If, following the line of inquiry of the last essay, which is that the New Testament is to be regarded as an example of epic comedy, why isn’t it also funny? That is because it has to carry the weight of the supernatural and the archetypical, so that every event is an example of the type of thing it is and that means we are forever reliving the inevitable, such as being a Martha, or having a role like John the Baptist, rather than creating new roles and beings out of history and circumstances. Everything is portentous rather than free, and comedy, whether in sitcoms or in standup, has to at least appear to be free, all a matter of the timing that makes a surprise into a joke. Seeing the comedy in the New Testament is therefore a difficult task that is perhaps best left to Rubens, who peoples the sky just above us with cherubs and other humanized abstract notions as if these figures made up a family scene that is endearing rather than ravaging.
This notion that a light touch is not easily accomplished when dealing with the New Testament is a way to again buttress what we know and has been established in other ways. There has always been a lively disagreement in Christianity between two ways to interpret Jesus. There are those who treat Jesus as a decent humane guy who wants us all to just get along. Erasmus is perhaps the main proponent of that point of view and Erasmus does indeed see the comedy in being a Christian. But there are also those who are in awe of the severity of Jesus as the person who has come to Earth to separate brother from sister and to insist that He is the only road to salvation. Such questions can grip the soul only if they are taken as other than comic. Which of these two views of Jesus is to prevail remains a task for history.
What is certainly the case, though, is that the New Testament as a text has a rich legacy, only one part of which is that it asserts a doctrine about the Son of God and the nature of salvation. The sense that Palestine is the center of the world, more than even Rome, is part of that legacy. The religion went to Rome but its heart remained among the olive groves and the hills of Palestine. The character of life as it was pursued there in those times is known to every Sunday School student.
A more abstract but equally ubiquitous sense of life carried by the literary qualities of the New Testament is the idea of the hero, which has already been suggested is key to comedies and tragedies and epics but not to novels. Jesus is the hero of this comedy but he is a mighty strange one. He is hidden from view even as He is seen by everyone and speaks to everyone, sometimes with great candor, though usually not. Jesus has for millennia been held out as the ultimate role model. Little children as well as saints try to be more like Jesus, whether that means being a bit more kind to others or willing to take on great pain and suffering so as to emulate Jesus, to “share” the burden of the Cross. And yet, a person, a reader, should not identify with Jesus. No one can get inside of Jesus’ head because He is, after all, the Son of God, and so everyone dwells on how different He is from us, whether that means that He is simply more perfect in his morality, even if, at a stressful moment, given to a sense of having been betrayed by his Father, that affirming his Arian nature which is that he is primarily a man, or that he is, instead, so removed from us that there is no saying what his consciousness is like at all, Jesus an extension of God into this world.
The texts of the New Testament go out of their way to make the hero sufficiently removed so that we do not see the world from his point of view but are only let in on the point of view He declaims. Everyone hangs on His words, as might be expected of someone who is a preacher, but it is also as if His observations and declamations are each a mystery subject to endless interpretation and leading to the heart of things, which is more than is expected of ordinary preachers. Jesus is distanced from the things He says by the announcement of the kinds of pronouncements they are, as when He speaks in parables, or in his giving set speeches, as is the case with the Sermon on the Mount, and also because His comments are often oracular, having to be weighed for their meaning after they have been spoken, as happens early in his ministry when He preaches at the synagogue and lets it be understood, if one has ears to hear, that He is the one who is to come. The Ten Commandments also spoke volumes. And so the words of Jesus are also his legacy, that legacy not limited to His act of atonement for the sins of mankind.
