Category Archives: Great Code

Fact, Imagination, Language


Responding to Michael Dolzani, Matthew Griffin and Clayton Chrusch

I think the issue of whether or not imagination and fact are incompatible in Frye has to be seen in terms of his theory of language. We get two elaborate accounts of this theory in the first chapters of both The Great Code and Words with Power. A briefer version is to be found in chapter 1 of The Double Vision, where Frye says, “The reason for basing kerygma on mythical and metaphorical language is that such a language is the only one with the power to detach us from the world of facts and demonstrations and reasonings, which are excellent things as tools, but are merely idols as objects of trust and reverence” (18) A bit earlier he has remarked, “if we encounter metaphors in poetry, we need not worry about their factual absurdity.” That’s because poetic metaphor, like myth and all other products of the imagination, belong to a phase of language different from the language of fact, reason, demonstration, historical truth, and the like.

The opposition between fact and imagination is related, I believe to Hegel’s distinction between the “for-itself” and the “in-itself,” which Frye glances at in “The Dialectic of Belief and Vision.” The distinction is to be found in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, p. 294 ff. Hegel’s very abstract and difficult prose provides a formidable obstacle to my small brain. But if I understand what he’s getting at in describing these two opposing forces, the “for-itself has to do with thought, with the self-consciousness that comes from our being post-Enlightenment people. It’s limited. It’s related to actuality, human law, the external world of culture and civilization, faith expressed in conceptual or Enlightenment terms, truth as objective factual description. On the other hand, in-itself is a matter of getting beyond Enlightenment rationality to something above and beyond historical self-consciousness. It’s related to possibility, faith, harmony, consciousness of the Notion (Begriff), the spiritual world. It’s a matter of vision. “For-itself” belongs to the world as it is––the world of fact. “In-itself” belongs to the world as it might or should be––the world of the imagination.

Frye’s account of this distinction immediately precedes his commentary on Hebrews 11:1, the passage mentioned by Matthew Griffin that Frye continued to puzzle over, most fully in his sermon “Substance and Evidence.” For those who might be interested in following up on the passage that Griffin says is the key to his reading of Frye, I reproduce immediately following four of the chief places Frye seeks to untangle the meaning of “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen,” the commentaries having been written over a seventeen-year span.

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Typology, Kerygma, and Literature


Blake's Elohim Creating Adam

Russell’s latest post on Alter and Frye has got me thinking about my longstanding assumptions about Frye, particularly with regard to the Bible and literature.  The Bible and literature occupy the centre of Frye’s critical universe, and understanding what he says about both is to appreciate the full potential of his critical vision.

The Judeo-Christian Bible as the supreme artifact of Christian culture down to about the 18th century is of course easy enough to assume.  As Frye points out, the Bible is a primary source of imagery and stories well into the 20th century — and, in these apparently apocalyptically-minded times, into the 21st century as well.

But the Bible is not just a source of mythos and dianoia, to use the Aristotelian terms Frye adapts in Anatomy.  It is the source also of a “unique” arrangement of myth and metaphor represented by typology, the progressive succession of type-antitype-type (e.g. Creation-Incarnation-Revelation).  Although Frye rather conspicuously only says it once, he nevertheless observes on page 80 of The Great Code:

The typological organization of the Bible does present the difficulty, to a secular literary critic, of being unique: no other book in the world, to my knowledge, has a structure even remotely like that of the Christian Bible.

