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By Philip M. Carr-Harris


The Montréal Review, October 2023


Sunrise Interior by Kurt Solmssen (oil on canvas, 64x64") at George Billis Gallery



Just Read

I was confused when my tenth-grade English colleague began teaching various literary texts by first introducing four critical lenses. She felt students needed to understand how to interpret texts as they began to read and study them. As I saw it, this was more of an exploration of the lenses as they related to the works and less about the texts themselves. She believed her tenth graders should explore how an author had constructed gender stereotypes, expressed social class distinctions, used his/her unconscious desires and anxieties, and had understood political and economic oppression.  

Though I respect my colleague, my concern (and resistance) about this approach is in its educational philosophy. I am a constructivist. I want students to discover meaning as they read. I want minimal interference in the building of interpretive skills (teachers, study aids, or internet resources) as they can rob young readers of the necessity of the journey itself. As a teacher, I understand my role as connecting students to a tradition, a kind of fictional tea party with authors—fostering a relationship through which an author’s agenda might come clear in a metaphysical dialogue. When students tell me that they are rereading, I know I am succeeding. And, it has been my experience that questions aroused by gender, Marxist, psychoanalytic, or post-colonial lenses, will also surface and, as this happens, can also function as significant trails through the forest.

It has also been my experience that getting to various levels or kinds of interpretation requires readers to learn how writers use language—to be able to identify, appreciate, and understand, literary devices. There are over 100 such devices. Among the common ones are simile, allusion, metaphor, structure, imagery, symbolism, motif, foreshadowing, allegory, irony, and setting. Then there are the less concrete ones—voice, tone, style, diction—and the different dimensions of each of these. My constructivist approach is based on wrestling with the complexities of a written text—reading and rereading, asking questions and searching for answers, identifying the literary tools used to craft a story—all as precondition to interpretation and the appreciation of what is at stake in the work. Without learning to understand the sophistication of literature's inner workings, I think one is tempted to repeat someone else’s (conventional) ideas which, reluctantly, I think has become an acceptable form of plagiarism.  For me the process of discovery in the learning process is as—if not more—important than arriving at some ‘right’ answer (and in literature there are more answers than answer). As a student and a teacher of literature, I strive to allow the text to lead and to speak for itself.  Following is an example of this taken from my experience in the classroom.

Reading Huckleberry Finn

I'm not sure that you will be able to teach Huck Finn to our students.

Why not?

Because these kids are not Americans, they don't know enough about the history and culture of 19th century America.

But I'm not teaching about 19th century America, this is AP English, I am teaching students how to read.

With this mixed blessing, my Arab and Asian students and I launched off in the proverbial raft down the Mississippi River to explore a territory Mark Twain had created. We simply read the text for two weeks (in and out of class). We read as readers and writers and we asked general questions about plot, character, style, and the various literary devices—it was as if we were shopping and preparing ingredients for the meal but not quite ready to arrange them into a recipe or bake them in the oven. One of our aids was the excellent dramatic reading of the text by the American actor, Elijah Wood, who trained our ears to Twain’s complicated nineteenth century English dialects, especially Jim’s Black English which is the most difficult of all. By the time we got to the moment of the moral climax in Chapter Thirty One (of forty three), after the King and the Duke have betrayed Jim and sold him to the Phelpses for ‘forty dirty dollars’, and after the Phelpses have locked Jim in their shed awaiting return to his rightful owner for a $200 reward, and after Huck goes back to the raft to figure out what to do next—to contemplate both the friendship with his raft buddy and his Sunday School lessons that taught about the destiny of those who assist runaway slaves (everlasting fire)—he writes a letter to Miss Watson telling her where Jim can be found. Then,

I took it (the letter) up and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I got to decide forever betwixt two things, and I know’d it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself, “all right then, I'll go to hell”—and tore it up.1

At this point I ask my students to write a 1000-word essay on the question, “Is Huck Finn a Hero (or Anti-Hero) in your native culture?” This is the moment when the interpretive process begins, when students put the food together and cook the meal. Mostly, Huck is not seen as a hero in an Arab or Asian world because he rejects his heritage—family, faith, and culture—he separates himself from himself because, in an ancient worldview, the individual is the community (Ubuntu—I am because we are). As one student wrote, ‘Huck Finn in my world is like striking a match in a rainstorm’.

But making this case necessitates arguing against the drift of Twain’s articulation of the classic Western notion of individual freedom as a defining characteristic of human identity. These two worlds do intersect when it comes to understanding the exercise of conscience.

Briefly, I want to discuss some of the ways this Western, and peculiarly American, ‘hero’s journey’ was identified as we considered it during the final weeks of study.  And yes, it is also very important when teaching in an Eastern or traditional cultural community, to read and study texts from these traditions (which we did).

First, there are the two main literary allusions—Moses and Hamlet. In the first chapter, the lesson of Moses in the ‘bullrushers’ was taught around the kitchen table after supper by the widow Douglas, and there are various references to Hamlet throughout the text as well as a structural similarity between the play and the novel.

Moses, like Huck, is the one who lights out from captivity, leading the ‘slaves in Egypt’ to the free state (Promised Land). He begins in a small vessel on the water (cradle) and faces numerous obstacles along the way and, just as Moses never crosses the Jordan River, Huck never sees Jim return to his own family—nor do we see where he ends up (perhaps Twain wanted this left to our imagination). Toni Morrison imagined that Huck went looking for Jim—the father he never had!  

Hamlet and Huck share a ghost, the dislocation from their fathers, families left behind, and a long-term moral dilemma—what Arab students called an inner jihad. The moment of Hamlet’s return from England in Act V, when his angst has disappeared, when his ‘to be or not to be’ sense of Act II has become, ‘Let be’, is akin to Huck’s moment of clarity when the letter is torn up and when he states that he would ‘go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again’. Clearly, Twain was a student of both Shakespeare and the Bible and wants the reader to appreciate and be informed by this.

Then there are all the metaphors—because hero or not, they are subtly and elegantly used to express the authors intentions.  And once we were in an interpretive mode in the class, these gushed out, animating our discussion and learning.

First, of course, is the grand metaphor of rebirth. It begins with Huck faking his own death. What appears to be just a clever and well-planned stunt to escape the madness of his father—with the pig’s blood and axe, the hidden canoe and trail of flour—turns out to be like the initial ‘empty-tomb’ moment of the ‘Easter’ Jesus. The carried-down-the-river Huck is the born-again Huck. There are several tributaries that attach to this grand metaphor. The first is the river itself. It evokes Eden and it is where Huck and Jim find peace and perspective about the events that surround them. It is the place of dreams.

Sometimes we'd have that whole river all to ourselves for the longest time. Yonder was the banks and the islands, across the water; and maybe a spark-- which was a candle in a cabin window... It's lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made or only just happened; Jim he allowed they was made, but I allowed they happened; I judged it would have took too long to make so many. Jim said the moon could 'a' laid them; well, that looked kind of reasonable... because I've seen a frog lay most as many, so of course it could be done. We used to watch the stars that fell, too, and see them streak down. Jim allowed they'd got spoiled and was hove out of the nest.2

Then there is the raft.

We said there weren't no home like a raft after all. Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don't. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft. 3

The raft is the place where a young white boy and a Negro slave befriend each other. It is an emblem of a land of promise, a new unsegregated society (remember the novel is written after the Civil War) where the lion and the lamb—the powerful and the white and the weak and the colored, do lie down together.

A humanity transformed, told by the journey on a river raft is also fed by Huck’s many disguises. He dresses up and presents himself to people on the shore as Sarah, George Peters, George Jackson, Adolphus, and even, Tom Sawyer. These are metaphorical
expressions of the gestation of Huck's new identity. The final sentence of the book is the last expression of this, recognizing that such a trek as this never ends.

. . . but I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and civilize me and I can't stand it. I've been there before. 4

The river is also contrasted with the shore-—shore representing chaos and cruelty—city, in the classic relationship between pastoral and urban worlds. We see civilization through the innocent perspective of the thirteen-year-old as: lying tricksters like the Duke and Dauphin, feuding families like the Grangerfords and Shepherdsons—who gather in church for a sermon on brotherly love—then continue to feud and kill each other immediately following the last hymn. Then there is the mob in the balcony speech of Colonel Sherburn (who has just shot a man).

The idea of YOU lynching anybody! It’s amusing. The idea of you thinking you had pluck enough to lynch a MAN! Because you’re brave enough to tar and feather poor friendless cast-out women that come along here, did that make you think you had grit enough to lay your hands on a MAN? Why, a MAN’S safe in the hands of ten thousand of your kind – as long as it’s daytime and you’re not behind him.5

Twain’s use of Socratic irony is integral to our appreciation of the maturation of Huck (the hero) and the agenda of the author. It is as if we readers are crouched on the moving raft viewing this world. And, to state the obvious, we are on the raft because Huck and Jim could never be together on the shore. There are numerous instances where Jim must hide (assisted by Huck), to escape capture or death.

But this is an essay about reading, not Mark Twain’s great novel, so I conclude this section by recalling the final exam which was worth forty percent of the final grade.  It goes to the final act of an appreciation of literature, namely, its interrogation of the reader.

Like any work of art, ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’, is interrogative (it poses questions). Please choose two of the following four questions or, if you like, create a question of your own and choose one of the given questions. Each answer should be no less that one thousand words. Please remember to demonstrate how you understand Twain’s interrogation as you the respond based on your own experience.

