Tonight as I cleaned up after the Easter feast, listening to Choral Evensong from Canterbury Cathedral, my mind kept leaving Canterbury to John Donne, “Death, Be Not Proud” for various reasons (none having to do with any deaths in my vicinity, however). It’s an appropriate poem for Easter — “Death, thou shalt die.”
Imagine Jeremy Irons reading it in your head. I do.
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so; For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me. From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be, Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow, And soonest our best men with thee do go, Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery. Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men, And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell, And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then? One short sleep past, we wake eternally And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
I had the pleasure of enjoying lunch and Trappist beers with one of the lovely people of the Urban Abbey the other day. Among the many interesting topics of discussion (rates of growth/decline among the religions of BC’s Lower Mainland, the ultimate modernism of postmodernity, Charles Taylor, raising young children, Eastern Orthodoxy) was the idea of the pre-modern.
She said to me that many people say that she is pre-modern, then asked what four words I would use to characterise pre-moderns. They were:
Celestially-minded (after asking, ‘Can I use hyphens?’)
And I didn’t come up with a fourth because the conversation moved in its own ways. Now I have too much time to think on it (how can I choose??), so I’ll just say numinous and then differentiate that from celestially-minded when the time comes. Allow me to quickly unpack why these 3/4.
This is the word of the Nicene Creed that we translate variously in English as ‘consubstantial’, ‘of one substance’, or ‘of one being’. As the theologians of the fourth century and beyond reflected on what homoousios meant (besides ‘How to exclude Arius’) in light of Scripture, tradition, and liturgy, they nuanced it not only in relation to the special, unique, unrepeatable oneness of the Triune Godhead but also in relation to created beings.
Humans are all united in this worldview. ‘No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main,’ to famously quote John Donne (who is a very pre-modern modern if you read his poetry). Like begets like. Human begets human. My sons are of the same essence/substance/being as myself — I would argue that genetics backs this up.
There are various ramifications of such a worldview — some of which are that in the wrong hands, bad things can be justified. Amongst them is a drive to care for the poor, the widow, the orphan, the sick, not simply because of Bible commands but because they are part of you. Amongst them is a feeling that we are all connected deeply — the sin of the sinner is never disconnected from the righteousness of the righteous. All justice is social justice, all retribution is remediary.
This also means that we find ourselves in community, something that is also bound up in the honing of Trinitarian theology — I think largely on the title of Zizioulas’ study of the Trinity (largely through the lens of the Cappadocians), Being As Communion. I would also argue that ancient Greeks and Romans had similar ideas about the oneness of the social community, even if their language and point of reference differed.
Here I do not mean literally fixated on the starry heights, although there is some element of that, I would wager. Rather, pre-modern people had a viewpoint that kept the divine in focus. They also lived in what Fr Stephen Freeman calls a one-storey universe — God or even the gods were everywhere. Indeed, even the polytheists with their vision of the Olympians dwelling on mountaintops believed that divine beings were present and active in their daily lives. Hence sacrifice, prayer, incense, etc., etc.
Of the many ramifications, I would argue that every act of existence was infused with meaning. The divine could be around every corner. Moreover, a common morality as handed down from the heavens or the ancestors was part of the fabric of life.
But they were not so earthly-minded as we late moderns are. The gods stride across Homeric battlefields as more than mere ‘symbols’. Nonnos writes an epic about Dionysus precisely because the theme is so great. The Christians write hymns and epics about Christ because there is nothing better to focus on. Why navel-gaze at your own psychology and inner turmoil when you could cast your eyes up and out into a world with celestial vision?
This one is sort of less theological. In the pre-industrial world, people didn’t really move much. Most people lived and died where their parents, grandparents, etc., did. As a result, they had a strong sense of place. The early monastics also saw rootedness as important, something I’ve blogged on before in relation to St Benedict. In a spiritual sense, rootedness is important because you cannot leave yourself behind. You cannot overcome anger at others by becoming a hermit. Boredom is truly cured by standing still and living through it.
For most pre-moderns, rootedness was not a choice. Even if your movements were not legally restricted because you were a slave or a colonus or a serf, most people simply never had the wherewithal to go anywhere else. Choice or not, being rooted to a place, a people, and a community means that you can savour the slow, lovely moments of life. You can appreciate more and more the homoousiai persons in your midst.
