The Bible and Western Literature

The most cursory glance at the history of Western literature reveals that it has been deeply influenced by the Bible. Some of the greatest classics of Western literature draw their plots, characters, and ideas largely from Scripture; Dante’s Divine Comedy and Milton’s Paradise Lost are two of the most notable examples. Even when plots were not derived directly from the Bible, Scripture provided a commonly understood source of symbols and themes. Critic Northrup Frye has said, “a student of English literature who does not know the Bible does not understand a good deal of what is going on in what he reads.” Right into this century, such major American figures as Faulkner and O’Connor continued to employ biblical themes. As L.A. Siedentop has recently written with respect to Western political ideas, the West remains more dependent on Christianity than it is willing to admit.

T.S. Eliot rightly pointed out that the Bible exercised this literary influence because it has been read as something more than literature. As this faith has eroded, however, the Bible has ceased to be a meaningful source of symbols and ideas. Contemporary writers have been cast back upon their own resources, to invent their own language and worldview, which is shared with a small circle of like-minded readers. There is no longer any common fiction. What sense can a rural Midwesterner make of the parochial New York novels of Jay McInerny? As I watch movies or TV or read most contemporary novels, I am constantly thinking, “I don’t know anyone like this!”

Our privatized literature, however, continues to feed off the root of the Christian Bible, but in a more subtle way than the literature of earlier centuries. In order to understand how modern literature shows its dependence on the Bible, we must recognize that it is not only the content of Western literature that was inspired by the Bible; that is, it is not merely that plots, characters, ideas, and symbols were derived from the Bible. In addition, the narrative form of much Western literature after antiquity was inspired by the form of biblical narrative.

What is characteristic of the Bible’s narrative structure, especially as compared to Greek literature? In the first chapter of his magisterial study of Western literature, Mimesis, Erich Auerbach compares the structure of Homeric narrative to the structure of Old Testament narrative. In particular, he compares the story of Odysseus’ scar to the biblical story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22).

The Homeric story is found in book 19 of the Odyssey. Odysseus has finally, after many trials, returned home to find his house full of greedy suitors eager to marry his wife, Penelope, whom they suppose to be a widow. Odysseus wants to keep his identity secret until he can formulate a plan to take vengeance on the suitors. Unrecognized by Penelope, Odysseus is welcomed to his home, and an old nurse begins to wash his feet. While washing his feet, the nurse recognizes a scar on his leg and immediately knows that he is her master returned. Odysseus quickly makes the nurse promise that she will not reveal him to Penelope. In the midst of this rather tense moment, there are several dozen leisurely lines that tell the story of the origin of Odysseus’ scar.

Auerbach asks what purpose this digression plays in the narrative, and, using this scene as an example, he inquires into the general character of Homeric narrative, which, he claims, “remained effective and determinant down into late antiquity.” Several points emerge from this discussion. First, Homer’s digressions are not “meant to keep the reader in suspense, but rather to relax the tension.” Second, Homer more generally leaves nothing unsaid, nothing hidden. Each character is given a detailed genealogy, the setting of every event is meticulously described, and even the characters’ innermost motives are verbalized. Third, Homeric narrative does not use the device of recollection; the story of the scar is not presented as if Odysseus or the nurse suddenly remembered an event long past. Rather, “the Homeric style knows only a foreground, only a uniformly illuminated, uniformly objective present.”

The story of Abraham and Isaac is told in a very different way. Little detail about time and place is provided; those details that are provided are enigmatic and, Auerbach contends, demand interpretation. Unlike the Homeric story, the story of Abraham is full of suspense. When the biblical characters speak, it “does not serve, as speech does in Homer, to manifest, to externalize thoughts” but “to indicate thoughts which remain unexpressed.” Abraham’s actions presuppose his past in a way that the actions of Odysseus do not; Abraham “remembers, he is constantly conscious of, what God has promised him and what God has already accomplished for him.” When God commands him to sacrifice his son, therefore, “his silent obedience is multilayered, has background.”

Thus, “in Homer, the complexity of the psychological life is shown only in the succession and alternation of emotions; whereas the Jewish writers are able to express the simultaneous existence of various layers of consciousness and the conflict between them.” Homer operated with a simplistic view of human nature in which “delight in physical existence is everything.” The Bible presents a realistic understanding of the human psyche.

It is here that modern literature, even when it is quite rabidly anti-Christian, and as widely different as it is from the Bible in many ways, has not escaped the kinds of narrative devices that are used in Scripture. The radically psychologized novels of Joyce and Proust, while immediately dependent on Freud, would have been unthinkable in a culture dominated by Homeric narrative. Their deepest roots, like the roots of psychology itself, lie in Christianity. If liberalism is, as Siedentop suggests, a secularization of certain Christian ideas, modern literature can be seen as the product of certain Christian concepts and biblical techniques taken, through centuries of development, to a radical extreme.

In another way, too, modern literature stands closer to the Bible than to Homer. According to Auerbach, Homeric heroes “have no development, and their life-histories are clearly set forth once and for all.” Biblical characters, by contrast, are constantly responding to the voice of God; God “has not only made them once for all and chosen them, but he continues to work upon them, bends them and kneads them, and, without destroying them in essence, produces from them the forms which their youth gave no grounds for anticipating.”

(We could take this one step further. Auerbach argues that any attempt to interpret Homer is artificial, while the Bible demands interpretation. It might thus be possible to argue that literary criticism, radicalized though it may be in its current forms, originated in biblical interpretation.)

It would be pretentious to demand that Christian writers use only those narrative techniques that the Bible itself uses. Yet it is clear that contemporary Christian writers can find a rich store of inspiration, even at the formal level, from the Word of God.

Peter Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute. This post originally appeared on Biblical Horizons.

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