The Double Vision by Northrop Frye

Today I read all but the first eight pages of Northrop Frye’s final work (I read the first eight a few days ago), a slim volume entitled The Double Vision: Language and Meaning in Religion. I started here with Frye rather than, say, The Great Code: The Bible and Literature, because the book is short and claims to be a quick version of his main ideas. I guess that being an academic means one wants the long version.

There are some great ideas in this book as well as some passages that pack some punch. Unfortunately, I came away a little disappointed, especially after my head had been swimming with big ideas when I read the first few pages of his much longer book, Words with Power: Being a Second Study of the Bible and Literature. In the introduction to Words with Power, Frye discusses his underlying conviction that all literature is mythology.

The idea of all literature and language being mythological excited me, but I’m pressed for time and intellectual capacity, so thought this series of addresses given to United Church of Canada ministers that distils some of Frye’s ideas would be the ideal place to start. Part of the problem is that his big ideas are often stated evocatively but not argued — understandable for the context; but this is why I need the bigger books, perhaps.

However, I fear that, for all that Frye was trying to recover the Bible for the 20th century and give it back to his faith community as something to be believed in, liberal Christianity and late modernity haunt the background of the pages. Frye was pressing his way into a path beyond any conservative-liberal impasse. Perhaps to someone who was only eight when the book came out, Frye did not pass through far enough?

For example, Frye says that sitting down and deliberating on whether story x in the Bible was historically true in a literal sense as we know it or whether it was just a myth is the wrong question. He rightly wants to push past that, and find the stories of Scripture coming alive and bodying forth God for us. However, in the end, I felt like he was recapitulating liberal doubts about the historicity of Scripture but finding a way to still believe in the Bible.

The parts of the book not about the Bible were interesting but failed to move me — very 1991, talking about the fall of the Soviet Union and an awakening consciousness about our devastation of the natural world.

My exposure to patristic and medieval Christianity has been very different from his, I think, and I think it has indelibly affected my own double vision. To take one example. Frye notes that when we start to ask the awkward question of the historicity of Elijah calling down fire from heaven in his competition with the prophets of Baal, the even more awkward reality of God’s lack of doing such things today comes up. That is — if we stick to historical questions, we have problems with today. But if we look at this story as a story about God’s relationship to Elijah, it takes on a more immediate concern for us. No other Near Eastern deity is as intimate with his people and prophets as YHWH.

Well, fine and good.

I still want it both ways. Elijah on Mount Carmel as history does not bother me, because the lack of miracles in the Canadian church of the 20th century is no failure on God’s part. It is possibly a failure on ours. Mind you, Frye points out that miracles aren’t the point of any of it, given Jesus’ own attitude to his miracle-working.

But Elijah on Mount Carmel as only history is less interesting than Elijah on Mount Carmel being an enacted myth that tells me something either about Christ (if the prophet is a living antitype of Jesus, what does this signify about the Messiah?) or about the church (who are the prophets of Baal in our midst, luring us away from the worship of the true God, and what will He do for us if we only ever ask?).

Somehow something bigger than mere scientifically verifiable history is at play in the Old Testament prophets. Frye would agree.

But that doesn’t mean these things didn’t actually happen.

It’s hard to put into words. This is why I’m neither a professional theologian nor literary critic. 😉

In terms of background, I wish Frye were more steeped in Nouvelle Théologie than Hegel or Kant, quite frankly. Not that his use of German philosophers was bad or wrong or anything. But his lack of de Lubac, Daniélou, Bouyer, in his approach to the Bible, the Fathers, and mediaeval theology has perhaps weakened his reading of the pre-modern. (A bold thing to say about Northrop Frye. For who am I? I am nothing. I’m not even confident enough in my ideas to put my name on this blog.)

For here some balance could be redressed. His brief mention of Thomas Aquinas was heavy on Aristotelianism but outrightly stated that St Thomas was not into Dionysius the Areopagite — this is simply a falsehood. What makes Thomas Aquinas so interesting is his extraordinary synthesis of so much philosophy and theology, not merely Aristotle but the mystical and sacramental traditions of patristic and medieval theology, East and West, as well. This is perhaps quibblillng, although I found his statement to the effect that the best mediaeval theologians were those who found themselves accused of heresy troubling (poor Bonaventure, Albert the Great, Anselm, Hildegard, Catherine of Siena).