That structure is the “double mirror” of the Old Testament and the New Testament — the latter concealed in the former and the former revealed by the latter — which provides the Christian Bible’s kerygmatic vision of the human condition that Blake characterizes as the revelation of  the “human form divine.”  The typological structure of the Christian Bible that furnishes its distinctive double mirror character, however, does not originate with Christianity: the Hebrew Bible is the source of these typological principles, and the first “Christians” were themselves Jews who compiled what would become their “new” testament using the same typological structure of their traditional holy scriptures.  As Frye observes:

Typology in the Bible is by no means confined to the Christian version of the Bible: from the point of view of Judaism at least, the Old Testament is much more genuinely typological without the New Testament than with it. There are, in the first place, events in the Old Testament that are types of later events recorded also within the Old Testament.  (GC, 83)

When Frye suggests, therefore, as he does in The Great Code (and there alone, it might be pointed out) that the culturally ascendant phases of language we have observed so far — the hieroglyphic, the hieratic, and the demotic — may be, for the first time in human history, about to be succeeded by a kerygmatic phase, he is making about as revolutionary a statement as he ever made.  I’m not sure it is possible to approach his work as a whole without thinking about its implications.

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More Frye and Alter

Velazquez, Joseph's Coat

Velazquez, Joseph's Coat

One of the fundamental differences between Frye and Alter is that they have such different views of metaphor. For Alter, metaphor is an ornamental frill. He calls it a “rhetorical embellishment” and an “elaboration,” somewhat like an embroidery stitched onto the surface of the literal text. Anything that is not attentive to “the factual report of historical events” becomes, for Alter, “a linguistic gesture.” Similarly, for Alter, typology produces only “lovely designs,” which are not text based “but artefacts of interpretation.”

Frye’s view of metaphor is completely different. Among the numerous theories of this trope––from Aristotle’s transference view through the theories about metaphor as substitution, comparison, transaction (I.A. Richards), and interaction (Max Black)––Frye’s theory seems to me to be unique, based as it is on the principle of identity. His views on metaphor form a part of his expansive theory of language, where identity is both a grammatical and a religious principle, as well as a principle for defining the sense of self (personal identity). Metaphor tells us, as Frye never tires of repeating, that X is Y. Alter, who, as Russell points out, is interested in difference rather than identity, says that “there is no such thing as a truly synonymous narrative event of literary articulation.” This completely rules out Frye, for whom myths and metaphors are synonymous. The principle of identity entails the extraordinarily radical position that X is literally Y. Such different assumptions about how poetic language works means that there is very little common ground on which Alter and Frye can stand. Similarly, if your Bible is the Hebrew Bible, then the question of typology doesn’t even arise.

Alter does grant the obvious, that in the poetic forms in the Bible, one often encounters figurative language, but, he argues, “In the predominant prose narratives of the Hebrew Bible, only the most sparing use is made of either metaphor or simile.” He then illustrates the point by citing a verse from Genesis about Esau’s selling his birthright and one from 2 Samuel about David’s encounter with Bathsheba. What Alter means by “sparing use” is uncertain. Outside of the poems in chapters 1 and 22-23, which contain more than forty metaphors and similes, the rest of 2 Samuel is not without a fairly generous supply of figures: there are more than fifty. While the author of 2 Samuel focuses on the more or less literal account of David’s rise to power and his wayward ways, the author can hardly be said to have been sparing in his use of various tropes. As for Genesis 25, half of which is given over to genealogy, the author’s account of Jacob and Esau is not without a generous measure of linguistic play: “red” (’adom)—Edom; “hairy” (se`ar)—Seir, land of the Edomites; “Jacob” (`aqeb)—heel. Even the Lord, who speaks to Rebekah in quatrains, is given to troping: “Two nations are in your womb.” The tension between Esau the hunter and Jacob the shepherd point backward to the Cain and Abel story. This is not necessarily metaphorical, but it is an archetypal example of the story of the two brothers, one good and one bad, that we encounter everywhere in our stories.

As for Frye’s identifying Joseph’s coat of many colors with fertility, which Alter says is “altogether arbitrary,” this goes back a long way. In an Emmanuel College paper he wrote on “St. Paul and Orphism” (he was 22 at the time), Frye says in a discussion of fertility rites that “Joseph’s coat of many colours is an evident vegetation symbol.” That’s because he read somewhere, as he says later in the paper, that “Dionysos, the fertility god, wears a coat of many colours.” I don’t know Frye’s source here (perhaps Sir James Frazer, Jane Ellen Harrison, Gilbert Murray, or W.K.C. Guthrie, one of Frye’s principal sources for his paper—he lists twenty-four books), but I doubt that he made it up.