You may use the text and your computers (to type your answers), there is no internet access.  

A. How do the expectations and the conventions of family, friends, and culture effect you as you mature? What part does your conscience play?

B. Understanding Twain’s metaphorical use of the relationship between the shore and the river, how do you experience this dichotomy between reality and imagination in your life?

C. Are Huck and Jim free? Are you?

D. The friendship of Huck and Jim is complicated, and it certainly stands way outside the normal parameters of their society’s conventions.  Huck has befriended an outcast and Jim has befriended his slave owner’s child.  Have you been in a friendship like this?  Describe it.

Approaching The Bible

CAYLEY: But why, as you say in ‘The Great Code’, does Nietzsche’s famous statement that God is dead refer to an event within the history of language?

FRYE: Nietzsche himself, after his lunatic prophet Zarathustra said that, scratched his head and said, “Well it's going to be very difficult to get rid of God as long as we keep on believing in grammar.” Believing in grammar, I think, meant for him primarily believing in subjects and predicates and objects. As long as the human being is a subject and God is an object, there will always be an unresolved problem in language. The metaphorical approach, on the other hand, moves in the direction of the identity of God and man. My interest in the Bible has led me to a growing interest in the way that nouns or the world of things rather block movement. The scientist, for example, is trying to describe processes in space-time, and ordinary language has to twist that into events in time and things in space. But these processes are not going on in space and time. One of the most seminal books I have read is Buber’s ‘I and Thou’. Buber says we are all born into a world of “its,” and if we meet other human beings we turn them into “its.” In this view, everything is a solid block, a thing. Consequently, when we think of God, we think of a grammatical noun. But you have to get used to the notion that there is no such thing as God, because God is not a thing. He is a process fulfilling itself. That's how he defines himself: “I will be what I will be.” Similarly, I am more and more drawn to thinking in terms of a great swirling of processes and powers rather than a world of blocks and things. A text, for example, is a conflict of powers. That's why the Derrida people can pursue a logic of supplement. They can extract one force and set it against another. But the text is not a thing anymore. A picture is not a thing. It's a focus of forces.6


On the first day of the first Scripture class in my freshman year at Seminary, we learned about two main approaches to the interpretation of the Bible: exegesis and eisegesis.  Exegesis was the preferred method; eisegesis was to be avoided.  Hegeisthai is the English transliteration of the Greek word for to lead or to guide.  Eis is the Greek word for into and ex is the Greek word for out of.  Used as terms for interpretation, eisegesis means to lead (read) into—to apply subjective ideas to the text, while exegesis means to read out of—to allow the Bible to speak for itself.  Because the Bible is ancient literature—compiled of twenty-four (Jewish), sixty-four (Protestant), and seventy-three (Catholic) separate books written by up to forty (known) authors over 1500 years, numerous tools have been developed to assist in the discovery of meaning.  Though the hermeneutical (interpretive) tradition in Judaism is like the Christian tradition (I will let Jewish hermeneuts describe this), let me outline the ways we were taught to read and interpret the Bible. 

Like an archeologists’ instruments that help explore the layers of civilizations (many of which have been constructed one on top of the other), we were given tools along with certain lenses. Though these hermeneutical tools can be used to support certain ideological viewpoints, they can also be used in a more scientific sense and lead to their own conclusions. This does not mean that the theological dimension of the Biblical text can or should be avoided, rather, it suggests that it can be remade. Here is a brief description of some of the instruments we were given.

Textual Criticism takes seriously the emanation of the text through time and of the various language translations—from Greek, Latin, Aramaic, and Hebrew—which (before the printing press) were copied by hand.  Source Criticism builds on this by looking for sources of the text. In the New Testament, for example, scholars are mostly agreed that a ‘Q’ source lies behind Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s Gospels and that Mark’s Gospel was used by Matthew and Luke.  Form Criticism assumes that a written text has roots within oral traditions generally and within certain forms (genres) of oral traditions.  What are these?  Rhetorical Criticism asks how a text functions (and has functioned) for its audience?  Apology? Instruction? Description?  Narrative Criticism asks about a narrator and a narrative structure and purpose.  Archaeological Method evaluates physical evidence from the biblical period.  For instance, there is a lot of archeological evidence of the second temple in Jerusalem but little physical evidence of an Exodus from Egypt.


Over the years I found two other tools that are very useful. These are: Historical Criticism with a specific focus on Historical Jesus studies, and Social Scientific Criticism, mainly through the work of Bruce Malina and others in which models of cultural anthropology are used as hermeneutical tools.  Let me write more in detail about these.

If you have ever read a newspaper story about a priceless old master painting found in somebody's attic, which had been covered over by later paintings, you have some idea of what textual study is like. Just as the art museum curator goes to work with delicate tools and chemicals to try to remove the overlay and uncover the original masterpiece, so scholars use a variety of sophisticated methods to get down through the layers of interpretation to the original picture of Jesus.” 7

Johannes Reimarus, an 18th century German philosopher began this research by suggesting that there could be a difference between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith.  There has been a lot written on this subject in the last fifty years and this alone might interest those curious about both the Jesus of history and of the church. Chief among these works is the exhaustive research, including its methodologies, set forth in John Dominic Crossan’s five-hundred-page opus, ‘The Historical Jesus’ (1992).  In a less technical book, written in a Q. and A. format, Crossan summarizes his method by likening it to three giant searchlights coming together on a single object in the night sky.  He describes these search lights as cross-cultural study, historical study, and textual study.

Each one of the searchlights must strike the object at the same place. Since all three of my searchlights must intersect at the same point for any of them to be correct, each serves to correct the other two. Where all three intersect I have a high degree of confidence that they are focused on the historical Jesus. 8

Cross-cultural study is an investigation of the social setting in which Jesus lived. It insists that an ancient Mediterranean culture is quite different from a contemporary American one; it looks at societies across history that resemble Jesus’s society and asks questions. What are the basic differences between agrarian and industrial society?  What are the boundaries of politics, family dymanics, how does tax and debt work, and what are the definitions of class and gender?  How did people communicate?

Historical study investigates Roman and Jewish affairs in Jesus’s time. The Jewish homeland was a colony of the Roman Empire. Crossan uses all extant literary and archeological sources—especially the first century A.D. Roman Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. Crossan’s general conclusion is that Jesus lived in a very uncertain economic and political environment, a time when peasants, protesters, prophets, bandits, and messiahs, were all awaiting revolution.

Textual study means looking at three levels of the literary tradition.  First are sayings and happenings that go back to the historical Jesus, second is how these materials are developed (by adding other stories around them), and finally, the addition of totally new stories and sayings that were put into the mouth of Jesus.

We need to understand that the first Christians experienced Jesus as continuing to be present with them after he died. That sense of continued presence gave the transmitters of the Jesus tradition a creative freedom. They did not write so much about the Jesus who was, but the Jesus who is; not the Jesus who said, but the Jesus that says; not the Jesus who did, but the Jesus who does. So they were unembarrassed to restate the words and deeds of Jesus in ways that met the particular needs of their own times and communities. When, therefore, I talk about getting behind the gospels to the historical Jesus, I am not denying the value of gospels as they stand. What I am saying is simply that they are neither histories nor biographies, but interpretations for particular times, places, and communities. In order to see the historical Jesus, we need to get behind those interpretations. 9

Bruce Malina’s work drills down on what Crossan calls, ‘social anthropology’.  He, like Crossan, is mostly interested in writings from the New Testament although his methodology can be applied to the entire biblical canon (though someone else will need to write that book).  He has authored over fifteen books on this subject. He likens reading the Bible as listening to a group of transplanted foreigners from another time and place—transferring the words of a first century non-westerner into our contemporary social world. He believes that it is easy to know what these foreigners are saying but much more difficult to understand what they mean.  His work lays out methods for understanding social norms and values from the world of first century Palestine.

If commentators, historians, and ordinary Bible readers derive meaning from the New Testament, the question we might put to them is whether such meaning comes from their cultural story or the cultural story of the people who produced the texts. . . .The misinterpretation I am referring to comes from identifying your cultural story with human nature: “Since we do it this way, all people of all times must do it this way.” This is an ‘Archie Bunkerism’, known in learned circles as ethnocentrism. When applied to history it is called an anachronism—imposing the cultural artifacts and behavior of your own on people of the past. ... for example, Jesus condemned divorce, people in our society get divorced, so Jesus must be condemning that sort of behavior in our society. The problem is: do marriage and divorce mean the same thing when Jesus speaks of them and when we speak of them? 10

Malina’s work provides a series of models that build meaning.  Following is a list of chapter headings 11 that discuss these from an updated version of the book just referenced.