Another way in which Jesus the divine figure is distanced from the story of Jesus is that pivotal events are not described from his point of view or what might be taken to be the point of view of the rabbi figure who is being compassionate when he asks who will throw the first stone. Yes, beseeching God for having abandoned him is so resounding a departure from an Olympian distance between events that swirl around Him and his own self that it leads to speculation that it was sneaked into the text without a consideration of whether it was uniform with the overall plan for how to tie together all the remarks attributed to Jesus by making them oracular rather than personal. But other than in that remark, the story of Jesus is not told up close and personal. Jesus is not shown emerging from the tomb after three days there; it is left for D. H. Lawrence to imagine what it is like to be an earthquake survivor. Rather, it is others who discover the empty tomb. That accomplishes the goal of deepening the mystery of the event. It is a miraculous event, like the crossing of the Red Sea as that is imagined by Poussin: so momentous, so much a renting of the fabric of the universe, that it is approached only from a time just a bit afterwards when the miraculous event is discovered to have happened, not the moment when it happened.
Another literary effect that puts Jesus at a distance is that we observe him through the eyes of those who observe him: the leper, or those about to stone the shamed woman.There is no use of the personal rumination that will become very well known in the novel but is already available in the drama, even if the story of Jesus is very much told as a drama divided into acts: childhood, early ministry, the coming to Jerusalem that ends in betrayal, crucifixion and resurrection. This is a dumbshow that can be acted out as a pageant, as indeed has been the case for millennia, which makes the interspersion of dialogue and declamation all the more jarring, even though it takes up so much of the text.
Jesus himself is unknown. No one speaks of nor does He offer anything but cryptic observations on what He is thinking. That literary choice by the gospel writers makes him a figure of deepest mystery, a man not known, as are other heroes, by their traits and the way those traits supply context for specific behavior, and instead known as a figure without character except as that is inferred of him on usually insufficient grounds: that He is a figure of sorrows, who pines for the world, or that He is humane, or that he is ruthless in his assertion of his primacy, or that He is remarkably unassuming about his true identity. Each of these suggestions about him has a long history, while the text can only be credited with having prompted such speculation when the creature presented by the text is a giant void, whether that is of the cosmos, or of the unknowable, or of what God properly apprehended as such would be like, which is totally opaque. It is difficult to cite other texts which present hero or God in this manner. What Moses is like is clear, and what the various faces of God are like in the Old Testament is also clear: willful, jealous, forgiving, arbitrary and altogether not a pleasure to be around. Very few, Abraham, Moses and Job among them, can put up with God.
The extraordinary entity that is Jesus, in what He is as well as in what He says and what He does, brings with it something new in that God is neither a creature of ideas or passions but only this extraordinary differentness that cannot be penetrated. This is a literary understanding of the God figure that will be lost from sight because it is so foreign to the pagan mind set and the religious ritualism that will take over the Christian religion until the otherness of the God figure is revisited by Erasmus and then unfolded in the modern world. Not even Meister Eckhart can be credited with this insight since for him God was in everyone because of His abstractness not because of His emptiness. Certainly St. Thomas had other things on his mind because he made of God a set of perfect properties, and even St. Anselm made of God a creature that had the essential quality of being-- and being reasonable, at that.
The other thing that Erasmus realizes about Jesus is that people can become Jesus like in this new sense of being as bottomless and non-defined as he is. To use Erasmus’ phrase, they can become “fools for God”, which is a way of saying oblivious to opinion and perhaps to themselves.
This inversion of the idea of Jesus so what can be said of Him can now be said of everyone is a very different idea of individuality than is provided by other accounts of the concept. Individuality is not self-interest or as Simmel puts that concept, “atomic individualism”, whereby everyone is similar to everyone else in pursuing their own interests within the fray of social life, that being an invention of the Eighteenth Century Scots or, if one prefers, something that has always been with us. Ancient people certainly knew their self-interests when it came to trading and war. Nor is individuality simple distinctiveness, every one of us being “unique”, which is the view of it supplied by Talcott Parsons and others who saw people as differentiated from fellow consumers by having an unusual set of traits and therefore consumption habits. Nor is individualism the putative equality that arises during the Age of Revolution. That guarantees the right to vote and to trial by jury, not an original personality.
