Matthew Griffin: Frye and the Bible

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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.

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3 thoughts on “Matthew Griffin: Frye and the Bible

  1. Joseph Adamson

    Yes, I remember the Bill Phipps controversy, and thinking the same thing then: he could have saved the United Church and the public a lot of confusion and misunderstanding if he had read Frye and been able to articulate what he really meant in terms that did not make him sound like an Emersonian Unitarian.

    Reply
    1. Joseph Adamson

      I should say half-baked Emersonian Unitarian. Emerson would have presented the idea in a much more powerful way.

      Reply
  2. Russell Perkin

    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.

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