Point-Counterpoint: Towards a Study of the Bible in Canadian Public Life

By Jones, Preston | Journal of Canadian Studies, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

Point-Counterpoint: Towards a Study of the Bible in Canadian Public Life


Jones, Preston, Journal of Canadian Studies


If the claim that the Bible is in some way "America's book" is, as one Canadian scholar puts it, "extravagant," the idea should come as no surprise to Canadians (Gunn 1; Jeffrey People of the Book 319). Prominent Americans call thankfully upon God for sundry blessings and assistance in times of distress and White House occupants of whichever political party fling biblical texts to the media and Rotary Clubs across the land. Former president and perennial Sunday school teacher Jimmy Carter, for example, recently published his spiritual autobiography, complete with longish revelations of his appreciation for the Bible. As numerous scholars have made clear, the Bible has exerted a great influence on public life in the United States (see, e.g., Gunn; Hatch and Noll).

Scholarly attention to the influence of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures in Canadian history has been informative but slight. Tom Sinclair-Faulkner and Michael Gauvreau have discussed the impact of scholarly biblical criticism on nineteenth-century Canadian universities and Christian academics and John Moir has authored a history of biblical studies in the Canadian university. E.C. Woodley and Paul-Aime Martin have written brief, general accounts of organizations devoted to the study and propagation of the Bible in Canada while Neil Semple, with other historians of religion, has noted the importance of Bible-based Sunday schools. John G. Stackhouse, Jr. and Robert K. Burkinshaw have written on Bible colleges and institutes; S.F. Wise and Richard Allen have shown the important role general biblical themes played in nineteenth-century Canadian intellectual history; Norman F. Cornett and Thomas Flanagan have pointed to the centrality of biblical themes in the thought of, respectively, Lionel Groulx and Louis Riel.

Canadian professors of English - most notably the late Northrop Frye and the University of Ottawa's David Lyle Jeffrey - have expended a considerable amount of energy writing on the Bible and English literature in general and, in Jeffrey's case, on biblical themes in Canadian fiction. Significantly, over one quarter of the scholars who contributed to the monumental and widely praised Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature - edited by Jeffrey - teach at Canadian institutions. In 1996 Dave Little, a teacher of English in Saskatchewan, produced a work on the "religious vision" of Robertson Davies in which 40 pages are devoted to the use of biblical texts.

Canadian historians, however, have not yet produced a study of the Bible's place in Canada's public life, though even a casual perusal of many historical sources suggests that the Bible has figured prominently in Canadian history. Consider several of the texts provided in Ramsay Cook's anthology of French Canadian nationalist thought. It has long been observed that prominent nineteenth-century French Canadian clerics like Monsignor L.ER. Lafleche interpreted Quebec's history in explicitly biblical terms. While Lafleche's biographer has noted his close familiarity with the Bible (see Voisin 507) there is no focussed study of what biblical texts Lafleche most frequently employed, and how.

When Lafleche declared in his series of articles collectively titled "The Providential Mission of the French Canadians" (in Cook) that Jacques Cartier's voyage to the New World was providentially ordered in a way similar to Abraham's journey into Canaan (Genesis 12:1-9) was he expressing something he deeply believed to be true or merely employing a familiar and authoritative text for the sake of rhetorical flourish? Even the rouge Gonzalve Doutre claimed that in the modem era progressive peoples of all languages were engaged in a "new crossing of the Red Sea" (Exodus 14) and were building a "Tower of Granite," which, unlike the failed ancient Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9), would reach to a humanly perfected metaphorical heaven. (Cook 117) Henri Bourassa maintained in "The French Language and the Future of Our Race" that French Canadians should not content themselves with linguistic and religious secondclass citizenship "like the Hebrews in the land of Egypt" (Exodus chaps. …

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