Northrop Frye and “The Return of Religion”


In his recent response to Michael Sinding, Michael Happy quotes a passage from one of the Late Notebooks where Frye “wonders with uncharacteristic despair, ‘Why am I so revered but so ignored?’”  In Michael’s words, “Frye was not merely superseded during the post-structuralist realignment, he was pushed aside with what can only be taken as shows of bad faith through misreading and misrepresentation.”  Why was there such hostility, apart from the usual need to misread or discredit precursor figures?  In thinking about this, it struck me that Frye had the bad fortune to publish his major late works on the Bible at precisely the time when literary criticism, under the sway of theory, had largely turned away from any notion of the religious, the transcendent, the spiritual, or the divine.  From the late 1970s to the late 1990s the climate in literary and cultural studies was resolutely secular.  Interestingly, one of the dominant theorists was the ex-Catholic Althusser (who might be thought of as the Auguste Comte of the twentieth century).  Even in the study of religion, the emphasis was on the cultural and the material: I remember a friend who is a church historian telling me of the dominance of Marxist methodology in his own field.  Edward Said, recently discussed by Michael Sinding and Joe Adamson, referred to his own critical project as “secular criticism,” in the sense of criticism occupied with the world and its social and political relationships; in several published comments Said objected to the religious concerns of various other critics.  Such a sceptical, this-worldly critical climate probably accounts for some of the hostile treatment of Frye that Michael mentions.

From the late 1990s, there has been a return of religion in literary studies and theoretical discourse, but – and here I think is part of the source of Michael’s frustration – Frye does not seem to have benefited very much from this development.  I suggest that there are several reasons for this, and in attempting to articulate them I am also arguing that for many people Frye’s work seems remote to the present horizon of discourse about religion.  If it is going to play a larger role in that discourse, beyond the confines of what Michael Happy describes as “the comparatively small Frye community,” I think there will have to be a fairly extensive effort of critical engagement, involving a willingness to think beyond the terms used by Frye himself.  (Here I am agreeing with Michael Sinding’s comments of 19 October.)  I am writing as someone who might be described as standing with one foot in the Frye community, and one foot in the world of postmodern theology, and my aim is not to belittle Frye’s work, but rather to suggest ways in which it needs to be critiqued and “translated” in order for it to play a greater role in both the study and the practice of religion in the twenty-first century.  The problems that I think must be faced are

  1. For Frye, in spite of his radical spiritual vision and distance from established forms of Christianity, the Bible was largely identical with the Bible of the Protestant evangelical tradition, that is, it was a book made up of various parts arranged in a specific order that told a specific story of creation, fall, redemption, and apocalypse.
  2. Frye’s religious thought, however independent, is in some of its dominant themes and concerns strongly analogous to liberal Protestant theology of the mid-twentieth century, notably in its accommodation to secularization, its realized eschatology and its consequent emphasis on the social dimension of religion.

The first thing I tell the students in my Bible and literature course is that the question “What is the Bible?” does not have a simple answer.  For example, the Christian Bible is not simply the Hebrew scriptures of Judaism with the addition of a further twenty-seven books; the different ordering of the books in the Tanak points to a very different understanding of what scripture is and how it should be interpreted.  Similarly, the canon of the Christian Bible differs, if only subtly, from church to church.  Frye views the Bible as a single book, which tells a single story.  But just as we are moving beyond the age of the book in culture as a whole, as texts can now be accessed in a variety of new ways in addition to the codex form which has dominated Christian history, so in religious discourse there is far greater sensitivity to theological differences and different ways of reading.  A very simple example is the way that the terms “BC” and “AD” are no longer generally used in the study of religion, since they presuppose one particular view of world history.  As an alternative to Frye’s way of reading the Bible one can instance that of Robert Alter, whose translations and commentaries pay minute attention to the particularity of individual verses and books, in the manner of both traditional humanist philology and rabbinic commentary.  I think a literary approach to the Bible must take account of the radical divergence of approach of these two great scholars, and much of what I do in my own Bible and Literature course is the product of the juxtaposition of their work.  The King James Bible may have been “the Bible” for several hundred years of English literature, but before that period the Vulgate existed at the centre of a continuum of commentary and para-biblical texts, which all constituted “scripture” for the medieval writer, just as in the twentieth century Judaism has played an increasing role in literature written in English,* as have, more recently, other world religions.  (And here, of course, Frye’s discussion of Asian religion is of great relevance.)

In the last decade, there has been a renewed interest in religious identity in literary criticism (for instance, the flourishing of scholarship on Catholicism in early modern England) and in theoretical discourse (e.g., Terry Eagleton, who started out as a radical Catholic, now is writing about religious topics again).  Much of this interest in the sacred and the divine has come by way of postmodern theory.  Frye was in some ways very much a Protestant of the mid-twentieth century in his religious thought: it was “secular” in the sense that he stressed “the human form divine,” and emphasized non-ecclesial means of achieving religious experiences of community and spiritual vision.  The postmodern theology of today, as instanced by the radical orthodoxy movement in the Anglican church, is consciously “post-secular,” and emphasizes the role of church and sacrament, while at the same time being preoccupied with themes that are important in postmodern theory generally: the collection of essays entitled Radical Orthodoxy, edited by several of the leading figures in the movement, includes pieces on “Erotics,” “Bodies,” and “Friendship.”  Such theology begins with the assumption that postmodernism has nullified, or at least problematized, the enlightenment critique of religion.  (And indeed there are a lot of moments when St. Augustine sounds rather like his fellow North African Jacques Derrida, something that Derrida drew attention to in the book he wrote with Geoff Bennington).  Literature is important to postmodern theology; Rowan Williams, former Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Oxford and present Archbishop of Canterbury, recently published a book on Dostoevsky.  Thus in both theology and literary studies, there has been something of a resurgence of Catholicism – recent Atlantic Canadian fiction would provide another example.  Evangelical Christianity has also experienced a revival, as evidenced by the phenomenal success of the Alpha course.