He also demonstrates a common misconception about the allegorical reading of the Bible, that it was the same thing as the allegorical reading of Homer and that its main goal was to justify the ways of God to men (oh, wait, that was Milton) — that is, to explain away the awkward bits. While the spiritual reading of Scripture was often used to this effect, the fundamental difference between Christian allegory and its pagan counterpart is Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the full revelation of God; therefore, when the Fathers and mediaeval thinkers allegorise the Old Testament, it is not willy-nilly, not the wax nose maligned by Luther, but with a specific intent and often with common content — find Christ and glorify Him. See how the passage fits with the church’s Rule of Faith. This is what ancient and medieval allegory was up to.

Henri de Lubac would save you from that trouble. The problem is, Medieval Exegesis was not translated into English until well after Frye’s death. Frye’s reading of allegory and Origen is on a level with much anglophone scholarship of the last century.

Anyway, if we couple my ongoing Anglican diet, my charismatic-Anglican upbringing, my encounters with Orthodoxy, and my ongoing engagement directly with the Church Fathers and certain strains of thought regarding mediaeval and Byzantine theology, it is perhaps inevitable that a book like The Double Vision would strike me as starting in some right directions but haunted by the spectre of late modern liberal Christianity. I no doubt have a very different reading list from Frye’s.

But there is so much in here that I could find myself interesting in and gravitating towards if only it were more fully articulated and argued that I will return to Frye’s thoughts on the Bible and literature again some day.

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This year’s Lent book: Scripture As Real Presence

As you may recall, I made a poll for 2018’s Lent book. Two books were nominated, but I had a year-long rule of only reading books I own in my spare time. Well, now it’s 2019, and that rule is up. So I have chosen one of those two books, Hans Boersma, Scripture As Real Presence, on the grounds that I live a 15/20-min walk from Regent College where he teaches.

Also, I need to get better at reading the Bible. This book should hopefully do that; it is a study of patristic exegesis.

There is always the general desire to read the Bible more consistently. But I think that I am bad at reading the Bible. Either I don’t invest enough attention or I don’t really get it. I’ve already read Vaughn Roberts’ God’s Big Picture, a book that laicises the work of Graeme Goldsworthy. But somehow, situating a passage from the Old Testament in salvation history doesn’t always help.

So this Lent, I want to read the Bible more.

And it strikes me that being equipped to read the Bible better will help. It will also help to re-learn discipline and humility, of course.

I’m hoping Boersma will be part of that better reading. I mean, I already know a lot about the topic, but what I really want isn’t just information about how the Fathers read the Bible but how I can follow in their footsteps. This book will hopefully help with that. I’m on chapter 4, about Melito of Sardis and Origen’s allegorical reading of Exodus. The introductory sections of the book were inspiring and meaty, and the chapter on Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine’s literal reading of Genesis was thought-provoking. In chapter 3, about Origen and Chrysostom on Abraham’s theophany at the Oak of Mamre, we encounter two different styles that are to be held in tension with each other but not necessarily strictly harmonised.

The underlying conviction of this book, and one that the ancient and medieval exegetes also held, is that Scripture itself needs to be theologically and holistically, and Jesus Christ is at the centre of all true exegesis. God makes Himself manifest to us through Scripture, and we need to prayerfully apply ourselves to it. What I want to know is how Boersma now interacts with his former influences, such as the Reformed tradition and N T Wright.

But I do hope his trajectory through the Fathers into Anglicanism will not end with him Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox, as happens to so many.

This is a readable book, and so far I can heartily recommend it for Protestants who want a taste of the riches of Scripture beyond the sort of historical exegesis touted almost everywhere else.