  • Honor and Shame: Pivotal values of the First-Century Mediterranean World
  • The First-Century Personality: The Individual and the Group
  • The Perception of Limited Good: Maintaining One’s Social Status
  • Envy—The Most Grievous of All Evils: Envy and The Evil-Eye in the First-Century Mediterranean World
  • Kinship and Marriage: Fusing Families Together
  • Clean and Unclean: Understanding Rules of Purity
  • How Jesus Groups Evolved: Understanding Group Development

The Cultural Anthropological study of the Bible evaluates meaning in terms of the social context from which the writings emerge and not simply from what they say. Malina believes that to deny this is to deny the Incarnation, to not appreciate fully the humanity of the God-man Jesus.12

Back to Northrop Frye, the preeminent literary critic in the English-speaking world of the twentieth century.  In the 1940’s, at the University of Toronto, he began teaching an introductory course on the English Bible to help the students of Milton’s, ‘Paradise Lost’, understand this author’s enormous reliance on the biblical text.  He wrote and taught about the Bible and its place in the study of literature for fifty years.  In 1982 he published, ‘The Great Code: The Bible and Literature’. The title refers to William Blake’s description of the Old and New Testaments as The Great Code of Art, 13 meaning that the imaginative world of the Bible imbues human creative activity and provides tools for its work.  Blake was an artist not a churchman.  He was not using the Bible to order a religious institution or life, but to order his creative work as a poet, painter, and printmaker, work that he believed was spawned in the world created by the biblical text itself.  

Frye understands this ‘Great Code’ in a similar way using the terms, ‘mythological framework’. For him, the Bible provides an overarching narrative and a set of symbols and images that births and sustains western culture—it saturates our civilizations—and his book attempts to illustrate the myriad ways this is expressed.  For him, the Bible is like a womb from which English literature is born.  And the development of the biblical narrative—its images, symbols, and themes—in the non-biblical literature, also conditions the way interpreters have understood the biblical text.  Though his work does not provide a series of scientific tools as the ones already mentioned, still it provides valuable insight into an understanding of the biblical text and its traditions.  For instance, ‘Huck Finn’ is both a ‘Creation’ and an ‘Exodus’ story.  Steinbeck’s, ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ is also an ‘Exodus’ story with Ma Joad as the Moses character.  Melville’s ‘Moby Dick’ has over 650 allusions to the Bible, many of them from the Book of Job, in fact, scholars have characterized Melville’s novel as the American Renaissance’s version of that blameless and upright man from the Land of Uz, who, feared God and turned away from evil 14. There are thousands of literary connections to the Bible in the long history of literature within 1500 Indo-European and Indigenous languages.  Following is how Frye describes the course on the Bible mentioned above.

Reading the Bible from beginning to end one discovers that it has a beginning and an end and some traces of total structure. It begins where time begins, with the creation of the world; It ends where time ends, with the apocalypse, and it surveys human history in between, or an aspect of history it is interested in, under the symbolic names of Adam and Israel. There is also a body of concrete images: city, mountain, river, garden, tree, oil, fountain, bread, wine, bride, sheep, and many others, which recur so often that they clearly indicate some kind of unifying principle. That unifying principle, for a critic, would have to be one of shape rather than meaning; Or, more accurately, no book can have a coherent meaning unless there is some coherence in its shape. So, the course turned into a presentation of a unified structure of narrative and imagery in the Bible, and this forms the core of the present book. 15 

Two things are worth noting here. First, for Frye, literature is an art form—an expression of the creative imagination that uses language in the same way as other artistic forms use sound (music), color and shape (visual art), physical material (sculpture), the human body (dance), and a camera (photograph and film).  The artist’s workshop fashions mirrors on the world—it is why we can say that art reveals something about the self and of its relationship to all surrounding Others (animate and inanimate).  Imaginative human expression defines human consciousness.It is what is meant in the story of the first man and woman in the Garden of Eden when the serpent rightly interprets the consequence of eating of the fruit of the tree that, was good for food…pleasant to the eyes…to be desired to make one wise...16, when it said (should they eat it) that their eyes would be opened and that they would be as gods, knowing good and evil. And the Lord concurs, Behold the man has become one of us, to know good and evil. 17 This story begins the articulation of a biblical cosmos in which humans are both authors and participants.

The idea that the human consciousness lives inside a universe of words, which is in turn inside the universe of nature, has always been very central to me. 18

Second, is Frye’s understanding of the concept, myth. In comparing myths with folktales and legends, he writes:

Myths have a different and distinctive social function. That function is mainly to tell the society they grow up in the important things for that society to know about their God's, their traditional history, the origins of their customs and class structure. Myths are also regularly used in connection with rituals, whether as forming a commentary on the ritual or as being dramatized by it.

Myths have thus two contexts. In their structure they resemble other types of story, and so are potentially literary. But in early societies they also develop a social function that we have been calling ideological. They play a leading role in defining a society, in giving it a shared possession of knowledge, or what is assumed to be knowledge, peculiar to it. Its proclamation is not so much “this is true” as “this is what you must know.” Such a mythology is close to what is meant by the biblical term, ‘torah’, essential instruction, including the laws, which no one can be excused from learning. So a mythology creates in the midst of its society the verbal equivalent of a ‘temenos’ or sacred ground, a limited and sacrosanct area. 19

A simple definition of myth is that it is something that happened once and that happens all the time—a vessel of wisdom. As noted above, the biblical ‘Exodus’ story is a good example. No one knows what happened at the Red (Reed) Sea, but every year at the Passover celebration Jews declaim, We were slaves in Egypt, 20 believing that they are part of the caravan led by Moses from Egypt through parted waters to Mount Sinai, then through a desert wilderness to a land of promise.  And I interpret this ‘land’ as being not simply about a particular piece of territory but of a hope that defines one’s existence—about the movement towards freedom—M.L. King Jr.’s idea that the arc of the moral universe is long but bends towards justice.  The Christian myth builds on this idea in the resurrection and ascension of Jesus into heaven.

Frye describes this mythological framework as a U-shaped pattern, the typical shape of commedia. A person is placed in a state of nature from which he gets lost (falls)—indicated by the base of the U—and from which he recovers and is found. On the first page of the Bible, Adam loses the tree and the water of life in the garden, and at the end of the Bible, in the Book of Revelation, there is a vision of the tree and water of life restored to humankind.  This pattern of loss and deliverance is found throughout the Bible.  I would describe the in-between of these two points—the loop in the ‘U”—as mostly about struggle.  The Book of Job, the story of the Prodigal Son, and the Gospel narratives of Jesus, are all microcosms of this overall comedic (happy ending) pattern that brackets loss and struggle. Frye looks at these and many, many more articulations of this pattern in his work.

The final thing to take from Frye on the Bible is to understand the main construction tool used in the creation of the grand mythological framework: metaphor.  The biblical text is written and compiled before the appearance of descriptive or metonymic (the substitution of the name of an attribute for that of the thing meant, ex., track for horse racing) uses of language. It comes from the earliest form of thinking, mythical thinking, which he says,

…proceeds metaphorically in a world where everything is potentially identifiable with everything else. Gods, for example, are linguistically metaphors. That's how they start out. You have a sea God or a sun God or a war God, where a thing is being identified within a supposed personality. Metaphor is a way of thinking that holds the personal and the impersonal world together in the form A is B. The point about metaphor is that it opens a current or channel of energy between the subject and object. The most obvious unit of both myth and metaphor is the god, because the god is a ready-made metaphor. If you say Neptune is the sea, you've got some aspect of personality or consciousness identified with something in nature. The gods are not just human projections on nature, they’re evocations of the powers of nature. 21

The, ‘this is that’ definition of metaphor makes it nonsensical to the rational mind. Because the Bible is so intensely poetic 22, it is perhaps useful to recall Shakespeare’s definition of the poet in the words of Theseus in ‘A Midsummer’s Night Dream’.

The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to Earth, from Earth to
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.

For Frye the use of metaphor in the Bible is not an ornament of language but a controlling form of thought.  He once suggested to his students that the verse in John that reads, Jesus wept, 24 would be all that would be left of the Bible if the entire text were to be demythologized consistently.25

Though Frye’s work is exhaustive and complicated and uses sophisticated literary tools and lenses, it builds on the basic ideas previously explored that understanding the biblical text requires a commitment to take seriously the various contexts in which it was written as well as in the various continuing settings (3000 years in every civilization) in which the Bible has been read and interpreted.  No, the Bible, in itself, is not true.  There is no such thing as an inanimate object—a book— being described this way.  As for the written content—anything that is created and sustained by human hands, regardless of the inspiration, depends entirely upon interpretation—a text is not a thing anymore. A picture is not a thing. It's a focus of forces. 26

Before going into the fourth section of this essay in which we will look more closely at what is known as the ‘infallible’ word of God—the so-called literalistic interpretation of the Bible, consider this idea from Margaret Atwood’s essay about her 2019 book ‘The Writing of the Two Testaments’, the sequel to ‘The Handmaids Tale’.

As Thomas King has remarked, history isn't what happened—it's the stories we tell about what happened. How we interpret and present what happened. And that interpretation and presentation is always taking place in the now of the speaker or interpreter because where else can it take place? Therefore the past as we know it is always changing. Some parts of it are buried, but then dug up again. Some are spun positively, and then spun negatively. Statues are erected to admired or important figures, and then they are pulled down. I myself have lived through a number of statute take-downs, including those in the former Soviet Union, and that of the Shah of Iran, and currently those of various confederate generals in the United States. 27

Biblical Literalism and Biblical Christianity: Authoritarian Lenses

We begin with a dialogue taken from ‘Mad Men’,28  the seven-year television series (thirteen episodes per year) set in the glamorous ‘Golden Age’ of advertising where everyone is selling something and nothing is ever what it seems.  The title plays on the word ‘Mad’ using it both as a noun for the nickname of the avenue (Madison) and an adjective for its world. This dialogue is between Don Draper, Peggy Olsen, and Peggy’s creative assistant, Michael, when Don launches into a mad rant on how to create a pitch for the Chevrolet account at General Motors.