Rather, individuality is the complexity of a consciousness, whether or not the state recognizes it as having rights and whether or not others have a very different consciousness but have simply arrived at the same level of complexity as have some other folks. This was the definition of consciousness used by Spinoza, that philosopher of all that is modern, a point that is generally recognized today, someone who also defined what is characteristically modern by saying that joy was insatiable, and so separated himself and everyone else who was modern from the ancient tradition that there are limits to all good things.
Scholars have placed the beginning of the idea of individuality at a number of points, that concept taken to refer to the infinite internality of each personality, whether or not that personality is different or not from some other personality. Harold Bloom says that it begins with Shakespeare because before him there is no full throated presentation of individuals, people able to jump out of their stereotypes. Ernst Cassirer place the emergence of individuality with the Italian Renaissance philosophers. Hegel, in his early theological writings, does come closer to the mark by placing it with the origins of Christianity. That is the beginning of the modern world because for the first time every individual is seen as worthy of the undivided attention and concern of God. Hegel, however, states this as a doctrinal point, when the truth of the matter is that it emerges from the literary structure of the Gospels and so as an apperception before it is a doctrine. The “eureka” moment comes from appreciating the internality of Jesus and transferring that point of view to every one of our selves. What begins as singular becomes general and, moreover, characteristic of what is considered modern.
What has been said in this essay and in all the others in this series of essays on the Bible is quite a burden to place on the literary qualities of a famous text that is best known for the facts it attests to and the doctrines developed there, and so perhaps some explanation of the relation of literature to religion is called for, especially in how different the Gospels are from the Old Testament which is, after all, a library of books composed over the course of a thousand years. Yet the Old Testament is remarkably uniform in tone, however much there may be development in the language or through the incorporation of Greek literary forms or in the broadening of its moral scope so as to include all of humanity rather than just some tribes of nomads (that last something of a canard in that the people of “Genesis” are not unaware of the respect in which they should hold strangers and other tribes; it is only that they are often unable to hold themselves to account.) The God of “Genesis” is recognizable as the God of “Job”: fuming, demanding, and somehow not very effective in the face of his creatures except so as to require them to proclaim their obedience, He having given up more draconian measures, at least for the while. People are mean and shortsighted from beginning to end, some few flawed heroes emerging every once in awhile, all the way through Maccabees, to do what they think God wants them to do.
The differences in the books are those of form rather than genre. Forms of literature are defined by the communication occasions that provide them with their distinct purposes, while genres were defined by the distinct structures and linguistic mechanisms that give rise to distinct emotions. The novel and the lyric poem are forms while comedy, tragedy and melodrama are genres. The most well known books in the Old Testament are narratives, which is an even more fundamental term than form or genre in that it refers to the telling of sequences of events that may or may not have been shaped into stories. Chronicles need not tell stories, which always involve final outcomes that are somehow related to initial events. The presumptive motive for all narratives is to satisfy the desire to find out what happens next, stories able to defy both time and space as it collapses one or the other or jump cuts back and forth between different interrelated stories that are happening simultaneously, perhaps continents apart.
There are other kinds of writing in the Old Testament other than stories. There are legal codes, such as “Deuteronomy”, and there are books of prayer, such as the Psalms (the category of prayer to include the wisdom literature, in that “Ecclesiastes” is perhaps best understood as a book of reflection, which is one of the things that prayer does). The main division in the early books is between narrative and law and that roughly follows the divide between the P and the J text which, if one presses, yields a slight difference in tone as well: P texts more about obedience that is to be unquestioned, J texts more about the complexities of the human situation. It should be no surprise that other Semitic literatures are also divided in this way: Gilgamesh a narrative, Hammurabi’s Code, a legal text.