Making the Bible ‘possible’: Pre-modern exegesis

When I was doing my PhD, a bunch of my friends (mostly Biblical Studies PhDs) read a book called The Bible Made Impossible by Christian Smith. Smith’s major thrust — from what I recall — was that evangelicals read the Bible as though it is perfectly clear and has one meaning when, in fact, it is possessed of polyvalence, as any glance at the many volumes available at your local Christian bookstore would make clear. I don’t remember if he had a solution internal to evangelicalism or not.

On a related note, Smith himself had converted to Roman Catholicism because, in part, of this issue. In the Roman Church, the Magisterium can help you navigate the polyvalence of Scripture.

I don’t think one needs to convert to the Church of Rome in order to address this problem. Moreover, I suspect that many people who go to Rome seeking authority and absolutes are converting for the wrong reasons, given the fact that the Magisterium leaves many awkward questions unanswered, and a great many Roman Catholics are in open rebellion against the Magisterium on many issues, and priests occasionally utter heresy in the confessional. This is not to characterise all converts to Rome, of course. Some, I suspect, though.

That is to say — you need more than a desire for absolutes if you want to swim the Tiber, because you’ll find fewer than you expect.

Anyway, I am reading Henri de Lubac’s Medieval Exegesis, and here we meet the polyvalence of Scripture head-on. What marks the late antique and medieval approach to polyvalence is the authors’ extreme comfort with it. Time and again, from St Augustine of Hippo onwards, so long as an interpretation does not undermine the Catholic faith, and so long as it builds up charity to God and/or neighbour, any interpretation is a go.

Some of them may be more factually correct, of course. St Jerome, as I recall, is a big fan of at least producing factual and logically valid options, even if multiple ones exist. Some are also to be preferred because they strengthen the Catholic faith more than others.

Moreover, not only are pre-modern exegetes totally comfortable with polyvalence, they expect it and revel in it. Scripture has been given to us as a way for God to reveal Himself to us. God is infinite. Therefore, we should not be surprised that His self-revelation is itself potentially infinite in its interpretation. Furthermore, different people and different times have different needs and different questions. The inexhaustibility of Scripture means that it can and will produce meanings that will help its various readers.

I recall first meeting ideas like this in Augustine’s Confessions, where he talks about Genesis and how any logically valid interpretation that builds up charity is allowable. It was something of a breath of fresh air after the years I spent in the interminable (at times ridiculous) creation-evolution debate. Here was the greatest theologian of Latin Christianity saying that, in Genesis 1, there is no one right answer. And he himself was espousing allegory, of all things! St Augustine, the great propagator of predestination!

So if you’re starting to find the Bible impossible, one pathway to recovery is finding those exegetes who came before western Christendom fractured at the Reformation. Take their inisights alongside those of modern scholars and seek the infinite God in His infinite variety.

Anselm’s prayers as meditations

Image of an Archbishop from Anselm’s Prayers and Meditations found in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Auct. D. 2. 6 (12th c)

One thing that my contact with ancient, medieval, Byzantine, and Orthodox Christianity has not done away with is my mistrust of the cult of saints. I am not interested in asking the blessed departed to intercede with God on my behalf. This creates a potential problem for me and other Protestant types in reading St Anselm’s prayers, since the bulk of them are addressed to saints.

Now, the scholarly solution, and one I endorse, is to read these as specimens of Christianity from another age. Ask the texts what they show us about high mediaeval spirituality. Ask also how they interact with St Anselm’s other work, the theology and spirituality of his contemporaries such as his mentor Lanfranc or younger contemporary Hugh of St Victor. I commend that historical task to you always, whenever you read Christian authors from a different time, for it can help bridge the gap and enliven their spirituality (and therefore your own as a result!).

But if we can use the Prayer to Christ as a means to stir up our hearts to Jesus, how can we read the prayers to saints devotionally?

I can think of two ways we can use St Anselm’s prayers to the saints devotionally. One is to use his meditations on theology that are embedded within the prayers as spurs to our own prayers and meditations. The other is to consider the virtues of the saints whom he addresses.

I prefer the first.