OK, I have this great message and it has to do with what holds people together.
What is that thing that draws them?  It is history. 
And it may not even be with that person, but it's... it's like a... well, it's bigger than that.          

And that makes them buy a car?


If this strategy is successful, it's way bigger than a car.
It's everything.
I keep thinking about the basic principle of advertising.
There's entertainment—and you stick the Ad in the middle of the entertainment—like a little respite.
It's a bargain. They're getting the entertainment for free. All they have to do is listen to the message.
But what if they don't take the bargain at all? What if they're suddenly bored with the entertainment?
What if they don't—what if they turn off the TV?
You got to get your foot in the door.

Exactly. So how do I do that?
Let's say I get her face to face.
How do I capture her imagination?
I have a sentence, maybe two.

Who’s her?

Promise them everything. You know, you're going to change their life.
You're going to take away their pain.

That’s good.


Then you hit him with the 1-2 punch.
 What's the answer to all of life's problems?
 A Chevy.

No, it’s not.

Then it’s oatmeal?


What have you been doing the last three days?
 Have you been working on Chevy at all?

I gotta’ go.

You wanna get someone in here who can draw?

No, I don't have time for that.

Don’s double-talk is at once about a torturous and broken relationship with his married neighbor and the Chevy account. Michael describes the modus operandi of both the business of advertising and of illicit relationships—promise them everything.

Okay, so, is this meant to be in another essay? 

No, it belongs here because its desperate tone and the idea that the end justifies the means—what the writers of ‘Mad Men’ proclaim are the real values of contemporary American culture (and the final moments of last episode shouts this out)—resembles the way fundamentalist Christians and their communities interpret and use the Bible. 

Take a listen to this short conversation between two Christian evangelists from the Global Anglican Fellowship Conference (GAFCON), a breakaway group from the Anglican Communion which claims it now represents 85% of Anglicans around the world (approximately 72 million). The schism is specifically related to human sexuality and the ordination of a homosexual bishop (2003), but more generally about how the Bible is interpreted.  Churches that are part of GAFCON describe their faith as ‘Biblical Christianity’.

Sadly, there are those within the Anglican Communion, including whole Provinces, who have rejected the authority of God’s written Word and have put their trust in their own reason. This has been most evident in the area of sexual ethics and human sexuality.  And it is for this reason that GAFCON was formed; to restore the Bible to the heart of the Communion so that the Gospel of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ might not be compromised. 29

Here, Richard and Dominic are discussing how to use the Bible to bring people to Christ. 30


But actually, here's the problem for any course, Dominic, it’s biblical knowledge. Knowledge of the Bible is now so low that you can go through your six or seven sessions, and you don't know enough to give your life to Christ.


What we're doing is we run the course and we find we're running four courses a year, yeah, so that's essentially in the four school terms, and we're scooping people in through Christmas, we're scooping people in through Easter, we run some sort of evangelism event in third term, and we scoop people in and thenwe do it over a dinner. We find some have come to Christ at the end of the course but I would say most haven't but they do like reading the Bible and so they want to keep meeting, so we run another course we just call it introducing Jesus or knowing Jesus and sometimes we'll run Mark’s Gospel sometimes we'll run different things. . . then we find them trickling into the Kingdom over the next nine months. Although we are finding that by the time they get there, they're also prepared to come to church.


I mean obviously I'm not saying to the individual that meets me for eighteen sentences (of John’s Gospel) that, by the way, you're about to sign yourself up for the next twenty-one verses. So, my point about this is that the whole of every single meeting was geared on the gospel, line by line, and my trust now is implicitly in the power of the word.

These two believe that simply reading the Bible (with minimal commentary) exposes the reader to the ‘power of the word’, meaning the Lord Jesus Christ, and is, therefore, an agent for conversion.  The ‘power of the word’ as Richard names it, will bring new life to both a person and to the church. In the GAFCON website, the following describes how this church defines ‘Biblical Christianity’.

GAFCON is a Bible-based movement which submits to the authority of the Scripture.  The Apostle Paul reminded Timothy in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 that: ‘All Scripture is God-breathed, (inspired by God) and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.’

Paul was making it clear to his young protégé that although written by men, the words in Scripture were originally breathed out through God’s lips into the writers’ hearts and the Bible is therefore God’s written Word. And because God is sovereign and incapable of error, so is his Word. It contains the key principles and teaching for mankind to be fully ‘equipped’ to live the way God wants.31

Biblical Christianity is common among Christian evangelists across the denominational spectrum. Billy Graham used to say that the Bible is, God’s book of promises and unlike the books of men, it does not change or get out of date. 32  What this essay disputes is the position that the Bible says this or that or teaches this or that—no, it is the reader or readers or churches or long-standing Christian traditions, that interpret the Bible to mean this or that, to teach this or that. This last sentence is the part of the distilled meaning of this entire essay. If those who have decided to use the Bible for religious conversion—bringing people to Christ—would only be clear and honest about this—that this is their interpretation—there would be less confusion and more clarity and integrity about the biblical text itself. And again, this essay is not to dispute the interpretation of this literal or fundamentalist approach (that’s another essay), rather it is to preserve the common sense and overwhelming scholarly opinion that there is only the interpretive task (the Christian phrase ‘Word of God’ is one interpretation) and it is complicated and ever changing (viz. Atwood’s quote above).  Billy Graham’s idea that the Bible does not change or get out of date makes no sense.  Literally speaking, I have in front of me as I write this, a Bible whose front page reads like this:




This Bible is terribly out of date.  Its cover is detached from the binding, its pages are soiled and deteriorating—it is almost impossible to read.  In the last 197 years there have been many new translations (‘from the former translations’). Next to it on my desk is a copy of a dictionary of the Bible, from the same era, stating that it is for the use of Sunday School teachers and families (‘with maps and numerous fine engravings’).  Here is its definition, for instance, of ‘Eden’.

EDEN, delight, pleasure, a pleasant region in Asia, the situation of which is described Gen ii,10-14; and in which was placed the garden of our first parents during their state of innocence.  The name has been given to several other places which, from their situation, were pleasant or delightful, Joel ii,3.

This book contains approximately 4000 entries.  The author states,

This invaluable work is a purely philological work; and although it rarely presents any allusion to theological sentiment, no student of the Bible should be without it.33

O.K., being a bit sarcastic here, but the Bible is a book, or rather, a collection of books written over a 1500-year period with approximately forty known authors. For the past 3000 years it has been read, translated, and studied in 1500 different Indo-European and indigenous languages (I know, I have stated this already, but it is worth repeating).  The phrase, ‘the Bible says’ is nonsensical. What the Bible says is what a reader or readers have interpreted it to say—and not even ‘it’, but a certain part, or book, or chapter or verse—of it.  Even the phrase ‘Word of God’ is problematic because it does not express what the ‘Word’ says (or means), only that it is ‘of God’ which is about authority.  It’s like a father appealing to one of his children who is getting into trouble, ‘Remember what your mother said…’ (and not repeating what she did say).

Let’s listen to one more dialogue—this time from a television special in 1989, entitled, ‘The Battle for the Bible’.  It is between Bill Moyers, a well-known journalist, and The Reverend W.A. Criswell, pastor of ‘The First Baptist Church of Dallas’, the (then) largest Southern Baptist congregation in the United States.  Listen to how the Reverend Criswell articulates the denomination’s use of the Bible. The SBC is the largest Protestant denomination in the United States with 47,000 congregations and 14,000,000 members.  

There are no historical errors in the Bible. All that we know confirms the truth of the word of God.

You call yourself a literalist. How do you define that?

Yes. I just think the Bible literally is true. Just from the beginning to the end of it.





Historically, yes.

In every way?

In every way. When man starts going that way (towards liberalism), it’s not long until he puts his Bible down and he picks up psychology and sociology and political science, and the Lord only knows what all. You’ve got to stay by that Bible and what it says, and if you ever turn aside from it, you’re going to turn into all of those other things. . ..  I think if you don’t believe the Bible, you ought to quit the ministry.

What about that old Baptist doctrine that each of us is free to interpret the Scripture in submission to the Holy Spirit?

That is a ruse.

A ruse?

That’s a cover-up. That’s a — that’s a — a bowing out.

How is that Dr. Criswell?

When I say that I believe in the literal meaning and in interpretation of the Bible, that it says what it means and means what it says, when I say that, I automatically bind myself to the authority of the Scriptures. That means I do not have the authority to take it and make it mean something else. And it speaks for itself, God saw to that, he didn’t write enigmas and unintelligible things in the Bible for us, he wrote them plainly and all I have to do is to read it and believe it and implement it in my life. And of course, for me, in my preaching.

But I’m not prepared to have anyone say what the Holy Spirit is saying to me.

If you will let the Holy Spirit say to you in your heart that what I’m reading here in the Bible is the literal truth, and if the Holy Spirit is allowed to teach you that truth of God as you read the Bible, you’ll come out saying the same thing I do.

