People of the Book: Christian Identity and Literary Culture
by David Lyle Jeffrey
Eerdmans, 396 pages, $37
In the common caricature, all disputes between Catholics and Protestants can be reduced to a dispute over the role of Scripture: the Protestant cries Sola Scriptura; the Catholic understands Scripture to be only part of a comprehensive Church tradition. Like all good caricatures, this helps us by exaggerating a genuine truth. Even at this late date, some Protestants still need to learn that understanding without tradition is not possible, while some Catholics still need to learn that the Bible has not merely embodied but created the tradition which they embrace.
The Canadian medievalist David Lyle Jeffrey has devoted much of the last decade to a pair of scholarly projects for joining our understanding of the relations between the Bible and tradition—not just Tradition in the ecclesial sense, but also the tradition that constitutes culture (tradition, one might say, in the Gadamerian sense). The first of these projects is the magisterial Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature, which appeared in 1992. As Jeffrey wrote in his editorial preface to that volume, “To understand something of the Bible, and of its transmission in and through English literature, is to reckon sympathetically with the development of English cultural consciousness in its richest and most coherent levels of expression.” To put this claim in somewhat different terms, it would be ludicrous to think that one could understand English literature or culture without an adequate knowledge of, first, the English Bible itself, and second, the ways in which the Bible had been appropriated by generation upon generation of writers.
Of course, as Jeffrey would be the first to note, the shaping of literary consciousness is scarcely the most important cultural work that the Bible has done. And in this new volume, People of the Book, Jeffrey undertakes his second project, explaining some of the ways in which the Bible’s entry into human cultures has profoundly reoriented, redefined, even remade those cultures. For Jeffrey, the Bible is the most powerful agent of tradition-making the world has ever seen.
He pursues this claim by looking at a variety of cultural situations: At the outset of Christian history, the Church Fathers groped toward an understanding of how the words of Scripture make culture, while closer to our own time and place, the Bible has played a pervasive role in forming “the American myth” and doing so in ways dimly understood by those most indebted to that myth. (Jeffrey cites as notable exceptions to that dimness of understanding such modern figures as Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, and, especially, Wendell Berry.) The book actually begins with a look at how recent key debates in literary theory, particularly those surrounding deconstruction, owe both their logic and their set of concerns to the biblical view of language and to the developmental exploration of that view in patristic and rabbinical thought.
Perhaps the most interesting chapters of the book consider the Middle Ages—and this is not just because Jeffrey is by trade a medievalist. Rather, the Middle Ages provide for us the best and most detailed picture we have of a completely pagan culture that is gradually transformed, remade, by the Word. The heart of this book lies in three compelling chapters entitled “Evangelization and Literacy,” “The Book Without and the Book Within,” and “Authorial Intent and the Willful Reader.” What we see in these chapters is a long, slow process of change, in which the Bible first appears to Germanic pagans as not merely an alien but an incomprehensible document, the only parts of which that seem even remotely commensurable with their lifeworld coming from the Old Testament. Gradually, powerful Christian minds—the most important of whom in England was the Venerable Bede—strive not to make the Bible relevant to pagan culture, but to make pagan minds relevant to biblical culture. This is of course a perpetual task for the Church: as Jeffrey asks near the end of his book, should we not maintain “an active category for texts for which understanding comes about not because we interpret the text, but because, when read accountably, the text interprets us”?
In any event, through the labors of scholars, poets, and translators Scripture begins to be comprehensible to pagan culture, which means that it begins to be recognized for what it is, a scandal and a stumbling block. Whatever answer they give, each generation of Christians must ask the same question: “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” (Tertullian); “What has Horace to do with the Psalter? or Virgil with the Gospel? or Cicero with the Apostle?” (Jerome); “What has Ingeld to do with Christ?” (Alcuin of York). And the answer to this question can often be shocking to the pagans. Jeffrey gives a brilliant account of the great early Anglo-Saxon poem “The Dream of the Rood” in the context of the prevailing norms of heroism and achievement in pre-Christian England. The key line of the poem—“Crist waes on rode” (Christ was on the cross)—“to the pagan mind tersely summarizes a hideous contradiction of any earthly glory.” But for the Christian, unaccountably, the cross is the sign of ultimate victory. “The centrality of the Christian paradox is revealed in this poem as a radical redefinition of Anglo-Saxon notions of the heroic: the cross declares to the dreamer that what transcends in glory any human notion of the heroic is the divine commitment to mercy and reconciliation. This means that honor must now be reconceived in a fashion which can do no less than turn a tribalistic pagan culture inside out.”
The Book thus pronounces an authoritative demand, and those who accept that demand must undergo a profound internal transformation. Jeffrey cites the conversion scene in Augustine’s Confessions as the best example of how someone “through the medium of a book . . . affirms the authority of creation’s Author” and thereby begins to allow God to write his book within the redeemed sinner. Such transformation, however, can never be complete in this world; as sinners we all remain, to one degree or another, “willful readers,” struggling to submit our rebellious will to the will of God as expressed in his Word. Jeffrey provides a wonderful picture of Chaucer’s Wife of Bath as just such a willful reader, who determines that she will be the “auctoritee” who determines the meaning of the biblical text. But of course all of us are, at least some of the time, the Wife of Bath. Hers is not a peculiar sinfulness, but the condition of fallen (and hence “willful”) humanity.
I have a few quibbles with the book, chief among them that Jeffrey has a tendency to judge the Church Fathers by their best representatives, and those representatives by their least disturbing work: his picture of patristic thought about literary culture might look very different if he had given detailed consideration to figures other than Augustine and Jerome, or if he had emphasized passages in their work (especially Jerome’s) that make them seem less broad-minded. This tendency in itself would not be troubling, except that he doesn’t always extend the same indulgence to the English Puritans. If the culturally sophisticated Augustine and Jerome are seen here as the patristic norm, the equally admirable Richard Baxter is presented as a deviation from a narrowly reductionistic Puritan norm. In fact, each of these figures is pretty much equally atypical. Intelligent charity, which all three men exhibit, is always and everywhere in short supply.
But this is only a quibble. Jeffrey has written a fascinating and provocative book, one that deserves wide reading not only among Christians but also among those literary scholars and cultural historians for whom the power of the Bible is an unfortunate historical accident they would prefer to neglect or forget. If this book only made it harder for Protestants to see the Bible as a textual artifact independent of tradition and harder for Catholics to see it as merely the product of tradition, it would be worthwhile indeed. But more than that, it makes a powerful case for believing that Scripture still constitutes much of our culture in ways that are inescapable. The Bible, David Jeffrey tells us, may be scorned, repudiated, or ignored. But it continues to shape the identities of even its bitterest opponents, and most of what they hold most dear comes from it.
Alan Jacobs is Associate Professor of English at Wheaton College.