By Neil Earle
In sticking up for the Book preachers love above all others at UCLA recently I found no better support than the words of Peter Ackroyd in his 2002 effort, Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination. “The King James Bible,” wrote Ackroyd, “invigorated the consciousness of the nation.” 1
“In the beginning was the word” but in English-speaking countries that word has taken on a very definite shape and tone. I refer of course to the celebrated cadences of the King James Bible, a literary masterpiece that reflected a century of bloody struggle and intellectual acuity and which left behind a product that one of the Pope’s ambassadors praised (somewhat left-handedly) in those dire days of Protestant-Catholic tension. “It lives on the ear like a music that can never be forgotten, like the sound of church bells, which the convert scarcely knows how he can forgo. Its felicities seem often to be almost things rather than words. It is part of the national mind, and the anchor of the national seriousness.” 2
The good father went on to add that the King James Version was “one of the strongholds of heresy in this country.”
Relax. I am not a King James idolator. I prefer the New King James or the New English Bible myself but no advertisement for Bible-reading can improve upon the judgment allegedly offered by Napoleon Bonaparte, a man otherwise not known to be a Bibliophile. “The Bible is no mere book, but a Living Creature with a power that conquers all who oppose it.” 3
My professor agreed with the quote that emblazons Lawrence Nelson’s splendid 1946 effort, Our Roving Bible, that the Bible is “a book-making book. It is a literature which provokes literature.” Nelson added for good measure the fronting words of William Lyon Phelps: “The Bible has been a greater influence on the course of English literature than all other forces put together.”
On my part, it was a great delight upon returning to graduate school in 1989 after twenty years preaching and teaching vociferously from this master text, to find that English professors and literary critics still largely shared these sentiments. My own reading and rereading of English and American literature brought the following brief remarks to mind, stimulated by the insights of M.H. Abrams’ Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature.
English-speaking writers seem haunted by the Bible. For Californians, the relatively straight-forward starting point is John Steinbeck’s biblical titles Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden. Even the pseudo-nihilist Hemingway is haunted by “Ecclesiastes” as per The Sun Also Rises. The Old Man and The Sea's Christ-symbolism surprised many when it appeared in 1952 and copped the writer’s Noble Prize. Thomas Wolfe praised “Ecclesiastes” as “the greatest single piece of writing I have ever known…the noblest and most powerful expression of man’s life upon this earth.” Herman Melville (and this is no fish tale) opined: “The truest of all men was the man of Sorrows, and the truest of all books is Ecclesiastes.”
Even our priests of High Seriousness echo Scripture. Is The Great Gatsby the Rich Fool of the Parable? Is there not something of King Saul in Macbeth, Job in King Lear and David the Warrior King in Henry V?
These are just for warm-ups. The alert reader will find his or her own.
In discussing Shelley and Wordsworth, Abrams alluded to that English tradition of “radical Protestantism” in much of the Romantics. “The burden of what they had to say was that contemporary man can redeem himself and his world, and that his only way to this end is to reclaim and to bring to realization the great positives of the Western past.” 4 He went on to cite the chief of these values as life, love, liberty, hope and joy and that in all this the “ground-concept” is life, life itself as the highest good. Life is “the generator of the controlling categories of Romantic thought” adds Abrams and he builds upon this love, liberty and hope. In all this, says Abrams, “the norm of life is joy.” Joy is that true sign that “an individual in the free exercise of all his faculties, is completely alive” and that what he refers to later as “the abundant life” is “the necessary condition for a full community of life and love.”
Here is the mainspring for much of the enduring art of the past two centuries, claims Abrams, “the necessary precondition for a full community of life and love.”
Love, joy, peace – some of the very attributes set forth as “fruits of the Spirit” in Ephesians, Chapter Five. In “Companionable Books” Henry Van Dyke set forth this encomium, a tribute which marvelously compresses so much of why the Bible is a sheet anchor of much of our literature:
“Born in the East and clothed in Oriental form and imagery, the Bible walks the ways of all the world with familiar feet and enters land after land to find its own everywhere. It has learned to speak in hundreds of languages to the heart of man. Children listen to its stories with wonder and delight (Jonah and the Great Fish), and wise men ponder them as parables of life (Jonah and Free Will). The wicked and the proud tremble at its warnings, but to the wounded and penitent it has a mother’s voice…No man is poor or desolate who has this treasure for its own.”
It seems ironic when people wonder if God is dead or has wandered off somewhere that a book such as Psalms – perhaps my favorite – lies pulsating with its ups and downs of life perhaps in their bedroom table. Turn to any of the 150 little mini-excursions into life.
At your wit’s end? Try Psalm 11 and its opening cry – “Help, Lord!”
Surrounded by ba----ds? Try Psalm 3.
Mad at God himself? Open Psalm 10.
There’s a psalm for every mood – I mean every mood – and after perusing them even very briefly we can never say again: “If only God would say something.”
God is alive. He is near. He does care. The Psalms will convince you of that.
Many of our best writers and authors seem to have thought so. Perhaps it’s time to try it for yourself.
1 Peter Ackroyd, Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination (London: Chatto and Windus, 2002), page 301.
2 F.W. Faber from “Review of Reviews” quoted in Lawrence E. Nelson, Our Roving Bible: Tracking Its Influence Through English and American Life (New York/Nashville: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press), page 87.
3 Quoted in H.H. Halley’s Halley’s Bible Handbook (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1965 edition), page 18.
4 M.H. Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (New York: W.W. Norton and Comoany, 1971), page 430.