Reading the Bible "As the Report of the Word of God": The Case of T. S. Eliot

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Abstract: Eliot contrasted reading the Bible "as literature" with reading it "as the report of the Word of God." Central to "the Bible as literature" movement was the contention that the Bible is best approached primarily in terms of its language (usually in translation), style, and/or structure. Eliot's preferred traditional mode of reading, while not fundamentalist, treated the Bible as authoritative witness to religious truth. This throws light on the way the biblical resonances of his mature poetry are often more imagistic than verbal, pointing to an intelligently "God-fearing" poetic approach to the literary dimension of the Bible.

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"I could fulminate," wrote T. S. Eliot in 1935,

against the men of letters who have gone into ecstasies over "the Bible as literature," the Bible as "the noblest monument of English prose." Those who talk of the Bible as a "monument of English prose" are merely admiring it as a monument over the grave of Christianity.... [J]ust as the work of Clarendon, or Gibbon, or Buffon, or Bradley would be of inferior literary value if it were insignificant as history, science and philosophy respectively, so the Bible has had a literary influence upon English literature not because it has been considered as literature, but because it has been considered as the report of the Word of God. And the fact that men of letters now discuss it as "literature" probably indicates the end of its "literary" influence. ("Religion and Literature" 390)

Five years later we have a suggestive echo:

   O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark.
   The vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant,
   The captains, merchant bankers, eminent men of letters.
   ("East Coker" III) (1)

By this stage there is a distinct self-referential element. The somewhat irritating "eminent man of letters" voice is one we have just met:

   That was a way of putting it--not very satisfactory:
   A periphrastic study in a worn-out poetical fashion, ... (II)

And indeed a voice we are shortly to meet again:

   You say I am repeating
   Something I have said before. I shall say it again.
   Shall I say it again? (III)

In the second section of "Little Gidding" the verse, it seems, seeks to transfigure this voice through subjection to the discipline of Dante, but that is two years later still. What is relevant here is that "men of letters" has a certain negative charge for Eliot, such that placing at least one of his own voices in that category represents, not merely recognition of what he himself had become, but also what for "East Coker" is "the wisdom of humility" evoked three lines before the "fulmination," if that is the right expression: "O dark dark dark."

"Fulminate" is indeed in itself an interesting word, perhaps suggesting a certain self-mockery or at least self-distancing, analogous to that in "East Coker" which his critics seem to miss. An eminent man of letters such as himself could hardly have been altogether unaware of such put-downs as that of William Warburton's of "judgements ... fulminated with the air of one who had the divine Vengeance at his disposal" (II, v, 113). Literal thunderbolts not being available, fulminations have been primarily associated with ecclesiastical censure, so Eliot's use of the term is not wholly inappropriate, but we note that it is (perhaps wisely) used with a subjunctive.

More interest in this context has been attracted by the use of the word "as." Terence Wright, for example, has argued that in refusing "to accept the Bible as 'literature'"

   Eliot seems intent on regarding the Hebrew Bible as a religious
   rather than a cultural product, as if the two could be separated,
   as if the Bible were not a form of literature, of writing. (30)

The context is not only that of Eliot's "Religion and Literature" discussion but also of his engagement with the Hebrew Kethubim or Writings, and later characterization of the Jewish contribution to European culture as "religious" rather than (as in the cases of Greece and Rome) "cultural. …