Origins of Narrative: The Romantic Appropriation of the Bible

Article excerpt

Origins of Narrative: the Romantic Appropriation of the Bible. By Stephen Prickett. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. xv + 288pp. $54.95 (cloth).

The Bible, we are often and sometimes rather anxiously reminded, is "the Church's book." As a remedy for any sense of ecclesiastical claustrophobia that might accompany this otherwise quite proper observation, it is bracing to note that the Bible is also more than the Church's book. In terms of its influence upon Western cultures, it has no rival, this "Book of Books" having become the definitive book, the measure and exemplar of all "books." Furthermore, the changing practices and theories of reading Scripture have themselves shaped Western literature, literary criticism, and interpretation of the multiple textures of lives and engagements. As Stephen Prickett argues in his Origins of Narrative, "a shift in reading the Bible is a shift in reading the universe" (p. 155).

Origins of Narrative is concerned with one particular shift, located temporally during the late eighteenth century and ideologically with reference to the notoriously loose-fitting term "Romanticism." Here, the principle representatives of the latter are the Schlegels and Schleiermacher in Germany, and, in England, the novelists Sterne and Austen, the "men of letters," Julius and Augustus Hare, and Newman and Kingsley as writers of religious-historical novels. Prickett's discussion is especially important because of the extent to which we are still "Romantics"-and too often unconsciously, uncritically so-in our biblical hermeneutics.

The history of the Bible, in both its formation and as acknowledged canon, is the history of its appropriations, of which the Romantic one is of special moment for modernity. Taking the story of Jacob's blessing as the classic narrative of appropriation, Prickett underlines the ambiguities of this history. "Appropriation" involves reception and continuity within a changing context but the word also carries the disturbing suggestion of a theft or seizure. Subsequent legitimation presents hermeneutic appropriations as natural, entirely "appropriate," yet there remains the haunting sense of a break, a displacement of meaning. …