How Writers Use the Bible

Editor’s Introduction: one of Jack Adamson’s scholarly interests was the Bible. For many years, he taught a course at the University of Utah on the Bible as literature.  In this essay, no doubt originally delivered as a lecture (but whose provenance I haven’t been able to determine), Adamson talks about the Bible as foundational knowledge for understanding a great deal of literature written in English and bemoans that students and Americans in general know so little about it. 

How Writers Use the Bible

Jack H. Adamson Undated ms., ca. 1972

I have an interesting and difficult job: at the University of Utah, more than any other man, I try to keep alive among the students some knowledge of the Bible. If you are inclined to think that because Utah has a strong religious flavor to its culture that the young people know the Bible, at least in any complete or significant way, you are simply mistaken. I recall once that with a class of 35 bright and sophisticated students, I began a study of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. I told the students that there was no way they could understand the work without some knowledge of the Bible, including the Books of Jonah and Job. Let us start with the simplest, easiest and one of the best books in the Bible, I said, the Book of Jonah. What happens in that book? They all said that a “whale” had swallowed a man, which is technically not true, but beyond that they knew nothing. As for the Book of Job it might as well have been written in Martian.

It was this incredible ignorance that led me to feel that I must do something about it. I found that I was not alone in my concern for the fate of the Bible. The Gideon Society, which puts the Bibles in motels, became worried because no one was stealing their Bibles any more; the Wall Street Journal ran a front page article in 1969 pointing out that Bible sales of 19 million in 1957 had dropped to fourteen million in 1967. Further they said that sales analyses proved that 75% of those purchased were given as gifts, presumably from parents to children which made it almost automatically certain that the children would think they were being done good by and therefore wouldn’t read them.

Next George Gallup got into the act: he polled the American public. 60% of the American public didn’t know that the Holy Trinity is; 66% couldn’t say who delivered the Sermon on the Mount and 79% couldn’t name a single Old Testament prophet. Those percentages would be even higher today according to the Wall Street Journal. Then, belatedly as always, the educators got into the act. Teachers of literature discovered that their students were unable to read as simple a piece as Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea on their own. At the end of that story, the old man, his hands torn by the line which he had held in fighting the great fish, with the mast of his little sailing vessel over his shoulder, wearily, with the last of his life’s strength, leaves the harbor and climbs a hill on his way home. Students would read this without for a moment connecting it with the passion and death of Christ; and as for the old man’s continual dreaming of the young lions, a phrase and symbol from the Old Testament, it might as well have been written in Greek. Now many writers have to endure the fact that their books don’t sell; but no writer can endure that his artistry should not be understood, that is if he has any.

So out at Newton High School in Massachusetts, a survey was conducted. Newton, I should tell you, is believed by many to be the finest example in Massachusetts of what a public high school should be and there a little Bible quiz was given to college-bound juniors and seniors. As teachers read those quizzes they realized for the first time the extent of the cultural deprivation. Several students believed that Sodom and Gomorrah were lovers (that would be some love affair); that the Gospels were written by Matthew, Mark, Luther and John; that the four Horsemen appeared on the Acropolis; that Jesus was baptized by Moses; that Jezebel was Ahab’s donkey and that the stories by which Jesus taught were called parodies. They could not complete: “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares.” 84 percent could not complete: “The truth shall make you free.” The same percentage could not complete “A soft answer turneth away wrath”; “Pride goeth before a fall;” “The love of money is the root of all evil.” And so Newton High began to offer the same kind of course that I offer here ( I hope mine is a little higher level) and within a year two students got perfect scores: one was named Cohen and one was named O’Connell, and even the parents who classified themselves as nonbelievers expressed satisfaction with the results of the course.

This concern about cultural deprivation is not new. In the last century the great English poet and scholar Matthew Arnold became aware of the devastation that was accompanying the growing awareness of Darwin’s then new theory of evolution and also the Higher Criticism of the Bible, a textual and cultural criticism which had been initiated by the German scholars who were then the best in the Western world. Arnold believed that these two things would seriously affect the possibility of the literal belief in the Bible, at least in the theory of plenary inspiration which held that each and every word revealed the mind of God and therefore equally inspired. No, people were beginning to look at the Bible with new eyes a hundred years ago, but Arnold, as a writer, could not endure the cultural loss that he thought was coming. He therefore wrote the now famous essay called “Literature and Dogma,” in which he pleaded that we should continue to value and appreciate the literature of the Bible even if it should lose for us its dogmatic relevance.