Imagine if today we made choices about where we lived based on community and holiness rather than career advancement or school districts. Our constant moving is a reflection of our own rootlessness, our our disconnectedness from each other, our own existence as isolated, atomised, modern individuals.
By a pure denotation of numinous, much of what I placed under celestially-minded would qualify as the sort of person aware of the numinous. A numen in Latin is a spirit at its broadest and vaguest, from the animist idea of a rock’s spirit right up to the Demiurge of Platonism. The sense of the numinous is that there is another world at the edges of our existence.
Part of the Resistance Movement against Modernity were Wordsworth and Coleridge (and Keats!). Coleridge’s ideas about language and symbol are perhaps more what I’m getting at here. Life is infused with meaning. Nothing is simply only its dead self. There is no mere matter. A rock can be a window, a symbol, a passageway into the divine.
The false dichotomy between body and soul has yet to make its way into the pre-modern mind. There is no dead matter. Nothing is meaningless, even if we will never fathom its meaning. Indeed, we will never fathom even a small portion of anything’s meaning. Nevertheless, at the edges of our perception there is more to this life than just animal existence — we are more than ugly bags of mostly water. We are more than our physical appetites.
The numinous also energises all our activities, especially the creative arts. Poetry dances at the fringes of our understanding and tickles our sense of the numinous bigness of the world. Music written in harmonies that correspond to the Pythagorean theories of music resonate not only with our souls but with the order of the universe itself. (I am listening to Striggio’s ‘Mass in 40 Parts’ as performed by I Fagiolini right now — numinous, indeed!) A cathedral is not a pile of stones but a gateway to God.
These are four words to describe the pre-modern world. They are worth investing energy in.
One of my other great, favourite prayers is the holy sonnet by John Donne, ‘Batter My Heart, Three-Person’d God.’ It is not dissimilar to the Anselm prayer in theme, but instead we get Donne’s sonorous English poetry to give our prayers wings. And if you want more John Donne, check out “Annunciation” over at Malcolm Guite’s blog.
Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
I am especially fond of the paradoxes of the life of faith in the final two lines.
Beauty is not an added extra in our lives. In all sorts of areas, beauty enhances life, whether it is a walk by a river, a trip to a cathedral, a gaze upon your (own) wife. Or poetry, or rhythmic prose, or a well-cut suit. Or Beethoven, Bach, Brahms, Berlioz, Byrd, the Beatles.
Beauty is an attribute of God. We are taught this. We are told, ‘Look at the world around you — rainbows, clouds, the stars at night, flowers, the South Pole of Jupiter, the Aurora Borealis.’ God is the Creator, and all creations reflect, to some degree, their creators.
Beauty is another reason, besides the three linked to at the end, that I tend towards liturgical worship. It nourishes my soul. I wanted to include it in my discussion of ancient Christianity and patristics, but I have to admit that, outside of some of the more beautiful prayers of the Divine Liturgies of St Basil (recently discussed here) and St John Chrysostom as well as of the Gelasian and Leonine Sacramentaries, my study of ancient religion has not had that much influence in terms of my philosophy or love of beauty.
Not that ancient Christianity was un-beautiful. Consider the mosaics of Rome’s ancient Christian basilicas, such as the triumphal arch of San Paolo fuori le Mura, dating to the 440s:
Nonetheless, my deep-seated appreciation for historic liturgy and beauty in our approach to God has more to do with mediaeval, Byzantine/Orthodox, and ‘Early Modern’ Christianity. First came the Book of Common Prayer; from ages 19-21, I found this book impossible to pray with at Sunday services. It was all lip-service for me. But when I was 21, I used Canadian 1962 Compline daily in Lent, and this re-shifted and re-shaped me. And — it was beautiful.
That Advent, I went to a high Tridentine Use Latin Mass at St Clement’s Church in Ottawa. This had a profound effect on me, and it is still difficult for me to put into words. Here I saw the worship of God in a way very different from the mix of pop music and modern liturgy I had been raised in and devoted to. It was an elegant, reverent dance. It seem that here was a way of approaching God that truly took into account his majesty. And — it was beautiful.
Then, the next September, I found myself in Cyprus. Icons, incense, Greek chanting. Not always actually to my aesthetic taste. But drawing me in over and over again to this day — I cannot help but find it attractive. Rich, powerful, involving all my senses. And, today, I find — it is beautiful.