Robert Alter and the Bible: A Response to Joseph Adamson


Following Joe’s critique of Alter, I too went back to Alter’s essay “Northrop Frye between Archetype and Typology.”  I’ll begin with the conclusion to Joe’s post, where he writes that “Alter simply wants nothing to do with the imaginative element, with metaphor or myth in the Bible, or if it must be admitted, since it is everywhere, only as a kind of rhetorical ornamentation that is easily hedged in by a crabbed and mean-spirited descriptivism.”  I agree that Alter wants to distance himself from Frye’s way of reading the Bible – for reasons that I will get to later – but I find in his work a powerful response to the imaginative element in the Bible.  It’s just that for Alter this element exhibits itself in difference rather than identity, and in particulars rather than typological categories.  Alter ends his essay by saying that “The revelatory power of the literary imagination manifests itself in the intricate weave of details of each individual text.”  Going back to Joe’s conclusion, I would also dispute the adjectives “crabbed and mean-spirited”; Alter reads the Bible as a work of great literature, a revelation of what it means to be human, and an exploration of the way that human lives are embedded in history.  I regard Alter as a major humanist critic, not someone I would put on the same level as Frye, but certainly a literary scholar and critic whom I find in many ways exemplary. 

To reiterate a point I made in an earlier post, when teaching the Bible and literature I set up a dialectic between the approaches of Alter and Frye.  For me, both are necessary.  In looking at Milton, or aspects of Shakespeare, Frye’s visionary-typological approach is a powerful way of seeing what these poets have done imaginatively with the Bible.  On the other hand, in discussing the novel, which in the English tradition at least is profoundly grounded in the Bible, Alter’s commentaries on the Hebrew Bible are an invaluable resource, as of course they are in considering the literary qualities of the Hebrew Bible itself.  Not only do the two critics have divergent ways of reading, but for pedagogical purposes it is useful that one of them writes out of a Christian tradition and the other from a Jewish tradition. 

I have a vivid memory of Alter’s paper at the Frye and the Word conference: for me it had the kind of lucid authority that makes you feel you are in the presence of an exceptional scholar.  (You can see him lecturing for yourself here.)  That conference took place as I was getting ready to teach my course on the Bible and Literature for the first time, and I was therefore especially attentive when Alan Mendelsohn, in his introduction to Alter’s lecture, praised Alter’s translation of the book of Genesis for opening up dramatically new perspectives on that text.  In teaching the course, I have found Mendelsohn’s recommendation to be exactly right: Alter’s commentary reveals countless complexities and subtleties in the text of the Hebrew Bible, which with his knowledge of the European literary tradition he is often able to relate to later literary developments.  (He has since translated the two books of Samuel, the whole of the Torah, and the Psalms.)  I was even inspired by reading these commentaries to start learning Hebrew, in spite of the fact that I am not very adept with foreign languages.  Thus through the long hot summer of 2006, I spent several hours a week sitting down with a handful of undergraduates less than half my age, under the guidance of Wendell Eisener, a religious studies professor at Saint Mary’s who most kindly let me sit in on his class.  I would not claim to be a Hebrew scholar as a result, but I learned enough to start to see how the language works and to be able to use reference tools. 

Joe points out some of Alter’s negative language towards Frye, and I think that this language indicates a certain degree of anxiety.  At least twice, Alter uses the word “beguiling” to characterize Frye’s method of reading the Bible.  This word now has the primary meaning of “charming,” or “diverting attention in a pleasant way,” but it also retains the sense embodied in the root guile of “deluding, entangling with guile.”  Alter is clearly aware of, and wary of, the seductive power of Frye’s way of reading the Bible, which he notes is not merely a practice of worldly criticism but something that includes “a certain homiletic touch.” And Alter does acknowledge that the mythological way of reading exemplified by The Great Code is an appropriate description of the way that many poets in the Christian tradition have read the Bible. 