Succeeding writers have continued to use the Bible, and it is the manner of their usage that I here wish to explore briefly. John Steinbeck writes a novel called East of Eden. The title should immediately make us aware that he is going to echo a Biblical theme, which he does: there are two brothers, one of whom the Father loves and approves and one whom he rejects and that rejection leads to frustration and violence. It is of course the Cain and Abel theme.

Or there is the French novelist and Nobel Prize winner, Albert Camus, who writes a novel called The Fall. It is set in Amsterdam, the scene (he says) of the greatest crime ever committed against humanity. He means the Nazi hounding and slaughter of the Jews there, which was brought home to us by the diary of Anne Frank, Is there any hope for for fallen man? is one of the questions he asks. One of the themes of the book is that of the doves. One can’t see them but can hear them flying, circling up there; they want to land somewhere on earth but there is no place where they can. Anyone who knows his New Testament knows that the dove is a symbol of God’s spirit and grace. In Camus’ novel, the grace is there waiting for man to make himself worthy. But it is not quite as simple as that, for Camus was an agnostic; technically he did not really believe in God’s grace, so then what is his novel about? Well, that is another story and another day.

Or there is Clifford Odets’ fine play, Flowring Peach. Odets as a young man was a militant communist and his play Waiting for Lefty was for a time in the 30’s the handbook of the American Communist Party. But something happened to him on the way to Utopia and somewhere along the line his cultural Judaism began to compete with and finally overtake his intellectual ideology. Culture is nearly always stronger than intellect. Nearly always. In any case Flowring Peach is a modern version of Noah. As the play opens we find that Noah is an old man whose life is over; his children have disappointed him; his wife nags (she is a kind of Jewish mother if you know the type) and so Noah has turned away from life and has found solace in gin. He is a not very happy drunk. And then something happens: his God speaks to him; his God touches Noah and suddenly his muscles find a new tone; his voice is masculine and young again; he is the father, the lover of his wife and the ruler of his children, whom he tells about the destruction of the world that is imminent and which they all must escape. Surely you now see that Odets is doing something a little different from the previous writers, but just as legitimate. Instead of using a modern subject which echoes the Bible, he has reversed the procedure. He is using a Biblical subject to echo modern times and our greatest modern concern: will the world indeed be blown up?

A rather famous scientist whose name you would all know used to tell me that the odds were 60-40 against our ever reaching the year 2050. Well, we could say with a sigh of relief, I will be safely dead by then, but what of our children? Well, you might say, I’ve given up on them, spoiled, affluent, credit card hippies who have rejected the ethic of work and all sense of responsibility. All right. But what of the grandchildren? They are wonderful. They redeem all the pain that our children caused and we must save the world for them.

And so back to Odets’ play. There is a boy named Japheth, a sort of college liberal who says that he will not go aboard the ark. What kind of a God is it, he asks, who would destroy people? This God ought to be building roads, lines of communication, that would help people understand and love one another. And so if the world is to be destroyed, Japheth wants to die with the rest, the rest, not to be saved with the elite. The Mother argues with him. Look, she says, our people have historically lived with one disaster after another. I cannot save the world; I am sorry for other people but I can only think about my own family. My family must survive. That is my concern and you are my family. No, says Japheth, I won’t go. Noah knows that the laws are a thousand years old and are wiser than people, and so he will obey. However he has also discovered, like most fathers, that there is no point in arguing with his son, who is a university programmed liberal, and so he sensibly knocks the boy unconscious and carries him aboard the ark. At the end of the play the rains have subsided, all the women are pregnant, and a dove sent out from the ark, returns not with an olive branch but with a spray of flowering peach.

What does that mean? Well, I’d need a detailed analysis to say it all, but among other things it expresses a modified hope. Something and someone will survive and life will go on. But you can’t help admiring that college a little bit. Maybe more than a little. Well, I have made a point, but I now have a deeper point to make. Unless I make it carefully, I may offend some, although that will not be my intention. So first, let me make the point bluntly: our most profound writers use the Bible as a source of myth. It’s as simple as that.

