Kerygma, Cont’d


Following up on Michael Happy’s question about kerygma, here’s an adaptation of a little study of the word I did for Northrop Frye: Religious Visionary and Architect of the Spiritual World:

In The Great Code Frye adopts the word “kerygma” to indicate that while the Bible has obvious poetic features, it is more than literary because it contains a rhetoric of proclamation.  “Kerygma,” the form of proclamation made familiar by Bultmann, thus designates the existentially concerned aspect of the Bible, as opposed to its purely metaphoric features.  Bultmann sought to “demythologize” the New Testament narrative as an initial stage in interpretation: the assumptions of the old mythologies, such as demonic possession and the three-storied universe, had to be purged before the genuine kerygma could be “saved,” to use his word.  Frye, of course, has exactly the opposite view of myth: “myth is the linguistic vehicle of kerygma” (Great Code, 30).

But having made his point about kerygma Frye drops the word altogether from the rest of The Great Code, except for a passing reference toward the very end of the book (231).  In Words with Power the word “kerygma” is completely absent from Frye’s analysis in the “sequence and mode” (or “language”) chapter; we have to wait until chapter 4, where we learn that the excluded initiative––what lies hidden in the background of the poetic––is what leads to kerygma, even though Frye does not initially put it in these terms.  He begins by saying, “Our survey of verbal modes put rhetoric between the conceptual and the poetic, a placing that should help us to understand why from the beginning there have been two aspects of rhetoric, a moral and a tropological [figurative] aspect, one persuasive and the other ornamental.  Similarly, we have put the poetic between the rhetorical and the kerygmatic, implying that it partakes of the characteristics of both” (Words with Power 111).  Frye then begins to expand the meaning of kerygma far beyond what it had meant in The Great Code.  It now becomes synonymous with the prophetic utterance, the metaliterary perception that extends one’s vision, the Longinian ecstatic response to any text, sacred or secular, that “revolutionizes our consciousness” (Words with Power 111–14).  Kerygma takes metaphorical identification “a step further and says: ‘you are what you identify with’” (ibid., 116).  We enter the kerygmatic realm when the separation of “active speech and reception of speech” merges into a unity (ibid., 118).

This leads to an absorbing account of the “spiritual” as it is embedded in the descriptive, conceptual, and rhetorical “factors of the poetic,” and the “spiritual” as extending the body into another dimension so that it reaches “the highest intensity of consciousness” (ibid., 119–21, 128).  Then, some twenty pages after Frye began his exploration of kerygma, he arrives finally at the excluded initiative of the poetic.  He does not say what we might expect, that the excluded initiative is kerygma.  What he says, in a statement that appears to be something of an anticlimax after all the elevated probing of Spirit, is that the excluded initiative of the poetic “is the principle of the reality of what is created in the production and response to literature” (ibid., 128).  This teasing understatement has been anticipated by the declaration about the unity of “active speech and reception of speech” just quoted.  Or as Frye puts it in Notebook 53 in less pedestrian terms, kerygma is “the answering voice from God to the human construct” (Late Notebooks, 2:615).

But what is this “principle of reality” that is “neither objective nor subjective”––the excluded initiative of the poetic?  The short answer is religious faith.  The long answer is Frye’s commentary on Hebrews 11:1 (“the substance of things hoped-for, the evidence of things not seen”), which he translates into “the reality of hope and of illusion,” concluding with an exposition of spiritual presence that goes beyond the conventional formulations of dialectic and doctrine.  The “reality of what is created in the production and response to literature” turns out to be the presence of spiritual vision, the interpenetration of the human and the divine.  Ironically, the proclamation is said to be beyond words, at least in one of Frye’s formulations: “What’s the initiative excluded from the higher kerygma?  Something that goes outside the verbal, which is why it can’t have much of a role in my book.  It starts after we’ve finished the Bible and accepted its invitation to drink [Revelation 22:17].  But Zen & others say that it’s a renewal of vision, the same world but seen in enlightenment. . . . the conception of interpenetration can’t be avoided” (Late Notebooks, 1:271).  In the kerygmatic world one is released from the burden of speech and writing: “The gospels are written mythical narratives, and for casual readers they remain that.  But if anything in them strikes a reader with full kerygmatic force, there is, using the word advisedly, a resurrection of the original speaking presence in the reader.  The reader is the logocentric focus, and what he reads is emancipated both from writing and from speech.  The duality of speaker and listener has vanished into a single area of verbal recognition” (Words with Power, 114; see also Late Notebooks, 1:306).  We do not speak in the kerygmatic world, but God does, which is why the voice of revelation is “rhetoric in reverse” (Late Notebooks, 2:660).  When Frye uses “kerygma” in the sense of the prophetic or metaliterary utterance, human speech or writing does enter the picture, and while there is no metaliterary style, there is a metaliterary idiom which takes the kerygmatic as its model (Late Notebooks, 1:369).  Frye even projects his own kerygmatic anthology.  He says, without commentary, that it would include Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Buber’s I and Thou, and selections from Dostoevsky, Kafka, Rimbaud, and Hölderlin (Late Notebooks 1:365; in the same entry Frye says that Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra would be excluded from the anthology “for trying to hard”).