When we do so, we realise how stark an awareness of one’s own sin the mediaeval Christian had:

If I look within myself, I cannot bear myself;
if I do not look within myself, I do not know myself.
If I do consider myself, what I see terrifies me;
if I do not consider myself, I fall to my damnation.
If I look at myself, it is an intolerable horror;
if I do not look at myself, death is unavoidable.
Evil here, worse there, ill on every side;
but there is too much evil here,
too much that is worse there,
too much ill on every side. (Prayer to St John the Baptist, trans. B. Ward, p. 130-31)

Such thoughts run through the prayers — one of St Anselm’s concerns is that God is both judge and plaintiff — how can he stand? Condemnation is his lot. This gloomy vision of human sin and wickedness would probably be considered pathological by modern psychology. Maybe it was. Then again, maybe Anselm had it right. Maybe Know Thyself (a theme I’ve discussed before) leads directly to this awareness. And this awareness leads you directly to Christ:

God, whose goodness is not exhausted,
whose mercy is not emptied out,
whose knowledge does not fail,
whose power can effect what you will;
whence shall I ever be able to get back life,
who have thus been driven desperate by my sins?
For if you are angry against sinners,
at least, kind Lord, you are accustomed to give counsel
to those who plead with you.
Teach me, O Lord, whence I ought to hope,
so that I can pray.
For I long to pray to you;
but I neither know how because of my ignorance,
nor am I able to because of my hardness.
And I am forbidden to do it by despair because of my sins. …

Jesus, good Lord,
why did you come down from heaven,
what did you do in the world,
to what end did you give yourself over to death,
unless it was that you might save sinners?
St Paul, what did you teach
when you were passing through the world?
God, and his apostles, and you most of all,
invite us sinners to faith;
you show us this as our only safe refuge.
How then should I not hope, if I believe this,
and ask in this faith?
How can this hope be frustrated in me,
if that faith does not fail me
from which it was born? (Prayer to St Paul, pp. 145-6)

I hope that if you are interested in reading the Prayers and Meditations these meditations of mine may help you use St Anselm to deepen your own devotional life.

Quick review of Melville, The World of Medieval Monasticism

The World of Medieval Monasticism: Its History and Forms of LifeThe World of Medieval Monasticism: Its History and Forms of Life by Gert Melville
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is a comprehensive, technical yet readable, survey of 1000 years of monastic history, arranged broadly chronologically. Melville introduces and assesses the different forms of religious from the late antique Desert Fathers and Mothers to the varied communities of mendicants and hermits of the later Middle Ages.

As the book progresses, the focus becomes increasingly on the structural systems of the orders, from the first limping towards an order by Cluny, to the first real order of the Cistercians, to the complex systems created by the Dominicans. This aspect of the story is not always highlighted well, but Melville brings it out and discusses why certain types of structure proved more successful as well as considering how institutions evolved over the centuries.

The primary goal of all of these forms of religious life was a total commitment to Christ and a full abandonment to living by the Gospel, whether we are thinking of a hermit alone in the wilderness, a Benedictine with his brothers in a dormitory, a Franciscan preaching in a market, or a Dominican teaching in a university.

How they represented challenges and opportunities to those in positions of power — secular nobles, bishops, popes — is also a part of this story, and Melville carefully brings this to the fore, helping dismantle along the way some ideas that ‘secular interference’ was necessarily detrimental to the achievement of a community’s original goal. Sometimes, yes. Sometimes, no.

Moreover, Melville refers to the primary and secondary literature throughout. Since this is translated out of German, the secondary lit is often German, so that will not be helpful to the non-German-reading reader, but the primary sources are also often referred both to the Latin and to an available English translation.

My own disappoints are small and do not detract from the qualilty of the book — eastern monasticism disappears in the High Middle Ages. Some of my favourite figures — Richard Rolle and Julian of Norwich, for example — do not appear. But the focus of the book is mostly western, as one has come to expect, and not every interesting person from the history of monasticism could expect to be covered.

If you want to get your mind around the history of monasticism and situate the various strands, this book is for you. And if you are a Christian, you will find your own commitment to Christ and the ways you live that commitment challenged along the way — and that’s a good thing at any time.