Reluctantly, I quote William Blake here:

The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water, and breeds reptiles of the mind. In the universe, there are things that are known, and things that are unknown, and in between, there are doors.34

I do not intend disrespect the Rev A. W. Criswell who, in his Baptist tradition, was beloved and had a very long and fruitful ministry.  If you want to sense this, listen to his last sermon, entitled, ‘Gimme That Old Time Religion’.35  It is a beautiful and heartfelt expression of a significant strand of this tradition.  But again, this essay takes issue with the ideas expressed in the interview with Bill Moyers, ideas used at this year’s annual Southern Baptist Convention in New Orleans (2023) to expel two churches because of female leadership (one of which has 23,000 members) based on a literal reading of I Timothy 3 which describes a church leader as a man whose life is above reproach and who must be faithful to his wife.  And allow me to pile onto this daft method of interpretation by mentioning a few of the many other statements in the Bible which might be taken seriously as historical references but are rarely obeyed as inerrant truth. The slave master has the right to beat his slave without mercy since “the slave is his money” (Exodus 21:21). Children whose strike or curse a parent are to be executed (Exodus 21:15, 17). Those who pay homage to another God “shall be utterly destroyed” (Exodus 22:20). Menstruating women are to be considered unclean, and all they touch while menstruating becomes unclean (Leviticus 15:19-32). The blind, the lame, those with mutilated faces, those who are hunchbacks or dwarfs and those with itching diseases or scabs or crushed testicles cannot become priests (Leviticus 21:17-21). Hatred of Jews and other non-Christians pervades John’s Gospel (3:18-20).  Jews are children of the devil and the father of lies (John 8: 39-44). Jesus calls on his followers to love their enemies and pray for their persecutors (Matthew 5: 44)—a radical concept in the days of the Roman Empire—but then we read of Jesus calling his enemies “a brood of vipers” (Matthew 12: 34). So, which is it? 

Is this method really about the ‘Bible speaking for itself’?  Exegesis not eisegesis? I think not. Looks more like a buffet-type situation, doesn’t it?  The issue here is not about the ‘authority of Scripture’ but about the authority of those who promulgate this very specific and narrow interpretation of it. They, like the advertising executives in ‘Mad Men’ who create the entertaining script about a chevy (promising the consumer everything to land a lucrative contract), want to market an interpretation of the Bible (promising the consumer everything—heaven—to build up their church).  Unfortunately, Biblical Christianity is about authority—authoritarianism—where the Bible is used as a kind of scepter for obedience and indoctrination and not as a tool for dialogue and discovery.

But the Bible and literature can be authoritative. Now let’s turn to a broader discussion of this.

Authority in Literature

I begin with a couple of paragraphs from the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures (2009), given by the eminent Turkish-American writer and Nobel Laureate (2003) Orhan Pamuk.   

The center of a novel is a profound opinion or insight about life, a deeply embedded point of mystery, whether real or imagined. Novelists write in order to investigate this locus, to discover its implications, and we are aware that novels are read in the same spirit.... Novelists—some of us only occasionally, others more often—move instinctively, excitedly, and relentlessly from one detail, observation, object, and image to the next, in order to reach the end of the story, giving little thought to the fact that the novel we are writing has a secret center. Writing a novel may resemble traversing a forest, devoting passionate attention to every tree, registering and describing every detail as though the point were merely to tell the story, to make it through the entire forest.

But however much we are attracted by the woods, buildings, and rivers of the landscape, or find ourselves enchanted by the wonder, strangeness, and beauty of each tree or cliff, we still know that there is something more mysterious locked within the landscape—something more profoundly meaningful than the sum of all the individual trees and the objects it contains. On occasion we may feel this clearly, and sometimes the awareness is accompanied by a haunting sense of disquiet.

The same goes for readers of novels. The reader of the literary novel knows that each tree in the landscape—each person, object, event, anecdote, image, recollection, bit of information, and leap in time—has been placed there to point to the deeper meaning, the secret center that lies somewhere beneath the surface.36

Can this idea of Pamuk’s ‘secret center’ be a way to discuss this authority?  For him, the entire content of a text, of course including the way it is written, all combine to engage the writer or reader with something mysterious locked within the landscape.  Is this synonymous with the ‘message’ or main idea of a text?  Related, perhaps, but it feels as if Pamuk is describing something larger than this.  He doesn’t seem to be talking about something that can be contained in words when he describes it as a deeply embedded point of mystery whether real or imagined 37.  My sense is that this ‘embedded point’ is where textual authority is found.  Let’s go back to Huckleberry Finn and read a passage with Pamuk’s idea in mind. 

The following passage comes from half-way through the book, Chapter Twenty, when Huck goes onto the shore with the King (Dauphin) ‘Looy the Seventeen, son of Looy the Sixteen and Marry Antonette’, and the Duke ‘of Bridgewater’, two hucksters who have pushed their way onto the raft and have announced to Jim and Huck that they are of a royal lineage.  Following is Huck’s short soliloquy at the end of Chapter Nineteen.

It didn't take me long to make up my mind that these liars weren't no kings nor dukes, at all, but just low-down humbugs and frauds. But I never said nothing, never let on; kept it to myself; it's the best way; then you don't have no quarrels, and don't get into no trouble. If they wanted us to call them kings and dukes, I had no objections, long as it would keep peace in the family; and it weren't no use to tell Jim, so I didn't tell him. 38

So, Huck and the two tricksters (Jim always hid out on the raft) go to a small one-horse town (Polkville) ‘about three miles down the bend’.  The king and the duke travel with a trunk full of costumes and do shows to raise money. But, as it turns out, everybody is at a Camp (Revival) Meeting, so the duke goes in search of a printing office to make posters for the play (the swordfight in Richard III and the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet) and Huck and the king go to the Meeting.  Though this is a longish excerpt, I think we need a certain length of text to sense a center.

We got there in about half an hour, fairly dripping, for it was a most awful hot day. There was as much as a thousand people there, from twenty mile around. The woods was full of teams and wagons, hitched everywheres, feeding out of the wagon troughs and stomping to keep off the flies. There was sheds made out of poles and roofed over with branches, where they had lemonade and gingerbread to sell, and piles of watermelons and green corn and such like truck.

The preaching was going on under the same kinds of sheds, only they was bigger and held crowds of people. The benches was made out of outside slabs of logs, with holes bored in the round side to drive sticks into for legs. They didn't have no backs. The preachers had high platforms to stand on, at one end of the sheds. The women had on sun-bonnets; and some had linsey-woolsey frocks, some gingham ones, and a few of the young ones had on calico. Some of the young men was barefooted, and some of the children didn't have on any clothes but just a tow-linen shirt. Some of the old women was knitting, and some of the young folks was courting on the sly.

The first shed we come to, the preacher was lining out a hymn. He lined out two lines, everybody sung it, and it was kind of grand to hear it, there was so many of them and they done it in such a rousing way; then he lined out two more for them to sing—and so on. The people woke up more and more, and sung louder and louder; and towards the end, some began to groan, and some begun to shout. Then the preacher began to preach; and begun in earnest, too; and went weaving first to one side of the platform and then to the other, and then a leaning down over the front of it, with his arms and his body going all the time, and shouting his words out with all his might; and every now and then he would hold up his Bible and spread it open, and kind of pass it around this way and that, shouting, “It's a brazen serpent in the wilderness! Look upon it and live!” And people would shout out, “Glory! —A-a-men!” And so he went on, and the people groaning and crying and saying amen:

“Oh, come to the mourners’ bench! come, black with sin! (amen!) come, sick and sore! (amen!) come, lame and halt, and blind! (amen!) Come, pore and needy, sunk in shame! (a-a-men!) come all that's worn, and soiled, and suffering—come with a broken spirit! come with a contrite heart! come in your rags and sin and dirt! the waters that cleanse is free, the door of heaven stands open—oh, enter in and be at rest!” (a-a-men! glory, glory hallelujah!)

And so on. You couldn't make out what the preacher said, anymore, on account of the shouting and crying. Folks got up, everywheres in the crowd, and worked their way, just by main strength, to the mourner’s bench, with the tears running down their faces; and when all the mourners had got up there to the front benches in a crowd, they sung, and shouted, and flung themselves down on the straw, just crazy and wild.

Well, the first I knowed, the king got agoing; and you could hear him over everybody; And next he went a-charging up on to the platform and the preacher he begged him to speak to the people, and he done it. He told them he was a pirate—been a pirate for thirty years, out in the Indian Ocean, and his crew was thinned out considerable, last spring, in a fight, and he was home now, to take out some fresh men, and thanks to goodness he'd been robbed last night, and put ashore off a steamboat without a cent, and he was glad of it, it was the blessedest thing that ever happened to him, because he was a changed man now, and happy for the first time in his life; and poor as he was, he was going to start right off and work his way back to the Indian Ocean and put in the rest of his life trying to turn the pirates into the true path; for he could do it better than anybody else, being acquainted with all the pirate crews in that ocean; and though it would take him a long time to get there, without money, he would get there anyway, and every time he convinced a pirate he would say to him, “Don't you thank me, don't you give me no credit, it all belongs to them dear people in Polkville camp-meeting, natural brothers and benefactors of the race—and that dear preacher there, the truest friend a pirate ever had!”

And then he busted into tears, and so did everybody. Then somebody sings out, “Take up a collection for him, take up a collection!” Well, a half a dozen made a jump to do it, but somebody sings out, “Let him pass the hat around!” Then everybody said it, the preacher too.