I visited the Basilica San Marco in Venice, and the mosaics stopped me dead in my tracks. ‘Glory be to God,’ slipped from my lips. I crossed myself. I can never be Truly Reformed. Lush medieval mosaics, delicate Byzantine icons, rich Victorian stained glass. Well — it is beautiful.
Architecture as well: Durham Cathedral, St Paul’s in London, San Pietro in Vaticano, Santa Mario Maggiore — beautiful.
Running around throughout this, I find myself confronted with the beauty of John Donne’s poetry, the 1611 Bible’s prose, the BCP again and again. I am caught by the beauty beyond Christianity in my beloved Virgil and Ovid. And then I circle back to the elegant arguments of St Anselm and the theology of St Gregory Palamas which, if I do not always agree with it, is at least beautiful.
We worship a beautiful God, and we have centuries of rich resources of beauty at our fingertips.
Taken together with all the other things I have been saying about liturgy on this blog, why would we cast it aside in favour of un-beautiful forms of worship?
Several months ago when I was in Leipzig, I made a careless remark on this blog about ‘Jesus Is My Boyfriend‘ worship music. I now give two examples. First is the chorus of the Vineyard song ‘Pour out My Heart’, which was very popular when I was a teenager:
Pour out my heart
To say that I love You
Pour out my heart
To say that I need You
Pour out my heart
To say that i’m thankful
Pour out my heart
To say that You’re wonderful
Second comes from Donnie Mcclurkin, and is far less salvageable from ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ concerns than ‘Pour out My Heart.’ It is ‘Draw Me Close to You’:
Draw me close to You
Never let me go
I lay it all down again
To hear You say that I’m Your friend
You are my desire
And no one else will do
‘Cause nothing else can take Your place
To feel the warmth of Your embrace
Help me find a way
Bring me back to You
Bring me back, oh Jesus
You’re all I want
You’re all I’ve ever needed
You’re all I want
Help me know You are near
Vineyard put out a whole CD of such songs called Intimacy in 1998. Sometimes these songs or at least their titles make you feel absurd — and an old article from The Lark (like The Onion only evangelical) makes the point well, ‘Wal-Mart rejects “racy” worship CD‘, including this piece of comedic gold:
The ground-breaking — some say risqué — album includes edgy worship songs such as “My Lover, My God,” “Touch Me All Over,” “Naked Before You,” “I’ll Do Anything You Want,” “Deeper” and “You Make Me Hot with Desire.”
In the fake news article, the Vineyard spokesman says that the point of the album was to help Christians get more intimate with God. And this is the point of all the ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ worship and popular songs — to express or help facilitate an intimacy with the living, Triune, eternal, immutable, just, holy God.
And we need a bit of help with that, because the idea of entering into close communion with a consubstantially united triad of persons Whose Being is Communion can, quite frankly, seem a bit daunting at times.
Intimacy with God is possible. I believe in it. And the idea of a close love relationship with the Most Holy Trinity is not an invention of evangelicals, charismatics, or Pentecostals. All Christians are called to prayer, after all. According to Bishop Nikon of Volodsk,
in prayer man converses with God, he enters, through grace, into communion with Him, and lives in God. (in The Art of Prayer, ed. Igumen Chariton, 51)
Or hear St Dimitri of Rostov:
First of all it must be understood that it is the duty of all Christians … to strive always and in every way to be united with God, their creator, lover, benefactor, and their supreme good, by whom and for whom they were created. …
No unity with God is possible except by an exceedingly great love. (Art of Prayer, 46-7)
Or, to go places other than 19th-century Russia, St John of the Cross’ ‘Spiritual Canticle‘:
Where have you hidden,
Beloved, and left me moaning?
You fled like the stag after wounding me;
I went out calling you, but you were gone.
Shepherds, you who go
up through the sheepfolds to the hill,
if by chance you see
him I love most,
tell him I am sick, I suffer, and I die.
Since God is not less than a person, we want to enter into a relationship with Him. We want it to be ‘deep’ or ‘intimate’, and we want to be able to express this relationship of love we have for God as John Donne does in the masterful sonnet ‘Batter My Heart, Three-Person’d God’:
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
So perhaps we should be slower to mock ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ worship songs. However, I think we still have a problem here, and it is made evident in the last two poems:
Why are we corporately expressing personal intimacy that not all of us can hope to share?