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Frye, Alter, and Rowan Williams


This is  a delayed response, Russell, to your post on Frye and “The Return of Religion.” I was piqued by some of your suggested criticisms of Frye’s approach to the Bible, and so resolved to undertake some of the reading you suggested. Eagleton? Well, nah, I think I’ll give that a pass, at least for the moment. But I did take a deep breath and plunged into Robert Alter’s article on Frye and the Bible in Frye and the Word.

It might be useful, but much too laborious and really not worth the time and energy to go through all the ways the man distorts Frye’s argumentation  in order to make him look foolish, uninformed, and deluded. He condescendingly alludes to Frye’s shakiness on the ground of Biblical criticism and theology, his philological ignorance, his Christianizing of the Bible, etc. But if you compare the examples he adduces to make his case you will find that the only way he can undermine Frye is by attacking a dummy custom-made for the purpose.

To avoid tedium, I will contain myself to one example. He claims that in The Great Code Frye, in a discussion of Ecclesiastes, translates the hebrew word “hevel” as “dense fog.” In sneering reproof, Alter observes that the word means mist or vapor, not dense fog. However, if you look at the pertinent passages in The Great Code you will discover that Frye mentions the significance of the word “hevel” and notes that it “has a metaphorical kernel of fog, mist, or vapor,” and “acquires a derived sense of ‘emptiness’.” It is only a good page later that, in a discussion of the invisible world as the means by which we see the visible one, he uses the phrase “dense fog”: “if we could see air we could see nothing else, and would be living in the dense fog that is one of the roots of the word ‘vanity.’”

This is not even splitting hairs; it’s splitting nothing, since there is nothing Alter can really argue with. That “vanity” is like the “void’ of Buddhist thought“, as Frye points out in the same discussion, is exactly what Alter himself says: that the significance of the word “hevel” is the vaporousness, the insubstantiality of what we take to be reality,  or its “nothingness,” as Frye says. So a disagreement must be invented where there isn’t one. He accuses Frye of tweaking the Hebrew, but who is really doing the tweaking of someone’s words here?

Alter fails to mention any of this. This is what I referred to in a previous post as intellectual dishonesty. Like other critics of Frye, such as Said–and predictably, like Said, Alter dismissively praises Frye for his “ingeniousness”–Alter engages in a deliberate short-circuiting of Frye’s arguments in order to caricature and distort them into something that at least sounds foolish, uninformed, and deluded, because at some level I suspect they know they aren’t. It would not be hard to show how egregiously Alter follows this procedure throughout his essay.

The bottom line is: Alter simply wants nothing to do with the imaginative element, with metaphor or myth in the Bible, or if it must be admitted,  since it is everywhere, only as a kind of rhetorical ornamentation that is easily hedged in by  a crabbed and mean-spirited descriptivism.

So what a joy it was today when I received my copy of Rowan Williams’s Dostoevsky, Faith and Fiction (just in time for my class on Dostoevsky next week), and read the following passages in the first three pages of his preface. You’d think he’d read Frye, and I guess he may well have at some point, or read someone who read him:

Metaphor is omnipresent, certainly in scientific discourse (selfish genes, computer modelings of brain processes, not to mention the magnificent extravagances of theoretical physics), and its omnipresence ought to warn us against the fiction that there is a language that is untainted and obvious for any discipline. We are bound to use words that have histories and associations; to see things in terms of than their immediate appearance means that we are constantly using a language we do not fully control to respond to an environment in which things demand that we see more in them than any one set of perceptions can catch.

The most would-be reductive account of reality still reaches for metaphor, still depends on words that have been learned and that have been used elsewhere . . .

This will involve the discipline of following through exactly what it is that language of a particular religious tradition allows its believers to see–that is, what its imaginative resources are.

