild ride.
The Documentary Hypothesis: The Little Writers
If ‘ta bibla’ means ‘little books,’ then the Bible also has many little writers, according to the Documentary Hypothesis. Although I’d heard of, and slightly understood, the Documentary Hypothesis, it wasn’t until discussions in this class and my slow, personal encounters with the Bible – with the help of Plotz – that I realized, “wow, this is a great hypothesis!”
As I was reading Plotz I noticed he kept commenting on the various attitudes, almost entirely different personas, of God; how in one book He can be a sympathetic, benevolent God, and then in the next book He’s an enraged, furious, and brutal God. Of course God’s mood will fluctuate depending on the behavior of His chosen people, but numerous times good things seem to happen to bad people and bad things to the good. What these different personas of God depict, and what the Documentary Hypothesis supports, is that these various writers of ta bibla, especially in the Torah, interpret and explain God’s actions in massively different ways. In that sense the entire Bible, the Old and New Testament and the Apocrypha, is a timeline of books that reveal each generation’s interpretation of God, His actions, and the Bible.
Before this class I recall being vaguely familiar with typology but mainly in the simple sense of classifying symbols and types. With the help of Frye I’ve come to a completely revived, clearer, complex understanding of typology, especially as it pertains to the bible. Fyre says it best in The Great Code, “Typology is a figure of speech that moves in time: the type exists in the past and the antitype in the future. What typology really is as a mode of thought, what it both assumes and leads to, is a theory of history, or more accurately of historical processes;” (80-81). The clichés, ‘history repeats itself’ and ‘if it happened before, it’ll happen again,’ briefly come to mind but they come nowhere near exemplifying the typology Frye is explaining.
What I’m slowly starting to grasp is Frye’s discussion of typology versus causality. Thus far I’m on track with the reverse order of causality compared to typology. Causality moves backwards, whereas typology moves forward. With causality thinking, the immediate depiction of what’s in front of us (the effect) forces us to think about where it came from (the cause). And as Frye says, “typology might in fact be thought of as an analogy of causality.” (81). Typology analyzes the cause as the type and the effect as the antitype, as far as the movement in time is concerned. Frye takes this a step further by acknowledging that “Causality, however, is based on reason, observation, and knowledge,” whereas “Typology relates to the future, and is consequently related primarily to faith hope and vision” (82). Perhaps it could be said then, that typology correlates with prudential wisdom and causality with skeptical wisdom but that may be a stretch.
When Frye introduces his seven phases in the “sequence or progression” of the journey of revelation the Bible takes a reader through, he remarks, “Each phase is not an improvement on its predecessor but a wider perspective on it.” (106) Although he didn’t directly say this when he introduces typology earlier in the book, I believe this wider perspective is essential to understand the notion of typology Frye is suggesting. The antitypes of types are not necessarily exact reproductions or reproductions meant to be better or worse than the former; what antitypes do is present a different, wider perspective of similar contexts, conflicts, and images.
One other major work of literature I want to briefly mention in terms of typology is Cervantes’ epic novel Don Quixote. The knight-errant in question relies heavily on typology. From his acute reading and faith in books of chivalry and knight-errantry, Sir Don Quixote believes it’s entirely possible to take up the lifestyle once again. And he believes this so entirely he even convinces a neighbor peasant to play along. From the types in the books he reads, Don Quixote creates his own real life antitypes, albeit with incredibly comical, ironical twists even Don Quixote couldn’t predict. Cervantes, in masterful fashion, extends the typology even further with a second half of Don Quixote’s adventures. These become anti-antitypes of the antitypes from the first half, which were already antitypes of the types DQ read in his extensive knightly literature. In essence, in a way, Cervantes has parodied the structure of the bible with an old and new half that displays types and antitypes throughout the entire novel. And the antitypes in the second half become so outrageous and comical (the Cave of Montesinos, the puppet show, and the wooden horse are the best scenes) there’s no way to not feel some sort of sympathy for Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, who have both become so immersed in these types, antitypes, images and stories that the people in the novel start taking advantage of them – they too start becoming characters and tensions in the novel themselves.
Exquisite Vocabulary Words
Throughout this semester a number of vocabulary words have been introduced, some I’ve heard before – in other Sexson classes – and others that I haven’t until now. As Frye discusses the hieroglyphic, metaphoric phase of language he quickly mentions the word kairos, “which came to mean a crucial moment in time, originally meant the notch of an arrow.” These kinds of definitions mesmerize me. Kairos, in contemporary terms, relates to an important period in time or history when something, usually some mode or shift of thought, changes preconceived notions or reinvigorates them and does so quickly and swiftly. When the word originated it related to ‘the notch of an arrow,’ to survival and how necessary it was for that notch to be whittled well, in order for that split-second decision to shoot prey to be successful. In that sense, kairos held both definitions valid simultaneously: the crucial moment to release the arrow notched nicely, smoothly, and powerfully in the bow – a vivid, spectacular image of survival.
It’s not surprising that Frye includes an explanation of “vanity,” or “hebel” in the Wisdom phase. This definition of vanity was new to me, as was hebel, and I was captivated by it.
