Old Testament, New Culture; Can We Critique Sacred Texts?

Article excerpt

In his brilliantly kooky 2002 book Genius--subtitled "a mosaic of one hundred exemplary creative minds"--the esteemed Yale University literary scholar Harold Bloom included, among obvious entrants such as Shakespeare and Milton, two biblical authors: Saint Paul from the New Testament, and "the Yahwist," or J, who wrote key sections of the Old. Paul's gentle phrases of spiritual instruction--"love is patient, love is kind," wisdom seen "through a glass darkly"--surely qualify him as a writer of gifts. But so do the poetry and sly Hebrew punning that J brings to Genesis: "And so the Lord God formed man [a-dam] from the dust of the ground [a-dam-ah] and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life."

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Bloom was not the only critic to judge the Testaments to be great literature. Two decades earlier, Toronto's Northrop Frye crowned his career with The Great Code (1982), a work devoted to interpreting the Bible as the ur-text of all Western literature. It is, Frye wrote, "the imaginative framework within which Western literature has operated down to the eighteenth century and is to a large extent still operating."

Is that still true? Religious diversity, like all cultural change, shifts common touchstones farther away. Biblical references may yet strike a familiar note, but often in debased forms. Poor old Paul's subtle disquisition on love, for example, by which he meant agape or caritas--unqualified care for another, not romantic love--is invoked off-point at weddings almost as often as Shakespeare's Sonnet 116, whose speaker admits impediments to the marriage of true minds in the very act of denying them. (Worse still are those witless after-dinner speeches that quote pompous Polonius without irony--"To thine own self be true"--or piously echo homicidal Othello decrying the filching of one's good name. …