Frye on False Literalism: “The Bible is explicitly antireferential in structure”


Picking up again on our examination of the relation of Christian fundamentalism to right wing politics, here’s Frye in “The Double Mirror” on the false literalism of fundamentalists. (It’s a long excerpt, but it leads up to the last paragraph that makes it worth the effort.)

The traditional view of the Bible, as we all know, has been that it must be regarded as “literally” true. This view of “literal” meaning assumes that the Bible is a transparent medium of words conveying a “true” picture of historical events and conceptual doctrines. It is a vehicle of “revelation,” and revelation means that something objective, behind the words, is being conveyed directly to the reader. It is also an “inspired” book, and inspiration means that its authors were, so to speak, holy tape-recorders, writing at the dictation of an external spiritual power.

This view is based on an assumption about verbal truth that needs examining. One direction is centripetal, where we establish a context out of the words read; the other is centrifugal, where we try to remember what the words mean in the world outside. Sometimes the external meanings take on a structure descriptive or nonliterary. Here the question of “truth” arises: the structure is “true” if it is a satisfactory counterpart to the external  structure to it is parallel. If there is no external counterpart, the structure is said to be literary or imaginative, existing for its own sake, and hence often considered a form of permissible lying. If the Bible is “true,” tradition says, it must be a nonliterary counterpart of something outside it. It is, as Derrida would say, an absence invoking a presence, the “word of God” as a book pointing to “the word of God” as speaking presence in history. It is curious that although this view of Biblical meaning was intended to exalt the Bible as a uniquely sacrosanct book, it in fact turned it into a servomechanism, its words conveying truths or events that by definition were more important than the words were. The written Bible, this view is really saying, is a concession to time: as Socrates says of writing in the Phaedrus, it is intended only to call to mind something that has passed away from presence. The real basis of the Bible, for all theologians down to Karl Barth at least, is the presence represented by the phrase “God speaks.”

We have next to try to understand how this view arose. In a primitive society (whatever we mean by primitive), there is a largely undifferentiated body of verbal material, held together by the sense of its importance to that society. This material tells the society what the society needs to know about its history, religion, class structure, and law. As society becomes more complex, these elements become more distinct and autonomous. Legend and saga develop into history; stories, sacred or secular, develop into literature; a mixture of practical knowledge and magic develops into science. Society struggles to contain these elements within its overriding concerns, and tries to impose on them a structure of authority that will keep them unified, as Christianity did in medieval times. About two generations ago there was a fashion for crying up the Middle Ages as a golden age in which all aspects of culture were unified by common sentiments and beliefs. Similar developments, with a similar appeal, are taking place today in Marxist countries.

However, artists, historians, scientists, and theologians find increasingly that they make discoveries within the growing structure of their discipline, and that they owe a loyalty to that structure as well as to the concerns of society. Thus astronomers had to advance a heliocentric view of the solar system even when social anxieties demanded a geocentric one; historians of Britain had to reject the Arthurian story although popular feeling clung to it. Social authority gives ground in some areas more willingly than others. The presence pointed to by the Bible was, in practice, identified with a theological interpretation which was the right interpretation, to be understood before the Bible itself could be understood. These interpretations took different linguistic forms before and after the Reformation, but were always primarily structures of authority, intended to impose a unity on believers that was really uniformity, in public expression at least.

Such interpretations grew up partly because the verbal texture of the Bible is very different from that of descriptive writing, as a glance at it shows. A descriptive writer who aims at conveying some truth beyond his verbal structure avoids figures of speech, because all figuration emphasizes the centripetal aspect of words, and belongs either to the poetic or the rhetorical categories. The Bible is full of explicit metaphors, hyperboles, popular etymologies, puns, in fact every figurative device possible, many of which are defined in dictionaries simply as errors of grammar or logic. But the vices of grammar and logic are often the virtues of poetry, and while no one would call the Bible a poetic structure, it has all the characteristics of poetry, which accounts for most of its very specific literary influence. Its narrative range from legend to partisan history, but historical fact as fact is nowhere marked off in it.

In short, the Bible is explicitly antireferential in structure, and deliberately blocks off any world of presence behind itself. In Christianity, everything in the Old Testament is a “type” of which the “antitype” or existential reality is in the New Testament. This turns the Bible into a double mirror reflecting only itself to itself. How do we know the Gospel is true? Because it fulfills the prophecies of the Old Testament. But how do we know that the prophecies of the Old Testament are true? Because they are fulfilled by the Gospel. Is there any evidence for the existence of Jesus as a major historical figure outside the New Testament? None really, and the writers of the New Testament obviously preferred it that way. As long as we assume a historical presence behind the Bible to which it points, the phrase “word of God,” as applied both to the Bible and the person of Christ, is only a dubious syllepsis. In proportion as the presence behind disappears, it becomes identified with the book, and the phrase begins to make sense. As we continue to study the significance of the fact that the Bible is a book, the sense of presence shifts from what is behind the book to what is in front of it. (CW 4, 82-6)

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