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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Poet saints of the West

The Penitent Saint Francis by Annibale Caracci, Capitoline Museum
St Francis, a a poet saint

Going to hear Malcolm Guite at Regent College’s Laing Lectures this week reminded me once again that western Christianity does, indeed, have its own resources and treasures that can be used by the Spirit for renewal. While I love delving into Eastern Orthodoxy — Anthony Bloom, John Behr, Kallistos Ware, Andrew Louth, Archimandrite Sophrony, The Philokalia, Theophan the Recluse (et al., et al.) — it should be remembered that my own tradition has rich resources at its disposal.

In particular, in light not only of Malcolm Guite but also as a response to an annoyance of mine (‘Greek/eastern theology is so much more poetic than Latin/western theology’), I once made an incomplete list of ‘poet saints of the West’:

Godric! (May 21)
Paulinus of Nola (June 22)
Nicetas of Remesiana, poss. Te Deum (22 June or 7 Jan)
Hrabanus Maurus
Notker Balbulus
John Donne
George Herbert
Gerard Manley Hopkins
Francis Thompson
Sedulius a saint?
Venantius Fortunatus
Thérese de Lisieux

I don’t know why that was the list — what about St John of the Cross? St Ambrose? St Thomas Aquinas? C S Lewis?

We have many poet saints in our tradition, and they are worth getting to know — imagination bridges the gap from earth to heaven, like the Bifrost of the Norse. So, to close, one of Guite’s programmatic quotations, from Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act V, Scene 1:

The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

Desert and City: The Prophetic Ascetic

A friend recently brought up the criticism of the Desert Fathers that their withdrawal from the city meant a withdrawal from addressing the social issues and needs of the city. If we consider, perhaps, their own idealised desert anchorite or hermit, this holds true. However, if we consider the actual history of the Desert Fathers as well as their situation within the ancient church, I think this is a criticism that does not fit the reality as it was enacted.

First, as far as the actual history of the Desert Fathers is concerned, the first point we must acknowledge is the fact that almost none of the hermits achieved their idealised withdrawal from the world. St Antony ended up with a community gathered around him. St Simeon the Stylite shared wisdom with those who gathered around the base of his pillar. St Hilarion (although his story was largely fictionalised by St Jerome) was found by people wherever he went — he was forced into giving spiritual wisdom and performing miracles, whether he liked it or not. St Simeon the Mountaineer (less famous — one of John of Ephesus’ monks) found the local people living near his monk’s cell to be a field for evangelism.

Simeon the Mountaineer, in fact, is but one of many monks/nuns/hermits who found himself engaged in evangelism, despite the alleged ‘seclusion’ of his monastic profession.

Indeed, any anchorite or hermit whose name is known is known because he was the agent of God in the lives of others, whether, like Sts Barsanuphius and John, that was writing letters, or, like St Daniel the Stylite, that was dispensing advice in person. Therefore, they fulfilled a calling that was of benefit to church and world in these spiritual ways.

The cenobites (monks living in community), on the other hand, had opportunities to fulfill the commands to serve one another and love your neighbour simply through daily life. Moreover, there was always a class of monk who was in community because it provided him with the means of survival. Sure, you only ate once or twice a day. But you ate. At the social level, then, the cenobium provided the ancient poor with a place of refuge.

Moreover, not only the Desert Fathers but many other monks, nuns, hermits, et al., throughout history have left us a wealth of spiritual writings that are well worth reading. This is part of their prophetic calling. For we who read the sayings of the Desert Fathers, or the writings of Evagrius and Cassian, or the mystical treatises of Sts John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, are spurred onward and strengthened in our journey into God’s love through the wisdom he gave them in their lives of solitude.

This, however, does not save them all from their abdication of social responsibility.

My thought on this point has to do with the nature of the church in Late Antiquity, and, indeed, the Middle Ages. Not only was this a pre-denominational age for the church, the local church community did not see the different paroikia (parishes) and communities as, well, different communities. In a given, small-scale church community, not everyone is called to volunteer in the food bank, to lead the music, to cook meals, to help out with the moms’ group, to lead Bible studies, to get bricked into a room to pray and never leave. Each of us must discern which tasks are our own in the wider functional of the ecclesial community.

So in the ancient and medieval church. While we rightly see something lopsided in the belief that a life of retreat from the world and city was better, I do not think we can rightly see it as a wrong choice. Shenoute of Atripe and his monks may have lived in the White Monastery and prayed for the salvation of the world (and beat up the odd tax collector or two), but Cyril was in Alexandria giving to the poor (when not bribing the imperial court).

A better example: The ancient church needed bishops like St John the Almsgiver, a Bishop of Alexandria who was ceaseless in his acts of mercy, and St Daniel the Stylite, a monk on a pillar outside Constantinople who gave spiritual counsel to people from all walks of life.

In fact, I believe that, whatever their excesses and possible errors, the Desert Fathers were part of a prophetic movement of the Spirit of God beginning in the decades after the Constantinian settlement, a prophetic movement that monasticism and its offspring (such as the mendicant orders of Dominicans and Franciscans) would continue so long as Christianity and power were united.