So the king went all through the crowd with his hat, swabbing his eyes, and blessing the people and praising them and thanking them for being so good to the poor pirates away off there; and every little while the prettiest kind of girls, with the tears running down their cheeks, would up and ask him would he let them kiss him, for to remember him by; and he always done it; and some of them he hugged and kissed as many as five or six times—and he was invited to stay a week; and everybody wanted him to live in their houses, and said they'd think it was an honor; but he said as this was the last day of the camp meeting he couldn't do no good, and besides he was in a sweat to get to the Indian Ocean right off and go to work on the pirates.

When he got back to the raft and he come to count up, he found he had collected eighty-seven dollars and seventy-five cents. And then he had fetched away a three-gallon jug of whiskey, too, that he found under a wagon when we were starting home through the woods.39

We are led by the thirteen-year-old boy from the raft to the town, from the town to the tent-meeting, from the tent meeting into the conversion of souls, from the conversion of souls to the pirating of this conversion, from the king’s charade (and enormous collection —$3500.00 today—from Polkville?) then back to the raft.  This is how the entire novel is written.  The reader follows the child, physically and metaphysically, into the world.  Notice I wrote ‘the’ and not ‘his’ world.  Twain is asking his readers to contemplate their world in terms of Huck’s world. Masterfully, Twain melds these worlds into one.  In fact, there are three worlds.  The one in the novel (1834), the one in the world in which the novel is written (1884), and the world of the reader (whenever, but for us, 2023).  Obviously, his main literary device is irony, properly called, Socratic irony. The entire text expresses this.  In the portion just quoted, perhaps it is enough just to mention the word pirate, the enormous sum of money collected from a poor farming town, and the Indian Ocean. . . whaaat?  Sadly, we don’t know whether to laugh or cry. The description of the camp meeting portrays the participants as fools, the religious experience as disingenuous, and the preachers as grifters.

To me, the secret center of this book is when we can sense that a fallen and corrupt world can be saved or remade.  The camp meeting excerpt is an ironic microcosm of this—full of all the language and symbolism of conversion—part of the prelude for Huck’s own moment of conversion when he rejects this world (alright then, I’ll go to hell 40) and becomes himself (saved), sworn to protecting and freeing Jim and living according to his conscience.

Twain’s profound insight about life is to invite readers to put aside the various ways we are defined and controlled by our culture (to discard those clothes) and to come to oneself.  Huck is a Hamlet.  Huck is the Prodigal Son.  Twain wants to engage the reader in the contemplation of conscience, in a return to the gaze of innocence.  And I do think that we get this all the way through the text—it doesn’t just crop up when Huck discards the letter—it lurks throughout the journey.

And the important idea here, as we think about both how to read and how to read the Bible, is to note that this secret center is discovered, sensed, felt.  Twain wants to take us on a journey—not tell us certain things.  Twain puts us on the raft so that we will encounter what is mysteriously locked in the landscape, to use Pamuk’s word, or, with Huck, to arrive at that (metaphysical) place on the river.  This is why I began the essay by questioning the teaching of literary lenses before just engaging with the text.  Sure, we can be told what ‘the’ or ‘a’ secret center might be, but then, that is a prescription not an experience (and it belongs to someone else).  A storyteller, narrator, mythmaker, intends to take us somewhere, not instruct us about something.  And when we do discover it, it is not like an objective truth that judges or informs, but more like a question that interrogates, a space that provides time to wonder.   To discover Pamuk’s secret center is to engage with a text’s authority.  Now I want to try and apply this understanding to discover the authority of the Bible.

Authority in the Bible

Earlier, I exposed the limitation placed on the interpretive process by Christian conservatives who create (and mandate) a certain interpretive lens.  I have the same concern with (and resistance to) this method as I did with my Tenth-grade colleague who insisted on teaching the lenses on the literature before an innocent experience of the literature itself.  To discover anything like a ‘secret center’ in the Bible will be impossible, I believe, if the entire text is seen through the narrow window of John 3:16 (the verse that follows the one about the serpent in the wilderness), For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life 41, or, indeed, of any other singular theological doctrine or assertion.  But there are millions of Christians who do read the Bible this way, so before proposing an alternative, I want to look briefly at the Protestant Reformation, where this treatment of the Bible finds its modern origins.  Obviously, Christians might argue that the New Testament portion of the Bible is, itself, a lens on the rest of the Bible, but this is a more complicated argument and certainly does not allow the Bible to speak for itself.  

The Protestant Reformation and The Bible

Martin Luther (1534), and Ulrich Zwingli (1529), both translated the entire Bible from the original Greek into German. William Tyndale translated the New Testament into English in 1525, followed by parts of the Old Testament, and like Luther and Zwingli, he worked from the Hebrew and Greek and avoided the Latin Vulgate version of the Catholic Church.

Thanks to the classicalism of the Renaissance and the invention of the printing press, there was a democratization of knowledge in Europe during these years. The authority of the church was curbed when the Bible became the normative foundation of a reformed Christian theology. And because it had become available to anyone who could read, the very strict lenses that had been placed on it to protect the authority of the magisterium (church) disappeared.  The reformers established the principle of sola scriptura, meaning that to live in a salvific relation to God is acquired by scripture alone.

But this was not done as a purely humanistic enterprise, it was the beginning of the establishment of a new spiritual authority in the Protestant movement. These German and English translations came with new theological lenses. For Luther this meant the good news of salvation by faith in the death of Jesus Christ and for Tyndale it meant the covenantal relationship between God and the people of God.

So, during the historical period known as the Protestant Reformation, the Bible was freed from the very tight control of its ecclesiastical authorities—mainly because it was now in the people’s language—but at the same time, the translations were done to support the theological orientation of a reformed Christian movement.  And all these the early reformers wrote, lectured, and preached that, yes, the holy spirit would interpret the biblical message for the reader, but only if one knew what to look for.  This very same argument is expressed in Bill Moyer’s disagreement with Dr. Criswell.  But for the purpose of this essay, it is important to recognize that during the sixteenth century the biblical text took on a life of its own.

The Bible: Thus Says the Lord

The longer I live the more I become convinced that the only thing that matters in literature is the (irrational) ‘shamanstvo’ of a book i.e., that the good writer is first of all an enchanter...

What is ‘shamanstvo’? Russian friends have translated it for me as “enchanter-quality.” Not simply stage magicianship, where one may perhaps allow things to fall out of one sleeve... but the real quality of the enchanter, the weaver of spells who may, through his spells, reveal unexpected and marvelous things about life, and thus about ourselves.

Language is a part of ‘shamantsvo’, for you cannot weave a spell without words. But words alone are not enough. A story is not enough. To weave the spell the writer must have within him something perhaps comparable to the silk-spinning and web-casting gift of the spider; he must not only have something to say, some story to tell or some wisdom to impart, but he must have a characteristic way of doing it which entraps and holds still his prey, by which I mean his reader. 42

The shamantsvo of the Bible is expressed by the oft-repeated phrase throughout the text: ‘Thus says the Lord’, or variations such as, ‘And God/Yahweh said’, or ‘saith the Lord’, or ‘God spoke to the people and said”, and even in the New Testament when the authors write, ‘He said’ (referring to Jesus), they are trying the capture the emotion (picking up the echo) of the rest of the Scripture around this enchanting phrase, because, after all, the New Testament authors believed that Jesus was ‘the Lord’.
There is a musicality in the phrase and like a pause or rest in a musical score, it is arresting. It seems to come from beyond the immediate situation, is filled with anticipation, contextualizes what follows, and unlike a conversation between people, is spellbinding. To read or hear, ‘Thus saith the Lord’ over and over (as we do especially in the prophetic literature) creates a transcendent aesthetic, one that takes us from our time and place into—yes that of the author(s) of the text—but to use Pamuk’s phrase, something more mysterious locked within the landscape 43 This, I believe, is what Davies means by the Russian word, shamanstvo. This mantra-like phrase, I believe, leads us to a ‘secret center’.  Let’s hear some examples of it from the three main parts of the Hebrew Bible—Torah (Pentateuch/Law), Nevi’im (Prophets), and Ketuvim (Writings/Wisdom), and from the New Testament, before concluding.


A. God said, let there be light: and there was light.44

The entire creation narrative is an incantation of the phrase, ‘And God said’, bringing the cosmos and all constitute parts—animate and inanimate—into being.  The ancient writers believed that life was created by bringing it into language.  This is a complicated concept because it was humans who wrote and preserved this phrase (idea), as their way to understand human life and its relationship to the cosmos.

B. But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘the God of your ancestors has sent me to you, and they ask me, “’What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?’ God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ . . . Go and assemble the elders of Israel, and say to them, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, has appeared to me, saying: I have given heed to you and to what has been done to you in Egypt. I declare that I will bring you up out of the misery of Egypt, to the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, a land flowing with milk and honey.’ 45

Here, in a conversation with Moses, and in the book known by the Hebrew name, ‘Shemot’ (The Names), God identifies Godself as ‘the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as well as by the mystical name, YHVH, meaning, ‘I am who I am’, or ‘I will be who I will be’, denoting the mystery of the one who speaks, saying, essentially, my name is none of your business, you will know me when I will it, and I will be with you.  The writers are stressing their experience of God’s freedom, mystery, and presence.