If it makes some sense, though, to treat Semitic literature through the theory of genres, it ought also to make some sense to treat the Greek literature as a set of forms: the history, the lyric, the epic, the drama. The trouble with this is that the various forms of Western literature—the novel, the situation comedy, the movie, the reality show, journalism, and all the rest—are treated, for the most part, as if one is derived from the other, some saying the novel is generated from journalism, or that the situation comedy from sentimental comedy. That, however, rids these forms of the reasons they got structured the way they did in the first place. Television advertisers wanted to sponsor episodic programs for the same reason the pioneer sponsors on radio wanted to put on music programs that originated every week from some hotel ballroom: regular scheduling would encourage a return audience. The novel is an outgrowth of the accounts of the exotic to be found in the early eighteenth century penny press. What happened was that was tamed into being a view into the exciting lives lived by other people’s families. Form cannot be reduced to genre.
This belies our aesthetic predisposition to understand literature in terms of its genres. There is such a strong sense of genre in each Greek work that one can speak of the distinctive tone of specific authors working within a genre that the idea that these are different forms of literature gets flooded out. Herodotus can be easily enough read as a tragedy and Thucydides as an epic. The distinctive feeling of each work shines through, even if both are so clearly working in the form of history. The Western imagination has been so dominated by Greek aesthetics that it is only in the past century that critics have begun to take the measure of Semitic works for their literary value, despite the fact that Western audiences have been so long familiar with the contents of the two testaments. The best modern attempt to sort out these issues of form and genre remains, of course, Northrop Frye’s marvelous 1957 book, “The Anatomy of Criticism”.
So, to stick with the theory of genre, we can say the following of the Western religious imagination, and maybe all religious imagination: it is caught up in the conflict between comedy and epic. We bounce about between the Apocalypse and the simple warmth of fellow feeling, crying and laughing at our everyday quandaries of marriage or employment seen in the light of cosmic history, just as we cringe or rejoice at the thought of the Second Coming of the Lord. It isn’t easy to be religious given the amount of emotional juggling that is required to somehow unify these two tones. Otherwise, one is likely to fall into an emotionally stilted version of a religious vision, settling for one of these tones without accounting for the other, a Christian appreciation of the world reduced either into a Rick Warren endorsement of better living through religiosity or a bitterness about one’s depravity that would drive us all to the desert if we thought about it enough.
Some respite from the onslaught of a religious vision is provided by seeing that the most basic religious emotions are versions of literary ones, the comic and the tragic, as well as the romantic and the pastoral and all the other literary genres that are nothing more than the invocation of some specific emotion or set of emotions that go by that name. Religion, at least in the West, attempts to deal with the epic and the comic at once, projecting a future history of a civilization that will come into being when Christ returns, meanwhile the world a place of unending warfare, however many are the heroes who die, which is where “The Iliad” leaves it. And yet the world is not just a place where people agonize, as they do in Greek tragedy, about the fate of their souls and their obligations to the gods; it is also a place of everyday life, of love affairs mired in confusion, where we can all identify with such an everyday truth, and where everyday life is also full of pretensions to wisdom by sophists, politicians and even priests. Any pastor has the duty to ameliorate tragic emotions as well as call attention to when one’s soul is at stake.
The Bible reveals to its readers a number of religious virtuosi as part of a book that manages to establish its own unique authority as not only wise but also true in all its details, even its exact arrangement of words a code for deciphering very special things about the future. The rarity of this species of literature--a Bible-- is the subject of Northrop Frye’s “The Great Code”. But the unique power of the Bible is somewhat misleading as to how people are impressed by the book. Ordinary religious believers suffer the full sweep of human emotions, and that includes superficial ones, and not only because they are all there in the Bible as well. Rather, it is because the set of emotions which humans feel, as those are indicated or even invented by literature, are there for everyone to feel, the stock of life. Real people, and that includes all parishioners, do not have to be wise or saintly even if their doctrine counsels them to be so. Normal people are not as good or bad as they are in the Bible or in Church. The saving grace of the Bible being a set of literary genres is that, in the final analysis, it is only that.