All of the above may seem rather an anecdotal collage, but my point is that these examples are signs of the times, and that they are at least superficially at odds with the concerns and practices of Northrop Frye, especially his writings about the Bible and religion.  If my account is granted at least some degree of plausibility, the question becomes in what way Frye’s writings fit into the context I have described?  In what way is he a religious or spiritual teacher for our time?  I have to confess that I have no answer to that question at the moment; to help me look for one, I am currently reading Bob Denham’s Northrop Frye: Religious Visionary and Architect of the Spiritual World (2004).  So far (which is not very far in) the book has confirmed my sense that Frye had little interest in what is conventionally termed theology in the Christian tradition.  Given what seems to be a revival of that intellectual and spiritual tradition, I think it is going to take quite a bit of work to find the convergences with Frye’s spiritual thought and practice.  But the other thing that Bob’s book has already made clear to me is that there is far more of a spiritual quest in late Frye than I had previously realized, even though I had read most of the Frye texts that Bob discusses.  The question to answer is how those in different traditions of spiritual experience can make use of Frye’s religious visions and blueprints of the spiritual world.


* Geoffrey Hill’s poetry provides an eloquent example of an increasing attention to Judaism by a poet writing from within the Christian tradition.  Several of Hill’s poems published in the 1960s are recognized as among the major British literary responses to the Holocaust.  His recent poetry frequently incorporates references to Judaism and to the Hebrew language, for example, from Without Title: “Hebrew alone will serve / this narrative which is a broken thing.”  (Hill’s wife, Alice Goodman, is an Anglican priest and a convert from Judaism.)

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3 thoughts on “Northrop Frye and “The Return of Religion”

  1. Clayton Chrusch

    You write, “All of the above may seem rather an anecdotal collage, but my point is that these examples are signs of the times, and that they are at least superficially at odds with the concerns and practices of Northrop Frye, especially his writings about the Bible and religion. If my account is granted at least some degree of plausibility, the question becomes in what way Frye’s writings fit into the context I have described?”

    Frye rejects orthodoxy, and I don’t think putting a “neo-” or a “radical” in front of the word changes anything. It seems like the one, or at least the strongest, either/or position in Frye’s thought. Frye’s views are incompatible both with the traditional content of orthodoxy (particularly damnation) and the necessary form of orthodoxy (intellectual assent before love). Orthodoxy for Frye is just a smilier form of fundamentalism, an idolotry of one’s current understanding of God.

    Somewhere, I am not sure where, Frye speaks about the hermeneutic of charity. In my own words, the idea is this: since it is impossible to love a God we see as evil, and since the first commandment of Jesus is to love God, we must not accept any doctrine or passage of scripture until we positively see that it is an expression of God’s goodness. The clearest articulation of this principle that I know of is in George MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons.

    We can see immediately how the hermeneutic of charity is opposed to orthodoxy. Orthodoxy gets things exactly backwards by requiring people to start with truth and end in love. You cannot start with truth, only with settled opinions, and if you start with settled opinions you will end up not with love but bigotry and cruelty. Love is what we are capable of now. It is God’s immediate command. It alone is what brings us to truth by opening our eyes and ears.

    Frye doesn’t generally speak about love, but about desire, concern, and imagination, but I think it amounts to the same thing.

  2. Joseph Adamson

    Thank you, Russell, for the tip about Rowan Martin’s book. I teach Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment on a regular basis, and will order a copy.

    As you note, Russell, even Terry Eagleton’s getting into the religion game. God–and I do mean God–help us! Have you looked at his new book, Reason Faith and Revolution? Here is a quote from his wikipedia entry, part of his critique of Richard Dawkins:

    “”Apart from the occasional perfunctory gesture to ‘sophisticated’ religious believers, Dawkins tends to see religion and fundamentalist religion as one and the same. This is not only grotesquely false; it is also a device to outflank any more reflective kind of faith by implying that it belongs to the coterie and not to the mass. The huge numbers of believers who hold something like the theology I outlined above can thus be conveniently lumped with rednecks who murder abortionists and malign homosexuals.”[9]

    And yet this is the same man whose uncharitable dismissal of Frye in his book Literary Theory included the parenthetical ad hominem argument: “of course Frye was a clergyman.” I think–Clayton can correct me if I’m wrong–this is a use of ad hominem that can be deemed a logical fallacy: Frye is saying what he does because he is a religious person. This is what makes me think that engaging with such critical thinkers (sic) is futile. The first thing you need to get past is their egos and even then, as the old saying goes: you can take a horse to water, etc.

    1. Joseph Adamson

      Or to put the ad hominem fallacy better: because Frye is a clergyman it proves that his approach to literature is basically Christian and can therefore be dismissed.


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