C. These words the Lord spoke with a loud voice to your whole assembly at the mountain, out of the fire, the cloud, and the thick darkness, and he added no more. He wrote them on two stone tablets and gave them to me. When you heard the voice out of the darkness, while the mountain was burning with fire, you approached me, all the heads of your tribes and your elders; And you said, “Look, the Lord our God has shown us his glory and greatness, and we have heard his voice out of the fire. Today we have seen that God may speak to someone and the person may still live. . . For who is there of all flesh that has heard the voice of the living God speaking out of fire, as we have, and remained alive? 46

God spoke the words that defined the covenant with the people of Israel­—in that moment the wandering Israelites become the people of God. Within the rapturous natural conditions of thunder, cloud, and lightning, a conversation takes place.  Today we have seen that God may speak to someone and the person may still live… And the covenant’s name in Hebrew, is the Ten Words (dervarim) not the Ten Commandments. The English term, decalogue, captures this.

Considering these three passages from the Torah or Pentateuch, it is worth recalling Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut’s introductory remarks in his well-known Torah Commentary.

While God is not the author of the Torah in the fundamentalist sense, the Torah is a book about humanity’s understanding of and experience with God. This understanding has varied over the centuries as have human experiences.

We believe that it is possible to say: the Torah is ancient Israel’s distinctive record of its search for God. It attempts to record the meeting of the human and the divine, the great moments of encounter. Therefore, the text is often touched by the ineffable Presence. The Torah tradition testifies to a people of extraordinary spiritual sensitivity. God is not the author of the text, the people are; But God's voice may be heard through theirs if we listen with open minds. 47

Nevi’im (The Prophets)

D. Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel! And he said, “here I am!” And ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call you lie down again.” . . . Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. The Lord called Samuel again, a third time.  And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, “Speak, lord, for your servant is listening.” So Samuel went and lay down in his place. Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” and Samuel said, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Then the Lord said to Samuel, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. 48

The prophets are chosen to be the mouthpieces of the Lord.  They hear a different kind of voice than the one they are given to announce the Lord’s words.  Samuel is the first of the prophets. He learns, as a child, to hear and respond to the Lord who speaks to him. 

E. And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord. And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake:

And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.

And it was so, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out, and stood in the entering in of the cave. And, behold, there came a voice unto him, and said, What doest thou here, Elijah? 49

Elijah, in a moment of weakness after losing a contest with the prophets of Ba’al, flees to a cave where, hiding, he questions his vocation. And in a moment that recalls the forces of nature from Mt. Sinai, he is approached by a still, small—perhaps an inner—voice moving him to again pick up the mantle of the Lord, and to go and anoint three Kings of Israel.

F. 19 Thus said the Lord: Go and buy a potter’s earthenware jug. Take with you some of the elders of the people and some of the senior priests, and go out to the valley of the son of Hinnom at the entry of the Potsherd Gate, and proclaim there the words that I tell you. You shall say: Hear the word of the Lord, O kings of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem. Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: I am going to bring such disaster upon this place that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle. Because the people have forsaken me, and have profaned this place by making offerings in it to other gods whom neither they nor their ancestors nor the kings of Judah have known, and because they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent, and gone on building the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as burnt-offerings to Baal, which I did not command or decree, nor did it enter my mind;  therefore the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when this place shall no more be called Topheth, or the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of Slaughter.  And in this place I will make void the plans of Judah and Jerusalem, and will make them fall by the sword before their enemies, and by the hand of those who seek their life. I will give their dead bodies for food to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the earth. . .. Then you shall break the jug in the sight of those who go with you, and shall say to them: Thus says the Lord of hosts: So will I break this people and this city, as one breaks a potter’s vessel, so that it can never be mended. 50

From the Prophet Jeremiah who is instructed by the Lord to go to the valley of Hinnom and to speak the Lord’s judgement upon the Israelites who have profaned the covenant by sacrificing their children to the idol, Ba’al.

G. He said to me, ‘O mortal, eat what is offered to you; eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel’.  So I opened my mouth, and he gave me the scroll to eat.  He said to me, ‘Mortal, eat this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it’. Then I ate it; and in my mouth it was as sweet as honey.

He said to me: ‘Mortal, go to the house of Israel and speak my very words to them. For you are not sent to a people of obscure speech and difficult language, but to the house of Israel...

Surely, if I sent you to them, they would listen to you.  But the house of Israel will not listen to you, for they are not willing to listen to me; because all the house of Israel have a hard forehead and a stubborn heart’. . ..  He said to me: ‘Mortal, all my words that I shall speak to you receive in your heart and hear with your ears; then go to the exiles, to your people, and speak to them. Say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God’; whether they hear or refuse to hear’.

The spirit entered into me and set me on my feet; and he spoke with me and said to me: ‘Go, shut yourself inside your house. . .. cords shall be placed on you, and you shall be bound with them, so that you cannot go out among the people; And I will make your tongue cling to the roof of your mouth, so that you shall be speechless and unable to reprove them; for they are a rebellious house.  But when I speak with you, I will open your mouth, and you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God’; let those who will hear, hear; and let those who refuse to hear, refuse; for they are a rebellious house’.51

This entire passage is about words and the speaking of the Lord’s words by the prophet Ezekiel to the people of Israel.  Ezekiel eats words and speaks these words to a people who refuse to listen.  Refusing to listen to the voice of the Lord is the ultimate transgression.

Ketuvim (Writings/Wisdom)

H. Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:
 ‘Gird up your loins like a man;
    I will question you, and you declare to me. 
Will you even put me in the wrong?
    Will you condemn me that you may be justified?

 ‘Can you draw out Leviathan with a fish-hook,
    or press down its tongue with a cord?
Can you put a rope in its nose,
    or pierce its jaw with a hook?
Will it make many supplications to you?
    Will it speak soft words to you?
Will it make a covenant with you
    to be taken as your servant forever?
Will you play with it as with a bird,
    or will you put it on a leash for your girls?
Will traders bargain over it?
    Will they divide it up among the merchants?
 Can you fill its skin with harpoons,
    or its head with fishing-spears? 52

The entire Book of Job is an extended conversation about Job’s suffering, suffering which the Lord allows as a wager with Satan over Job’s piety. Yes, the forty-two chapter long (mostly) poem is a description of this suffering, but it is also a description of the quest for meaning.  Though the encounter with the Lord (and the restoration) doesn’t happen until near the end, the quest itself articulates the challenge of faith in the experience of loss and pain. Job’s final response is wordless.

I. O sing to the Lord a new song;
    sing to the Lord, all the earth.
Sing to the Lord, bless his name;
    tell of his salvation from day to day.
Declare his glory among the nations,
    his marvellous works among all the peoples. 
For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised;
    he is to be revered above all gods.
For all the gods of the peoples are idols,
    but the Lord made the heavens. 
Honour and majesty are before him;
    strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.53

J. By the rivers of Babylon—
    there we sat down and there we wept
    when we remembered Zion. On the willows there
    we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
    asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
    ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
How could we sing the Lord’s song
    in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
    let my right-hand wither! Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
    if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
    above my highest joy. 54

The Psalms are the sacred liturgical songs of Israel. Theirs are human voices praising, pleading with, and thanking the Lord.  They have been used in Jewish and Christian worship for over two millennia. These 150 songs are a human response to what the people have heard what the Lord has said.

The New Testament

As was discussed previously, The New Testament is mainly kerygmatic, meaning, that its main purpose is evangelistic—to proclaim the message that Jesus is the Son of God. Paul takes this message beyond Jerusalem to newly organized congregations around Asia Minor and, through letters (epistles), he works out both theological concepts and moral and ethical standards of behavior.  The synoptic gospels—Mark, Luke, and Matthew—offer some historical material (within the kerygmatic framework) and John is the theological text naming Jesus as the Word of God made flesh. The Revelation to John is what Jesus Christ, through an angel, said to John (not the gospeler) about the end of time (apocalypse).

There are two important points about this literature to highlight in this section of the essay. In Paul’s Epistles, as in the Old Testament, the reader listens to a conversation around the place of God in Christ in the local community and in the world.  Second, in the synoptic gospels, we listen to Jesus’s interaction with people, as teacher (Matthew), healer (Luke), and prophet (Mark), and we learn of his birth, active life, and fate, at the hands of the Roman and religious authorities in Jerusalem. 

Following are five excerpts: one from Paul, and one each from the four gospels.

K.  Paul, a servantof Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh  and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead. . .  

Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgement on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.  You say, ‘We know that God’s judgement on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.’ Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgement of God?  Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?  But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgement will be revealed. . .. There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honour and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek.  For God shows no partiality. 55

Here we witness a conversation between Paul and the early Christian community in Rome. We are told that the community was made up of Jews who had fled from Jerusalem and Gentiles who had been influenced by the Christian movement in Jerusalem and Asia Minor. 

L.  When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he began to speak and taught them, saying:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven, for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the gentiles do the same?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. 56

In Matthew, Chapters 5-7, (the Sermon on the Mount), Jesus, like Moses, delivers teaching based on the Decalogue.  From a height of land, Jesus reinterprets the specifics of the Sinaitic covenant.  The reader listens to this conversation between Jesus and the disciples and the crowd.

M.  When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land[g] until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 57

Probably the most vulnerable moment in all the Gospels, Mark uses a verse from Psalm 22 and keeps it in the spoken language of the day, Aramaic, to express the psychic and physical grief in the moment of resignation and death.  And the one to whom he cries is silent.

N. Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles[f] from Jerusalem,  and talking with each other about all these things that had happened.  While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.  And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him.  But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place.  Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive.  Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they did not see him.”  Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!  Was it not necessary that the Messiahshould suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”  Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. . ..  When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.  Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him, and he vanished from their sight. 58

This resurrection narrative, in which the risen Christ appears, and within which the Easter story is recounted and interpreted, invites the reader into a conversation between a stranger and the disciples on a road to a small village ten kilometers South-West of Jerusalem.  The text is a proclamation of the resurrection—as is its reference to the meal, which by the time this manuscript is written, has become a way that the early Christians remember and experience their risen lord.

O. I, John, your brother who share with you in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. I was in the spiriton the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet saying, ‘Write in a book what you see and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamum, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea.’

Then I turned to see whose voice it was that spoke to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest.  His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters.  In his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.  And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them,
 he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’

This voice, like a loud trumpet, clothed with a long robe and golden sash—like the ‘Son of Man’—speaks to John and gives him messages for the seven churches. The book is full of imagery and symbolism describing the great cosmic consummation at the end of time—a recounting of what John had seen and heard in his visions—sounding like the original voice in the wilderness.

The Bible’s Secret Center: The Dangling Conversation

Dangling?  Yes, and in the way Simon and Garfunkel sung about it in 1966. 59  Their song celebrates the unfinished business between the person and the beloved.  Though there is a sense of melancholy in their song, the point is that the conversation is not over.  It continues. The fourth verse is particularly evocative.

Like a poem poorly written
We are verses out of rhythm
Couplets out of rhyme
In syncopated time

A dangling conversation describes the in-betweenness or distance between persons.  This metaphysical space is filled with a hodge-podge of memory, desire, regret, expectation, sadness, and comfort.  Are not all relationships as dangling (some dangle more than others) conversations?

Excerpting the many passages from literature in this essay was done that you might feel this distance. In ‘Huck Finn’, the author creates a conversation between the pre and post civil war periods in America.  The dialogue between Huck and Jim is an idealized reconciliation between Free and Slave, the dialogue of river and shore is between the real and imaginary worlds, and Huck’s inner monologue is between flesh and spirit.  And in the end, as the final assessment demonstrated, the conversation between the reader and the text is interrogative—does the arc of history bend toward justice; can a person (you the reader) be born again—reinvent him or herself?

In asking how the Bible interrogates readers, it is good to remember two of Frye’s ideas: first his notion that mythology in early societies was the verbal equivalent of temenos or a sacrosanct area. This because a mythology carried the (as Frye defines it) the, this is what you must know. . .essential instruction. . .which no one can be excused from learning.60 In this sense, the Bible occupies a kind of sacred ground—a type of burning bush between two covers.  This is so because the entire biblical corpus, from Genesis to Revelation and the books in between, is a presentation of a dangling conversation. One cannot turn to a page in the over 2000-page long text without overhearing a conversation.  Sometimes it is a record or summary of these and other times it’s verbatim. 

How, then, are we readers of the Bible interrogated?  Does it depend on which of the various ledges of biblical literacy we occupy—whether we understand the Babylonian Creation epic, corruption of the Israelite monarchy, literary devices of the Eighth century B.C prophets, Paul’s ‘thorn in the flesh’ or who the Samaritans were—not necessarily (though serious students, religious or secular, will want to use interpretive tools)—but what is fundamental is the recognition of the primary dialogue, of this dangling conversation between however one names that which is both beyond and within us—conscience, ghost, inner light, god, force, Christ, great soul, nature, spirit, thou, other—and us, you and me, descendants of the mythical couple from a garden paradise of innocence.  The Bible presents us with this ageless sacred conversation and asks if we can recognize our part in it.

Let us reflect a little more on this great Other, which the main English translation of the various Hebrew names is God—and in the New Testament, Christ.  Here is the second idea of Frye’s to remember:

Consequently, when we think of God, we think of a grammatical noun. But you must get used to the notion that there is no such thing as God, because God is not a thing. He is a process fulfilling itself. That's how he defines himself: “I will be what I will be.” Similarly, I am more and more drawn to thinking in terms of a great swirling of processes and powers rather than a world of blocks and things. A text, for example, is a conflict of powers. . .. the text is not a thing anymore. A picture is not a thing. It's a focus of forces. 61

Frye’s idea of God as a process fulfilling itself, more like a verb than a noun, provides us with more freedom to understand this sacred dialogue.  Rather than beginning with a pre-conceived idea of God—and with a template for access—why not begin by discovering the dangling conversation. How do we understand, feel, describe, and relate to, the mutable landscapes (anthropomorphic and non-anthropomorphic) we inhabit?  Yes, we use words to converse with other people who speak the language we speak, but there is much more wordless dialogue that takes place, isn’t there?  All our senses pick up the ‘incoming’, and launch the ‘outgoing’, and it is mostly spontaneous and improvisational, (but also worked over and over like a fine line of poetry), and all of it causes us to ponder, to wonder, to act, to wait, to rest—facets of the dangling conversation.  Rather than getting stuck on imitating versions of this from texts or traditions, the biblical corpus asks if we are not, by the givenness of our nature, in an unstoppable existential dialogue with what is both within and beyond us.   

That—I conclude—is the secret center—the profound opinion or insight about life, a deeply embedded point of mystery, whether real or imagined,62 of the Bible.  Forty-four pages and over 17,000 words just to say this, you ask.  Yea, sorry about that—the path was overgrown—had some trail-clearing to get here.


Philip M. Carr-Harris is a Canadian, father and grandfather, retired Episcopal minister and high school teacher, who lives in an 1839 schoolhouse on the side of Haystack Mountain in Norfolk, Connecticut. He can be contacted at philip.carrharris@gmail.com






The Montréal Review, March 2023



The Montréal Review, July 2023




1 Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (New York, Penguin Group, 1985) p. 228

3 Twain, IBID. p.128

4 Twain, Ibid. P.307

5 https://etc.usf.edu/lit2go/21/the-adventures-of-huckleberry-finn/171/chapter-22/

6 David Cayley.  Northrup Frye in Conversation (Concord, Ontario. House of Anansi Press. 1992) pgs. 183-4

7 John Dominic Crossan and Richard G. Watts, Who is Jesus? (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville Kentucky1996) pg. 6

8 Ibid. p. 4

9 Ibid. pg.11

10 Bruce Malina.  The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology. (John Knox Press, Atlanta, 1981) p.10

11 Bruce Malina.  The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology. Third Edition, Revised and Expanded (John Knox Press, Atlanta, 2001) pgs. vii-ix

12 Ibid. pg. 154

14 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Job%201&version=NRSVA

15 Northrop Frye, The Great Code: The Bible and Literature (Penguin Toronto, 1990) pg.xiii

17 Genesis 3:22

18 David Cayley, Northrop Frye in Conversation. (House of Anansi Press, Toronto 1992) p.96

19 Northrop Frye. Words With Power (Viking Press Canada, 1990) p.30-1

21 Cayley. Ibid. pg. 175

22 Northrop Frye and Jay MacPherson. Biblical and Classical Myths: The Mythological Framework of Western Culture (University of Toronto Press 2004) pg.28

24 https://biblehub.com/kjv/john/11.htm

25 Cayley. Ibid pg. 177

26 David Cayley.  Northrup Frye in Conversation (Concord, Ontario. House of Anansi Press. 1992) pgs. 183-4

27 Margaret Atwood. Burning Questions: Essays and Occasional Papers 2004-2021 (Doubleday New York 2022) p.419-20
30 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OeJlXdmuPyg

31 https://www.gafcon.org/about/bible-based

32 https://billygrahamlibrary.org/blog-10-quotes-from-billy-graham-on-the-bible/

33 Rev. James Covel Jun. A Concise Dictionary of the Holy Bible (Carlton and Porter New York 1839) Preface

35 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FKHumUd6Syw

36 Pamuk, Orhan. The Naïve and the Sentimental Novelist (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Ma. 2010) p.153-4

37 Ibid. p.153

38 Twain. Ibid. p.137

39 Twain. Ibid. pgs. 143-145

40 Twain. Ibid. p.228

41 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+3&version=NRSVA

42 Davies, Robertson. Reading and Writing (University of Utah Press 1993—Tanner Lectures on Human Value) pg. 56-7, 62

43  Pamuk. Ibid pg. 134

44  Genesis 1: 3

45 Exodus 3:13-17

46 Deuteronomy 5:22-7

47 Plaut, Gunther. Torah: A Modern Commentary (Union of American Hebrew Congregations, New York, 1981) p. xviii-xix

48 I Samuel 3:4-11

50 Jeremiah 45:2-5

52 Job 40:1-2; 41:1-7

53 Psalm 96:1-6

54 Psalm 137:1-7

55 Romans 1:1-7; 2:1-11

56 Matthew 5:1-2; 43-48.

57 Mark 15:33-4

58 Luke 24:1-28, 31-2.

59 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-dnzhPprVVU

60 Frye, Northrop. Words With Power (Penguin Canada, Toronto 1990) pg.31

61 David Cayley.  Northrup Frye in Conversation (Concord, Ontario. House of Anansi Press. 1992) pgs. 183-4

62 Pamuk, Orhan. Ibid.



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