This is not–pace any number of journalistic commentators–a matter of the imperatives supposedly derived from their religion. It is about what they see things and persons in terms of, what the metaphors are that propose further dimensions to the world they inhabit in common with nonbelievers.

Williams speaks of  the “forming of a corporate imagination” as “the more or less daily business of religious believers,”  of “a common imagination at work . . . in the labors of a variety of creative minds.” He explains that the series for which the Dostoevsky book was written “look[s] at creative minds that have a good claim to represent some of the most decisive and innovative cultural currents of the history of the West (and not only the West), in order to track the ways in which a distinctively Christian imagination makes possible their imaginative achievement.”

And he asks:

What, finally, would a human world be like if it convinced itself that it had shaken off the legacy of the Christian imagination?

He speaks very insistently, not of the imperatives of  belief, but of  metaphor and imagination.

What a godsend for a church to have such an archbishop.

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).

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How Does Frye Think?


With regard to Joe’s question about Frye’s method and the “way he thinks,” it seems to me that a critical method is a function of at least four variables: the language a critic uses (the material cause: out of what?); the subject matter he or she explores (the formal cause: what?), the manner used to make a point or construct an argument (the efficient cause: how?), and the purpose(s) of his or her discourse (the final cause: why?).  With regard to Frye, all of these variables are worth sustained investigation.

Consider the efficient cause.  How does Frye proceed in setting out his position on whatever his subject matter is?  We might approach this by asking, How does Frye’s mind work?  How does he think?

1.  Dialectically, by the juxtaposition of opposing categories.  There are scores of these: knowledge and experience, space and time, stasis and movement, the individual and society, tradition and innovation, Platonic synthesis and Aristotelian analysis, engagement and detachment, freedom and concern, mythos and dianoia, the world and the grain of sand, immanence and transcendence, ascent and descent, and so on.  Consider the chapter titles of part 1 of Words with Power: sequence and mode, concern and myth, identity and metaphor, spirit and symbol.

2.  Epiphanically.  Intuitive moments of sudden illumination.  Frye records seven or eight of these, some of them named: the Seattle illumination, the St. Clair epiphany.  These might not properly be called thinking, but these moments were important in forming the vision that he writes about.

3.  Schematically.  Frye can’t think without a diagram in his head.  Spatial representation of thought (diagrams, charts, categories arranged in space––cycles, circles, tables, and other visual taxonomies) are always prior.  His diagram of diagrams he called “The Great Doodle.”  Lesser doodles (his phrase) include the omnipresent HEAP scheme and the ogdoad.  The hundreds of schema he uses are stored (for instant recall) in his vast memory theater.  Thinking schematically means that he is fundamentally a deductive thinker (in spite of the fact that I can think of no critic who had a greater inductive store of literary data).

4.  Analogically.  Frye is obsessed with similarities rather than differences.  He does, of course, have a strong Aristotelian streak, what with all his anatomizing and categorizing.  But while he agrees with Coleridge that we can distinguish where we cannot divide, the bottom line is that Frye is an analogical thinker, like Plato.

5.  Upwardly.  Frye is always moving toward a telos, an end.  There is always another step to be taken to get beyond the present mental or imaginative state.  “Beyond” is the most revealing preposition in Frye’s religious quest––a preposition that takes on special significance only late in his career.  During the last decade of his life he uses the word repeatedly as both a spatial and a temporal metaphor.  Having arrived at a particular point in his speculative journey, over and over he reaches for something that lies beyond.  Notebook 27 (1985) begins with a series of speculations about getting to a plane of both myth and metaphor beyond the poetic, and Frye even confesses that there is no reason at all to write Words with Power unless he can get to that plane (LN, 1:67).  The Bible implies that there is a structure beyond the hypothetical (LN, 1:8, 14).  Many things are said to be beyond words: icons, certain experiences, the identity of participation mystique (LN, 1:15, 16).  Here’s a sampler:

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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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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.

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.