In The Double Vision Frye says about kerygma only that the New Testament’s myths to live by and its metaphors to live in are a transforming kerygmatic power “coming from the other side of mythical and metaphorical language” (18).  The word “kerygma” does not appear in either The “Third Book” Notebooks (1964–72) or the notebooks on romance (1944–89), and it appears only twice in the notebooks for The Great Code.  But in the Late Notebooks (1982–90) there are more than 160 instances of the word “kerygma,” an indication of the energy Frye devoted to searching for the other side of the poetic during the last decade of his life.  In fact, kerygma as on the other side of the poetic or as beyond the imaginative gets emphasized in the notebooks: see, for example, Late Notebooks, 1:259, 260, 303, 306, 334, 337–8, 365, 369, 394, 415, 2:660, 663, 673, 696, 702, 704, and 715.  And never satisfied with the point at which he has arrived, Frye even wonders at one point, “What’s on the other side of kerygma?”  He proceeds shortly to answer the question: “the world of words as seen by the Word” (Late Notebooks, 1:343).  Otherwise in the Late Notebooks––and it is an extensive otherwise––kerygma is said to announce a world beyond speech (2:715) and to be the purloined-letter archetype (“the verbal message everybody wants to kidnap but can’t get hold of”) (1:219).  It is the transformation of Kierkegaard’s “aesthetic” category (1:251; Frye sees Kierkegaard as a genuinely prophetic figure but thinks he could never prevent conceptual rhetoric from usurping the kerygmatic).  The kerygmatic combines the counter-historical myth and the counter-logical metaphor (2:695); it is spiritual rhetoric (1:306, 403) and revelation (1:342); and it serves as a new context for the Logos in John’s gospel (2:647).  In the kerygmatic universe the gods and spirits of myth have been transformed into God and Spirit (1:270).  The “kerygmatic breakthrough always contains some sense of ‘time has stopped.’  The sequential movement has become a focus, or fireplace.  In intensified consciousness the minute particular shines by its own light (or burns in its own life-fire)” (1:290).

The notebooks contain a distinction between lower and higher kerygma, a distinction that Frye did not retain for Words with Power.  Lower kerygma is the social proclamation that derives from dialectic, “the stage of law, full of prohibitions & penalties, & increasingly given to censorship in the arts,” as in Plato’s restriction of art in the Republic (1:265, 271).  The lower kerygma of the notebooks is actually the rhetorical mode of language in Words with Power, and higher kerygma is what Frye calls simply kerygma in that book.  Higher kerygma in the Late Notebooks is defined as the interpenetration of Word and Spirit and as close to Martin Buber’s “Thou” (1:209), and it entails the sense of complete “otherness” (1:271).  It therefore goes beyond its conventional New Testament associations.  Even the antithesis between esoteric and exoteric does not hold in the kerygmatic world (1:334). 

Kerygma, because it lies beyond the poetic, is all content and so without form, as we see in this notebook riddle: “In descriptive writing the verbal content (not what we usually think of as content in that connection) is syntactic prose.  When this content turns into form, a content of metaphor reveals itself within.  When that becomes form, myth (order, narrative, time, quid agas) becomes the content.  When myth becomes form, kerygma becomes the content” (1:269).  In this enigmatic aphorism we have a familiar Aufhebung or lifting operation, one that moves through four stages of content and form:

form of myth → content of kerygma

form of metaphor → content of myth

form of prose → content of metaphor

verbal content of prose


Kerygma is too discontinuous to assume a form itself, except in the provisional form it takes in sacred texts (1:269).

This brief survey of the numerous meanings that cluster around the word “kerygma” illustrates Frye’s dogged determination to clarify the mystery of spiritual rhetoric.  He keeps struggling to find the proper verbal formula.  It illustrates as well Frye’s fundamental desire during the 1980s to move beyond the poetic world into a world of spiritual vision.  This does not mean that Frye abandons his interest in the first-phase language of metaphor in The Great Code or the fourth, imaginative mode of language in Words with Power.  Far from it.  According to the principle of Aufhebung, the poetic is never cancelled but lifted up and preserved in a higher level.

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