Daily Archives: October 22, 2009



A footnote to Clayton Chrusch’s “The Hermeneutics of Charity,” drawn from some paragraphs on love I wrote about elsewhere.

The genuine Christianity that has survived its appalling historical record was founded on charity, and charity is invariably linked to an imaginative conception of language, whether consciously or unconsciously. Paul makes it clear that the language of charity is spiritual language, and that spiritual language is metaphorical, founded on the metaphorical paradox that we live in Christ and that Christ lives in us (The Double Vision, 17).

The various principles that are the foundation of Frye’s concept of identity (metaphor, kerygma, possession, the fourth awareness, higher consciousness) should lead us, he says, to “myths to live by.”  But what are these existential myths that come from “the other side” of the imaginative?  What are the “coherent lifestyles” that Frye’s hopes “will emerge from the infinite possibilities of myth”? (Words with Power, 143). Although he often appears hesitant to give a direct answer to these questions, preferring to assume the role of Moses on Mount Pisgah, the answer does surface in the conclusions of his last three books where the gospel of love becomes the focus of his discussion.

Frye’s speculations on love begin early.  In Notebook 3 (1946–48) he probes the meaning of love in different contexts: his own erotic and fantasy life, his attitude toward the Church, his reflections on yoga and on time.  Here are two representative reflections:

Joachim of Floris has a hint of an order of things in which the monastery takes over the church & the world.  That is the expanded secular monastery I want: I want the grace of Castiglione as well as the grace of Luther, a graceful as well as a gracious God, and I want all men & women to enter the Abbey of Theleme where instead of poverty, chastity and obedience they will find richness, love and fay ce que vouldras; for what the Bodhisattva wills to do is good. (Northrop Frye’s Notebooks and Lectures on the Bible and Other Religious Texts, 17)

Each dimension of time breeds fear: the past, despair & hopelessness & the sense of an irrevocable too late: the present, panic & sense of a clock steadily ticking; the future, an unknown mystery gradually assuming the lineaments of the consequences of our own acts.  Hope is the virtue of the past, the eternal sense that maybe next time we’ll do better.  The projection of this into the future is faith, the substance of things hoped for.  Love belongs to the present, & is the only force able to cast out fear.  If a thing loves it is infinite, Blake said, & the act of love is itself a vision of a timeless world. (ibid., 59)

Frye’s speculations on love reappear some thirty-five years later in the conclusion of The Great Code, where he probes the meaning of the Word of God in the context of Biblical language.  This language, Frye says, is enduring, inclusive, welcoming, and beyond argument, and it can move us toward freedom and beyond the anxiety structures created by the human and divine antithesis (231–2).  The Great Code, however, provides little concrete guidance about the function of love in the myths we are to live by, though the notebooks for The Great Code contain numerous entries on “the rule of charity.”   But during the eight years following The Great Code Frye devoted a good deal of energy to working out the implication of the language of love.  In Notebook 46 (mid- to late 1980s) he writes, “Love is the only virtue there is, but like everything else connected with creativity and imagination, there is something decentralized about it.  We love those closest to us, Jesus’ ‘neighbors,’ people we’re specifically connected with in charity.  For those at a distance we feel rather tolerance or good will, the feeling announced at the Incarnation” (Late Notebooks, 2:696).  This “only virtue” idea gets developed in Words with Power where love, Paul’s agape or caritas is said to be “the only genuine form of human society, the spiritual kingdom of Jesus” (89).

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Responding to Clayton Chrusch:

Clayton, the one place where I disagree with you is the assumption that the hermeneutic of charity is unorthodox. In fact, it is the essence of Augustine’s hermeneutics as set out in On Christian Doctrine:

Whoever, therefore, thinks that he understands the divine Scriptures or any part of them so that it does not build the double love of God and of our neighbour does not understand it at all. Whoever finds a lesson there useful to the building of charity, even though he has not said what the author may be shown to have intended in that place, has not been deceived, nor is he lying in any way.

Also, I think orthodoxy begins with faith, which is not intellectual assent. This is expressed in Anselm’s maxim “credo ut intelligam,” “I believe so that I may understand.” Not a quotation Frye was fond of, as I recall. But it does express the point you are also making, that one should not make “an idolatry of one’s current understanding of God.” The Nicene creed is a statement of faith in the first person plural, at least in its modern translation: “We believe in one God,” etc. is a statement of collective faith. How that faith is understood is a matter for each individual, and develops through that individual’s life. In that sense the language of the creed is more the language of myth than the language of positive knowledge.

Perhaps my use of the term “orthodoxy” has caused some misunderstanding; by it the theologians I was discussing mean an affirmation of the traditional creeds of Christianity. I would distinguish this -radically!-from fundamentalism, which approaches the doctrine of the church not as myth but as positive knowledge, like the student who every few years tells me in the Bible and literature course about the remnants of the ark on Mount Ararat. The type of liberal theologian who was prevalent when I was growing up delighted in shocking people by arguing, in an equally positivistic way that this or that story “did not happen.” I recall Frye saying that to say you do not, or do, believe in the virgin birth is to be theologically illiterate.