Constantius in the Chronograph of 354

To a church that was seeing the large-scale conversion of aristocrats, as well as the syncretism of folk belief (as archaeology from Egypt shows), and which was perhaps getting doxologically and even morally lax in the comfort provided by favour from the state, the Desert Fathers served as a living embodiment of the full devotion Christ calls his disciples to make. They served as a reminder that Christianity is not a socially respectable institution but an encounter with the fully transcendent God (pictured below) who outstrips any purple-clad, bejewelled emperor in grace, holiness, and majesty (as pictured to the left). They served as a reminder that prayer is ultimately something we live, not simply something that we do when we turn up at a basilica for prayers before resuming ‘normal life’.

Whether in the desert or the city, whether monastic or cleric or layperson, each of us must realise that, for the Christian, there is no ‘normal life’, for the immanence of the transcendent God and the sacramentality of his good creation make that impossible.

And this is the prophetic role of the Desert Fathers.

 

Transfiguration of Jesus, St Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai (art of the Desert)

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.

Lectio Divina update

Last night I had the opportunity to lead my small group from church in a little discussion of lectio divina followed by a guided time of meditation on John 6:35-37, as mentioned here.

I started with asking whether any of them had heard of lectio divina before Sunday’s sermon, and if they had any engagement with any other Christian meditative practices. Turns out that this is not the first time that our minister has talked about lectio divina, and that he had even led all the small groups in lectio divina himself once.

But none of us was a regular practitioner of the discipline — and the whole point of our minister bringing it up on Sunday and having it our focus on Thursday was to help us get into this way of reading the Bible.

I then talked a bit about the practice and its goals, noting that although we often associate it with monks, the practice of praying through Scripture as described by Martin Luther is basically the same thing (Tim Keller discusses this in his book Prayer). That is: meditative and prayerful reading of Scripture with an openness to the movement of the Spirit is for all Christians.

I then had to give my little ecclesiastical historian spiel about the practice and how we actually have very few details on method before, say, Guigo II around 1180, but that what we’re doing is in the same spirit as people like St Augustine or St John Chrysostom or St Anselm, even if the exact details may not match up.

Finally, before leading the actual meditation, I shared the following foundational principles for lectio divina laid out by David Foster in Reading with God:

  • Scripture is the inspired Word of God
  • Jesus is the key to the meaning of the scriptures, as of all existence
  • The Word of God is alive because of the power of the Holy Spirit speaking to the community of the faithful
  • The word also addressed personally to each of Jesus’ disciples
  • Scripture brings us into fellowship with God and with all other Christians ‘who gather round Jesus and listen to his word’
  • Lectio divina draws us into an encounter with the Church and with Jesus Christ, and therefore also into the life of the Holy Trinity

And then we used the guide sent out by our minister, which he adapted from J. Linman (2010), Holy Conversation: Spirituality for Worship (p. 35). This approach has three readings as the initial read, for which ‘the usual Bible study rules apply’. Then four more for meditation, prayer, contemplation, and incarnation. We shared our insights on the passage., which is as follows (NIV):

35 Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.36 But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe. 37 All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away.

We all got something out of it — insights such as the comfort that Jesus will never drive us away. There is also a personal challenge — we come to Jesus as children with great readiness, but somehow it gets harder as we get older. And the reminder that Jesus is all we need to be satisfied spiritually.

Everyone said they liked it, and we’re going to try practising lectio divina on our own using the text from Sunday and see how it goes.

And then word got back to our minister, and he wants to know if I’ll lead three monthly seminars on lectio divina soon. We’ll see if I have time…

Theology and mysticism

St. Gregory of Nyssa

I have found, drifting around the Internet, that sometimes an opposition can appear between something called ‘theology’ and something called ‘mysticism’ or ‘contemplation’. This opposition is a false dichotomy, for, as Andrew Louth notes in The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition, theology and mysticism and inescapably bound together. I think we need both approaches to the Holy if we are to be healthy.

That is, this is a modern take on Evagrius in the Chapters on Prayer — If you truly pray, you are a theologian. If you are a theologian, you truly pray.

His concept of theologos is not ours, but the idea has merit even today.

Let us take theology as the attempt of the rational mind to articulate in some logical manner the truths about God and the world in relation to God that have been apprehended through revelation, reason, and experience. Seems a safe definition.

Let us take mysticism as the attempt of the human soul to sit in silence and quiet and thereby encounter God. Or, even better, to encounter Him even when not in silence and quiet but, rather, live an existence shot through with an awareness of Him. This usually involves time set aside for silence and quiet.

These need each other. (They also need community.)

The first without the second can easily become dry intellectualism, or being rigidly doctrinaire, or mere pedantry. The danger of doing theology is that you will mistake your doctrine of God for God Himselves.

The second without the first can easily become emotive experientialism, or, as Thomas Merton calls it, illuminism, questing after special experiences or imagining that whatever you feel or imagine or find evocative is a true window into the divine. The danger of doing mysticism is that you will mistake your experiences about God for God Themself.

These two worlds are, in fact, not dichotomies, as I like to point out. A recent reminder of this (besides St Anselm) was Sarah Coakley’s lecture at the Vancouver School of Theology this Autumn, where St Gregory of Nyssa was one of the great mystical theologians driven by the Holy Spirit. He is also, as it turns out, what, in technical terms, one might call a dogmatic or systematic theologian. His encounter with the Holy Spirit in prayer and Scripture helps inform his reasoning, but his catechetical works are still theology as I defined it above.

When we find ourselves in the mood to pooh-pooh those ‘airy-fairy’ charismatics and contemplatives (as I sometimes do) or to reject theology as ‘dry and rigid’, let us find humility and seek the Giver of both types of gift.