That is to say, the sentiments of a John Donne or a John of the Cross or a Lady Julian of Norwich or a Teresa of Ávila are valid expressions of Christian piety, and often sound to our ears like ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’. But none of these is the liturgical, corporate aspect of Christian devotion.
These intense emotions, these expressions and outpourings of love to the Almighty are the personal devotions of these particular individuals. They were written down as aids for us, to be sure. And some of them we can even use individually as we gather corporately. But what if I’m not feeling today like Jesus’ touch is all I need? What if Jesus isn’t all I’ve ever needed? Like, some of us eat, after all. What if Jesus isn’t all I want? Sometimes I want Star Trek. Sometimes I want pizza.
These songs make liars out of us.
They also keep our corporate worship life at an emotional fever-pitch that is unmaintainable, and when people start wanting Star Trek or pizza or their spouse or a dog or anything other or, as happens, more than Jesus, and this recurs time and again, they feel themselves unspiritual and throw in the towel.
Now, Jesus should be what we want most. And he is what we need most.
But expressing what should be but is not through emotionally manipulative, fast-paced music is not the way to help us find true intimacy with God. And to help us realise the latter truth of what is but which we often forget to be the case, we need robust theology as well as catchy tunes.
In Matthew 6:6, Jesus tells us to go into our secret place and the shut the door when we pray. This prayer cupboard (or icon corner, if you’re into that kind of thing) is where we must engage in the hard, long task of moving into the deep, loving intimacy of the Triune God. This is a task of the inner person, and it is a daily task of labour and love, not a weekly task of easy emotions and cheap thrills.
It requires training of us; sin has marred us, so intimacy with God who once walked in the cool of the evening with Adam in the Garden is no longer ‘natural’. St Dimitri again:
Training … must … be twofold, outer and inner: outer in reading books, inner in thoughts of God; outer in love of wisdom, inner of love of God; outer in words, inner in prayer; outer in keenness of intellect, inner in warmth of spirit; outer in technique, inner in vision. (The Art of Prayer, 44)
The inner has been placed in the outer in modern worship. The new song writers must help us retreat back into our hearts as they give us the outer expressions of true theological hymnody that sings the glory and praises of the Triune God in all his majesty. And when we come away from these heady experiences, we can sit quietly in our room and hope with our inner expressions to meet with the living God, who powerfully comes quietly.
NB: I would also put dubious hymns based on Lady Julian of Norwich’s feminine imagery for God in the same category of ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ — useful for the theologically-informed in their prayer closet, but not for Sunday morning.
As may be known, I have a habit of listening to Ancient Faith Radio and reading Eastern Orthodox books (the most recent being Being As Communion). The Eastern Orthodox are a voice worth listening to, and one of the main reasons they are worth listening to is because they, in turn, listen to the Fathers. They are, thus, deeply traditional, preserving that which has been handed down to them.
Frederica Mathewes-Green, one of the many Orthodox converts on Ancient Faith Radio, says:
I realized that my selections [in my spiritual life] were inevitably conditioned by my own tastes, prejudices, and blind spots. I was patching together a Frankenstein God in my own image, and it would never be taller than five foot one. (Quoted here.)
This is the Christianised version of the religion cited by Miroslav Volf in Exclusion and Embrace of “Sheilaism” — whatever you feel like believing, however you feel like worshipping, however you feel like living is what comprises your worldview, religion, and lifestyle.
What Mathewes-Green discovered in Orthodoxy was the corrective of tradition. We all have our idiosyncrasies that we bring to how we think and live, and as Christians we have them when we approach Scripture and worship. Tradition is the accumulation of what has been handed down from the Apostles and generally approved of in each generation. It challenges our presuppositions and idiosyncrasies, sometimes very uncomfortably, but when entered into prayerfully, the Spirit will use it to conform us more and more into the image of Christ rather than the accumulation of stuff and culture and self that we bring with us to begin with.
I decided that, while Orthodoxy is interesting and all, I already have a tradition of my own, and it sprang up in England around 596 with the arrival of St. Augustine of Canterbury. To ensure that I actually am part of this tradition, I recently re-read the 39 Articles of Religion, and I find myself in agreement with them. So, besides reading the 39 Articles, what am I to do to engage with the Anglican tradition in all its richness?