Regarding The Great Code


Responding to Matthew Griffin: 

Matthew, I have just re-read my post, and realized that it is really about two quite different but related topics, and what is at the root of both is (here I brace myself, realizing that I am probably going provoke a flurry of responses) my ambivalent response to The Great Code. I have read and re-read the book, and have thought about it during what are now many sections of a second-year course on the Bible and Literature. For me, the problem is that for the purposes of teaching that course, the book is not literary enough, and not enough concerned with the different faith traditions of the English writers who are especially biblical.  Of course, I know that was not Frye’s intention or his method, but nevertheless, I find myself relying more on Robert Alter, or on David Jeffrey’s Dictionary of Biblical Tradition. Whereas on the other hand if I were to consider The Great Code as a spiritual guide, it is too literary, not enough concerned with the traditions of Christian exegesis and spirituality. I also find Frye’s treatment of Judaism is sometimes problematic.

I consider myself very sympathetic to Frye in many ways, having spent a good part of the last fifteen years reading his works and writing about them, but in regards to his writings on religion I always come back to the feeling that they are limited by his idiosyncratic personal development of a radical dissenting tradition. I recognize the intellectual power of that tradition, having been raised within a similar one myself. No doubt many of my difficulties with Frye’s writings on religion arise from the fact that I now occupy a rather different position.

Ultimately it comes down to a question of experience: you and Clayton Chrusch obviously find Frye more valuable as a religious teacher than I do, and that is not something it would be very helpful to argue about.

The more general point I was trying to make in my original post is that I think Frye’s religious concerns hastened the reaction against his work in the secular critical climate of the 1980s. Now that religion is no longer such a taboo subject in intellectual circles, I think there are in Frye’s writing on religion various obstacles that hinder those from certain traditions from an easy access to his work.

Clayton Chrusch: Hermeneutics of Charity

blake adam and eve

Responding to Russell Perkin:

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.

Matthew Griffin: Frye and the Bible


Responding to Russell Perkin:

Frye has been formative to how I read the Bible. Well before I ever went to seminary and sat through biblical studies courses (which are almost universally boring to anyone who’s had a bibliography course or two), it was obvious to me that the Bible was a set of widely disparate texts in a multitude of genres–some books even mishmashes of a half dozen different viewpoints and sources of history. I’m a product of my age, culture, and education, and as such I don’t find even remotely off-putting Benjamin Jowett’s then radical notion in Essays and Reviews that we should read the Bible like any other book. It should and does bear careful study. At the same time, I’ve been completely influenced by Frye, and read the Bible as a complete verbal structure (or universe) that is cohesive and consistent in its own peculiar and delightful way. The discussion on the blog the other day of first encounters with Frye made me remember buying The Great Code in Bryan Prince Booksellers a dozen years ago, and smiling at how battered my copy is — and how many of those ghastly multi-coloured post-it tabs are sticking out of it! It’s Frye’s thought that has helped me to hold these two poles in a way that’s allowed me some measure of ability for self-polyvalent reading. 

The experience of kerygma reveals an odd tension: it generates a revelation of the divine, the Holy Other, through the use of myth by the one experiencing the myth.  Put another way, when scripture is read by believers to encounter God, metaphor is functioning because the story we read is at once the story of the faith of our forebears and our story.  For example: the challenge I face with the composition of a funeral sermon is that, at its best, it seeks to take the stories of the deceased and to overlay them upon the story of our encounter with the divine in the person of Jesus: not to make the person out to be Jesus, but to help us to see how the person lived on the border of the holy in such a way as to reveal God to us.  A funeral has the three tasks of celebrating the life of the deceased, mourning his or her passing, and proclaiming our hope—and the preacher’s noblest desire is to be a vehicle for the metaphor that shows how the story of the dead is at once the story of the dead and our story and God’s story.  This pastoral task is only possible if the stories of scripture do cohere in some way: if every story, indeed, is a vehicle for the divine.

The challenge I face as I read and spend time with radical orthodoxy and the like is that these “new” forms of theology insist on a post-modern fragmentation of meaning and yet ultimately can’t eschew the fact that there is a referent, that the many stories of scripture are one story of God’s active presence and love in history.  (And here an aside: just as Frye argues that there’s no such thing as a new form of literature, that each form is heavily dependent on the literature that informs it, I would myself argue the same thing about theology and theological movements.)  Yet there’s a desire for eschewal that may explain the tension in the first of Russell Perkin’s numbered points, and why people may move away from Frye.  It’s not a perspective that makes much sense to me, given that sensitivity to different lenses for reading, so very needed in theology, can’t really move all that far from the one story–though we might focus on any one aspect, from honour/shame dynamics to feminist criticism to liberation theology—without ceasing to recognise the myth being engaged as kerygmatic. 

I have one or two other challenges with what Russell writes.  One is that I’m not convinced that radical orthodoxy, to return to the example he used, really moves all that far from what he calls the liberal Protestantism that dominated the middle of the twentieth century.  Radical orthodoxy’s focus on social justice is more contextual and partnership-based than the earnest and somewhat patronizing way of living out the “social dimension of religion” that marks Frye’s era.  Yet a realised eschatology—“the kingdom of God is within you”—still marks our lives and the current context, and is at the heart of a renewed understanding of the missio Dei within the Church (see David Bosch’s Transforming Mission for a better unpacking of that idea).

For me, Frye has been a religious and spiritual teacher because his work continues to shape how I re-encounter scripture.  I’ll never forget reading his dismissal as silliness of the idea of trying to talk about what is true in the Bible—clearly Bill Phipps didn’t read enough Frye, back when he was the moderator of the United Church of Canada!—and the corollary that the stories are truth: after all, truth is their genre.    Frye may not help me as I try figure out just what I’m going to say on Sunday morning about the healing of Bartimaeus.  He does help me to enter into that universe, though, and I think that’s always the only possible first step in trying to share what I experience as good news.