Magazine article The Christian Century

The Blackwell Companion to the Bible in English Literature

Magazine article The Christian Century

The Blackwell Companion to the Bible in English Literature

Article excerpt

The Blackwell Companion to the Bible in English Literature

Edited by Rebecca Lemon, Emma Mason, Jonathan Roberts and Christopher Rowland

Wiley-Blackwell, 720 pp., $46.95 paperback

Biblical material pervades the works of English literature. Bible stories have been retold, recast and reinterpreted. Biblical images have lent their resonance and biblical phrases their rhetorical power to works as various as George Herbert's devotional poems, John Dryden's acerbic political commentaries and T. S. Eliot's verse dramas. Characters in English plays and novels reembody and reinvigorate biblical archetypes and prototypes and thus acquire theological depth.

Readers of every generation have wrestled with the shifting, often uneasy relationship between the sacred text and its distant, secular kin. Even where its unique status is undisputed, the Bible has been tugged and pulled at by translators who have come to blows over single words, by playwrights who have stretched the limits of poetic license, by novelists who have twisted parables into complex plotlines, and by clerics who have seasoned exegesis with imagination. The Bible has been appropriated and assimilated, translated and paraphrased, edited for children and enacted on stage. Its malleability is a fair measure of its indestructibility.

Every now and again, the impulse to trace biblical stories through the thickets and deep woods of English literature results in a flurry of invitations to scholars to have a fresh go at an old conversation. Together they address questions that remain startlingly relevant. What has Paradise Lost to do with Genesis 2 and 3--and what has either to do with us? What can we learn about moral theology from a Victorian lady who lived with her lover, wrote novels, and lurked at the edges of popular academic debates? And how are we to understand T. S. Eliot's disturbing insistence that "Love is the unfamiliar name/ ... that human power cannot remove"?

If readers are willing to peer behind its dry title, they will enjoy in The Blackwell Companion to the Bible in English Literature the fruits of those scholarly conversations. This collection of sprightly, informative, thoughtful reflections on what English writers have done to and with the Bible is an inspiration to reread the original texts, which, I believe, is still the primary aim of good critical writing.

John Drury's chapter on Herbert, for instance, reintroduces Herbert's much loved and much discussed poems with a touching back story: when Herbert was dying, he entrusted the poems to his friend Nicholas Ferrar, allowing him to publish the "little book" if he thought it would help people in their struggles and afflictions. Drury quotes Ferrar's response to this legacy--"He loved that which God himself hath magnified above all things, that is, his Word"--and draws attention not only to lines where Herbert's biblical references are explicit but also to the "wealth of covert biblical references" whose detection require a "scripturally informed eye."

The volume presents a wide variety of perspectives from scripturally informed writers who have surveyed a broad literary landscape and know its topography well. …

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