1. I have decided to plug into the Book of Common Prayer more frequently, using Morning & Evening Prayer and Compline, but also on occasion the Anglican Society of Saint Francis’ Celebrating Common Prayer for the divine office. The daily office is an important part of traditional English spirituality. It is a way to pray to and draw near to God while at the same time joining with believers within the tradition throughout the world and throughout time.
2. I want to read the classics of the Anglican moral/ethical tradition. This will first mean finishing off William Law’s Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, but moving on to Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Living and John Wesley’s Plain Account of Christian Perfection. This aspect of the tradition includes both virtuous living and the call to social justice, both of which are part of the endless movement towards holiness and perfection (on this endless movement, see St. Gregory of Nyssa).
3. The Anglican tradition also includes the English Reformers, so the Book of Homilies and Richard Hooker at large are to be part of my long-range plan, as is Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.
4. The Anglican tradition has a large component of hymnody worth exploring, and since I have 3 copies of Canada’s 1938 Hymn Book, I am well-prepared for this angle. Alongside hymnody are the poets — Donne, Herbert, et al.
5. The pre-Reformation English tradition, from St. Augustine of Canterbury to the Venerable Bede to St. Anselm to Lady Julian of Norwich and more is part of the tradition as well. I think a study of the mediaeval roots of “Reformation” thought would be a worthy activity. Despite the arguments over the date of Easter and monasticism, mediaeval English Christianity tried to adapt local Celtic customs as part of their own, thus making “Celtic” Christianity also fair game.
6. Patristics is fair game, being the root of much mediaeval Christian thought as well as much Reformation thought. The Fathers are the Fathers of all Christendom, not just the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox bits.
7. The theologians other than the Reformers, up to the present day. The emphasis on Tradition means that, while I should probably grapple with the likes of Spong, Ingham, and more, my emphasis should fall on the Wesleys, the Anglo-Catholics/Oxford Movement, C.S. Lewis, N.T. Wright, J.I. Packer, John Stott, and their ilk.
The above should probably last me until I’m dead. Re those within Anglicanism who are divergent voices of dissent who attack and judge the tradition, I believe that the way to approach them is to look at them through the lens of the tradition, taking those bits that fall beyond the bounds of Scripture, the Creeds, and the 39 Articles, and providing cogent, reasonable, biblical, and traditional critique.
What about your tradition? What are the roots and classic writings of Baptists, Mennonites, the Christian Reformed Church, Roman Catholicism, Pentecostalism? With these in one hand, the Bible in the other, large doses of prayer, and the enlivening of the Holy Spirit, we should be more clearly drawn towards the image of the likeness of Christ than when our own idiosyncrasies take control as we read our Bibles all alone in our rooms. Oh, also, take along a worshipping ecclesial community for the journey. God will use them to shape you mightily as well.
Today let us consider John Donne’s, “Spit in My Face, You Jews.” All of the above-mentioned poems are worth reading several times. Indeed, we read them all aloud twice each. Here is John Donne’s eleventh Holy Sonnet. Read it to yourself a few times, especially aloud, even in company.
Spit in my face, you Jews, and pierce my side,
Buffet, and scoff, scourge, and crucify me,
For I have sinn’d, and sinne’, and only He,
Who could do no iniquity, hath died.
But by my death can not be satisfied
My sins, which pass the Jews’ impiety.
They kill’d once an inglorious man, but I
Crucify him daily, being now glorified.
O let me then His strange love still admire ;
Kings pardon, but He bore our punishment ;
And Jacob came clothed in vile harsh attire,
But to supplant, and with gainful intent ;
God clothed Himself in vile man’s flesh, that so
He might be weak enough to suffer woe.
Part of the appeal of this poem is its provocative first line. I think it’s supposed to make you think that Donne is being racist. Only he’s not. I don’t know if he was in real life, but this poem is not racist. Read it again if you thought it was. That first line is calling the Jewish people of the first-century to spit in Donne’s face. Why? Because these people killed the sinless one, “who could do no iniquity.” And Donne? Oh, Donne’s a sinner. Read his un-holy sonnets. Donne is the one who deserve buffetting, scoffing, scourging, and crucifying, not Jesus. He is calling on the Jews to turn their attentions to himself instead of to Christ.