This word (hebel) has a metaphorical kernel of fog, mist, or vapor, a metaphor that recurs in the New Testament (James 4:14.) It thus acquires a derived sense of “emptiness,” the root meaning of Vulgate’s vanitas. To put Koheleth’s central intuition into the form of its essential paradox: all things are full of emptiness.
We should not apply a ready-made disapproving moral ambiance to this word “vanity,” much less associate it with conceit. It is a conception more like the shunyata or “void” of Buddhist thought: the world as everything within nothingness. As nothing is certain or permanent in the world, nothing either real or unreal, the secret of wisdom is detachment without withdrawal. (Frye 123)
I could quote Frye all day, but then I wouldn’t get to say much. However, as I read Frye, any book by Frye, an overwhelming, “unseen power, floats though unseen,” a power or sense of anamnesis. The words and sequences Fyre arranges them in sound far away yet so close, as if I remember them from another life, heard them in my unconscious mumbling muses as a child; or as if Frye’s words and language are exactly how I would describe the same material, only I’ve forgotten it all and Frye wakes me from a dream, begins my recollection.
The idea of everything as empty at first sounds really pessimistic. But if vain instills the sense of emptiness, fog, mist, a breath it merely becomes up to us to discover the value and power of such a correlation. In a sense this suggest than a breath, an oxygen, life giving breath is vain, empty, nothing. Yet it’s everything, it keeps us alive, moving, thinking, loving, worrying, and laughing. That vain breath is the most powerful, amazing emptiness there can be, and so it’s everything.
The Bible As Anagogy
For this section I’m going to shift Frye books. In Anatomy of Criticism, Frye dissects the phases of language he discusses in The Great Code in far greater detail with more divisions. The basic hierarchy in the two books is similar, but far more complex in Anatomy with literature falling into modes of myth, romance, high mimetic, low-mimetic, and chaos. These are further discussed in terms of Tragedy, Comedy and Thematic modes. It gets more complex as Fyre begins to describe and associate symbols with these phases or modes of literature; the phases and symbols correspond roughly with the modes up above, the anagogic phase with symbol as monad, the mythical phase with symbol as archetype, the formal phase with symbol as image, the descriptive phase with symbol as sign, and the literal phase with symbol as motif.
Where the Bible fits in to all this is at the top level, the myths, anagogy, and monads. Fyre explains that in the archetypal phase the dream or boundary is limited. This is not the case in anagogy. “In the anagogic phase, literature imitates the total dream of man, and so imitates the thought of a human mind which is at the circumference and not the center of its reality”… “nature becomes not the container, but the thing contained,” … “This is not reality, but it is the conceivable or imaginative limit of desire, which is infinite, eternal, and hence apocalyptic.” (119 , the Woo-Woo page).
The Bible exemplifies the phase of anagogy more than any other text I can think of – though Don Quixote is close in my opinion. In Genesis, it is directly stated that nature is created and thus contained within the structure of the text and surreality it creates. The Bible is also a text that revolves at the circumference of reality, the ultimate dream that man is created, influenced, and manipulated by the ultimate God; it’s nowhere near the center of reality which allows us to watch the snow fall, sipping a cup of tea and pondering on the wonders of the Bible and anagogy. Yet both are the ultimate way to spend our time, reading and criticizing the bible.
Boisterous Biblical Characters
I decided to add this section at the last minute because I feel I haven’t actually discussed the content of the Bible enough for a Biblical term paper. What really struck me about reading the Bible and Plotz was how passionate, vivid and influential the characters, and stories and images for that matter, can be. Whether they’re depicted as essentially good or bad characters, they embody the role to the fullest extent, especially God and Satan.
In the Book Of Acts, after making our movie and becoming quite familiar with the text, I was quite amazed at the persistence and passion of the apostles to spread the story of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Numerous times the apostles are beaten, stoned, banished and even imprisoned for their actions. Yet they always remain faithful, dedicated and passionate to their purpose, something that cannot be said of a lot of people.
The women in the bible are also amazing, which Lynda Sexson really helped us realize. Biblical women are certainly not prostitutes, as Plotz believes, but intelligent, wise, sometimes tricky women who know exactly what they’re doing. Take for instance Lot’s daughters. These women might surely be thought of as incestuous harlots at first, but they have a reason for their actions. They know the only way for their father’s lineage to remain strong is for him to have an heir, and as there are no other women around, and limited time since Lot is getting older, his daughters take matters into their own hands. Using the old ‘get ‘em drunk and take advantage of him’ trick, Lot’s daughters have done the only thing possible to keep their father’s lineage strong, the most loyal, benevolent gift a daughter could do for her father.
Lastly I want to say that I was also amazed with Plotz’s passion for reading the bible and writing about the Bible. His attention to detail and insightful anecdotes were always a joy to read and ponder.
I am completely, one hundred percent thankful that I took this class. The metanoia I’ve cultivated throughout the semester is one I knew was possible but needed the necessary assistance to really complete the transformation. I still have a lot of reading, thinking, and criticizing to do in terms of the Bible and Frye, but if it weren’t for this class I wouldn’t know where to begin.
Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2000.
Frye, Northrop. The Great Code. Florida: Harcourt, Inc., 1983.