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The richness of St Anselm’s prayers

I am slowly reading The Prayers and Meditations of St Anselm (in Sr Benedicta Ward’s translation), as you may have surmised. I am trying to read them as St Anselm recommends, and not simply blitz through them (as I do so much of what I read). The prayers are a lot longer than what we are used to. This is because they are not meant to be prayed through from start to finish in a single go. And they are not meant for public worship, either.

They are meant to stir up our hearts and draw us to our own prayers, enrichening our own encounter with God and providing us with fuel. St Anselm says you can start anywhere you please and use them to good effect.

St Anselm’s prayers are rich and sometimes ornate. But they help show us an internal world we may miss if we’re not careful. I mentioned this once before here, but we have a tendency to view St Anselm only as a pre-Scholastic, or even a Scholastic, perhaps as a logic-chopper, as the primus inventor of the ontological argument for God and the theory of penal substitutionary atonement. Given how few people are convinced by the former and how many people are currently rejecting the latter, this view of the man and his achievements misses out so much.

Related to this is a mistaken view that ‘western’ Christianity is not mystical or poetic.

Another mistaken view is that systematic theology, the logically-defined articulation of doctrine, the application of reason to matters of the divine is inimical to the true life of the Spirit. This is something that annoys me, given that our ancient theologians who wrote theology in this way were very often ‘mystics’ or ‘contemplatives’ as well — St Augustine (as I’ve blogged), St Gregory of Nyssa, St Gregory of Nazianzus, and others! And many ‘mystics’ embraced the catholic Church’s articulations of doctrine, such as Richard Rolle, St Bernard, William of St-Thierry, St Hildegard, St Thomas of Kempen, St Catherine of Siena, St Francis of Assisi.

Anyway, these are the prayers of a soul that clearly had a rich love for and encounter with God. St Anselm seems to have to use his whole life for God — thus, the rational part of him writes the logic and theology, the affective part of his soul writes these prayers, and his moral self seeks to live rightly in the midst of the Investiture Controversy.

I encourage you to use these prayers yourself so that your own prayers can be kindled to a greater love for God.

Here’s some St Anselm to close us off:

Most merciful Lord,
turn my lukewarmness into a fervent love of you.
Most gentle Lord,
my prayer tends towards this —
that by remembering and meditating
on the good things you have done
I may be enkindled with your love.

-The Prayer to Christ (trans. Ward, p. 94)

Some books from 2018

In 2018, I finished 56 books. Those that were either my chosen spiritual/theological/devotional reading or ended up having some such impact are:

  • Faith, Hope and Poetry by Malcolm Guite
  • Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology by Andrew Louth
  • Modern Orthodox Thinkers from the Philokalia to the Present by Andrew Louth
  • Robert Grosseteste by R W Southern
  • The Story of Monasticism by Greg Peters
  • The Philokalia, vol. 1, trans. GEH Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware
  • Five Books on Consideration, by St Bernard of Clairvaux
  • The Celestial and Ecclesiastical Hierarchy of Dionysius the Areopagite trans. John Parker
  • On the Person of Christ: The Christology of Emperor Justinian trans. Kenneth P Wesche
  • Christ in Christian Tradition, vol. 2, part 1, by Aloys Grillmeier
  • With Christ in the School of Prayer by Andrew Murray
  • A World Transformed by Lisa Deam
  • Money, Sex and Power by Richard Foster
  • A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love by Alan Jacobs
  • My friend’s book about John Chrysostom
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Spoke in the Wheel by Dayspring MacLeod
  • The World of Medieval Monasticism by Gert Melville
  • On the Thirty-nine Articles: Conversations with Tudor Christianity by Oliver O’Donovan

Some of these I read for work, but when work involves reading theology and the history of theology, one’s own thinking cannot remain unchallenged. Some of these will be re-read; many have lessons that need to be applied to my life.

The most ‘normal’ book I read, it seems, was Richard Foster, Money, Sex and Power. I am currently working through St Anselm’s Prayers and Meditations. Maybe next I’ll read A New Kind of Christian by Brian McLaren — hop on the bandwagon late (as usual); I got it free and exclaimed, ‘Hey, a Brian McLaren book from before he was a heretic!’