This fact is central to the mystery of Good Friday, the glory of the Cross — we sinners who deserve death are spared, while the livegiver who has done no wrong dies on our behalf. Jesus on the Cross is showing us the upside Kingdom of God’s mercy — not simply pardoning as an earthly king, but bearing our punishment. And yet we surpass the impiety of the first-century Jews. We, by our sins, crucify Jesus daily. What impiety! What sin! Should we not feel sorrow and seek to amend our ways?
Finally, we see that God, YHWH, who is impassible, who cannot suffer, has “clothed Himself in vile man’s flesh” — in order to “be weak enough to suffer woe.” Christ, who is himself perfect God, tasted all there is to taste of humanity, including suffering, including woe, including death. All of these things are now taken up into God through the Incarnation and Crucifixion. Our pain is known to the Almighty, and he shall not remain silent forever.
If you’ve been following my posts on the Cult of the Cross (here and here), I would argue that poetry such as this is part of the early seventeenth century’s Protestant “Cult” of the Cross — devotional poetry reflecting upon the Cross and upon Christ and how Christ might be made real to me, and I might change my ways.
From AD 381 to some point in the Renaissance or Enlightenment, the Western world was ostensibly Christian. And as the pagans were converted, the only non-Christians left were Jews. The Jewish holy book forms the bulk of the Christian holy book, and the Christian holy book was the foundational text for Western culture. Knowing the Bible, then, means knowing your own culture better and being better equipped to understand the thought-patterns of those who come before you. And their allusions. And what exactly is going on in their art. And, understanding your heritage and culture, you can begin to fulfil the Delphic Oracle’s command: ΓΝΩΘΙ ΣΑΥΤΟΝ· KNOW THYSELF. We shall begin with literature.
The PG Wodehouse post demonstrates the first unspiritual reason to read the Bible: the biblically illiterate simply will not enjoy literature as much. Byron’s “The Destruction of Sennacherib” means less to those who don’t know the Bible. CS Lewis’ The Last Battle loses much meaning without the book of Revelation. There is other literature directly inspired or based upon the Bible: Paradise Lost by John Milton, Ben-Hur by Lew Wallace, Many Waters by Madeleine L’Engle, The Red Tent by Anita Diamant, to name a few. Knowing the Biblical story and how it unfolds adds a deeper layer of meaning as you read literature that plays off it. The intensity of Many Waters was deep for me, as I knew how the story worked out in the Bible — so how would the twists of this plot dovetail with the Bible? And I saw characters whom I knew from Genesis characterised and enfleshed by L’Engle. My familiarity with Genesis increased my enjoyment of the novel.
Other literature is explicitly Christian, even if not directly inspired by the Bible, and an understanding of the Bible will help understand it. This is the case with Helena by Evelyn Waugh, The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, and Godric by Frederick Buechner. Some literature by Christians is not explicitly Christian; nonetheless, an understanding of the Bible still helps you understand the literature. We see this in The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, and Father Brown stories by GK Chesterton (although these are at times quite explicitly Christian).
How do you expect to delve into the depths of the riches of John Donne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, George Herbert, Edmund Spenser, TS Eliot, Prudentius, et al., if you have not investigated the Book that is the foundation of their hearts, minds, souls — yea, their very lives! Take “Prayer (I)” by Herbert (chosen at random from a selection of Herbert’s poems). Ideas/allusions that, from my vantage point, clearly originate from Scripture: “Gods breath in man returning to his birth,” “Christ-side-piercing spear,” “The six-daies world-transposing in an houre,” “Exalted Manna”. Four in three stanzas, and one could argue for a biblical theology surrounding the rest of the poem. If you seek to woo a poet, get to know his or her holy book and worldview.
Not that this use of the Bible is restricted only to Christian writers. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, an atheist, displays a notable intimacy with the Bible, including controversy surrounding interpretations of some of Jesus’ sayings. The very deaths that propel the plot are fixed around the book of Revelation as a core, and many biblical ideas flow in and out of the conversations had by the monks through the course of the book. His novel Foucault’s Pendulum also shows a knowledge of the Bible.
Now I must sleep. My message is: Cure your biblical illiteracy! Read the Bible! It can only do you good.