So now I need to say a word or two about myth in its modern meaning. There was a time as I’m sure you are aware when to say that something was a myth was to say that it was non‑factual and therefore untrue. But the meaning has changed. Now we tend to feel that myths reveal most profoundly the essence and nature of a culture. If you were to ask an anthropologist what is the most important thing about any early culture, its pots, its customs, or its myths, while he would like to have all three he would suggest that in the myths you have the deepest expression of the mind and culture of a people. C.S. Lewis, a devout Anglican and a brilliant scholar, once defined myth as a symbolic narrative; that is, he was suggesting that it was profoundly true but at a symbolic and not at a literal level of meaning. I liked what he said but thought he didn’t go far enough. My own definition of a myth therefore is this: myth is a symbolic narrative which evokes awe and wonder and deals with the deepest concerns of a culture. If the myth does not evoke awe and wonder then it does not function for you. We have always had two great treasuries of myth so defined and those are the Greek and the Hebrew. For many centuries in the past, writers worked, reworked, and overworked the Greek myths until readers wearied and tired of them. Walt Whitman said that the debt to Athens had been overpaid, and that we should put up a sign, To Rent on Mount Parnassus. In recent times however Freud had very effectively revived the myth of Oedipus, which many writers have used, and James Joyce has written one of the great novels of the 20th century about Ulysses. At the same time Joyce was writing Ulysses, the very great German writer, Thomas Mann, was writing his series of novels about Joseph, a figure who comes to us from the treasury of Hebrew myth. You understand that I do not suggest, nor does Mann, that Joseph was not an actual character; in fact, he very likely was, but we do say that he is also a mythical character as we are trying to use the term, and I think our most profound writers are always striving for the mythic; to say that a writer successfully arouses mythic wonder is about the best one can say. If a myth functions yet has universal appeal, it means that it contains within it universal experience. Thomas Mann was convinced that every man and woman relived in some way the great myths of his culture. James Joyce believed that too, and so in his Ulysses, a Dublin Jew named Leopold Bloom, relives in 24 hours the 24 books of Homer’s Ulysses. And so Thomas Mann’s Joseph is Everyman; similarly Freud said that in some sense every man was Oedipus, every woman Electra and when we read those myths, he said, we felt that old awe stealing over us, because we realized that we were reading about ourselves. So let us see how Mann uses myth. The boy Joseph you remember, because he was the son of the wife Jacob loved most, a wife whom he lost in childbirth.   He is highly favored of his father. The boy continually has dreams in which his superiority to his brothers is established. And so while they work in the fields, Joseph walks around like a prince, in a fancy coat, and is given a university tutor. Then one day Joseph is sent off to the summer pasture land where his brothers are working with the flocks. They see him coming from a distance and they say to one another, “Behold, this dreamer cometh.”

Out of their rage and envy, the seize the boy and are about to murder him, but through the intercession of one of the brothers, they cast him into a pit, an old dry well, the walls of which are too smooth to be climbed. There in that dark pit the boy awaits starvation and the agony of long death. But he suffers an even greater agony, an agony of spirit. He has gone down into the pit in a symbolic sense and, says Mann, every other human being who ever lives will do the same.

What does he mean by that? We are all born into a comfortable, secure world, and unless we are desperately unlucky, we are born to parents who idealize us, and grandparents who worship us. We are made to feel as children that we are very special, almost unique, wholly admirable and always to be loved. And then sometime, say about adolescence, we first encounter cultural or personal hatred we discover that people dislike us, perhaps even hate us, because we are different, because we are Mormons or Jews or Catholics or WASPs or blacks or whatever. And beyond all that cultural hatred that exists in the world there are people who simply dislike us personally. A wise Frenchman once said that Americans were the world’s perpetual children because they always wished to be liked by everyone and thought that was possible, but if so America has gone down into the pit in the last few years.

More than any other people in the world right now, I should think, we feel the force of Mann’s mythic art and that ultimate human truth of the Biblical account on which it is based. America was born under the influence of two most potent myths: the Golden Age and the Garden of Eden before the serpent. All of Europe’s ancient problems would be corrected here. We were sure of that. Send us your sick, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Here there will be equality, democracy; brotherhood. And then the disillusionment set in. The American Dream. How the young people sneer at that phrase. Their disillusionment at our failures is all the more intense because of the high hopes. We parents try to be wiser. We are Joseph, and we are in the pit, our souls seared by the contempt and scorn of our brothers. Our innocence, our naivete, our pride made it inevitable that we should go into the pit; we deserved it. What happened to us is our own fault. But Joseph emerged from the pit to save the very brothers who put him there. Will we? I don’t know, but our mythic consciousness suggests to us that sensibility.

To conclude: In Western culture, we have two great sources of mythic reference: the Greek and the Hebrew. For some reason, in our time, the Hebrew is the more potent. It has not always been, but it is now. And that is why I teach the Bible to young students.

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