Knowledge of the Bible gave Anglo-Saxon poetry its resonance and depth

I had lunch with a young evangelical the other day and we talked about the Bible. This led me to reflect that I do not often have conversations about the Bible, and that interest in the Holy Scriptures as such (as opposed to proof texting, which means picking out quotes that back up your opinion on some controversial subject) seems to be a rare thing these days. This is a great pity, I think, especially in the light of the Second Vatican Council which was supposed to inaugurate a new appreciation of the Scriptures among Catholics.

That Catholics are not as interested in Scripture as they might be could be a reflection on how academics treat the Scriptures. I will never forget (and I fear never get over) the way the Scriptures were taught so badly in the Roman Pontifical University that I attended. The course on the synoptic gospels was good, and we had a lively and interesting teacher, who clearly loved her subject; but the courses on the Old Testament were dismal in the extreme. Before I studied theology, I had read English Literature at university, and in my humble opinion the approach to Scripture could learn a great deal from the study of Eng Lit. In other words, start with the story the Old Testament tells, and spare us the memorable (in all the wrong senses) opening lectures on who the Hittites were.

Once upon a time there used to be a whole industry dedicated to what was called “the Bible as Literature”. A search on Google confirms that this industry is up and running still, but I can’t say that it has ever impinged much on my seminary studies. And yet the Bible is literature, isn’t it? We can legitimately ask what makes the Psalms good poems, and it is right too to look at the four gospels are the fruits of four different stylists at work.

My favourite book of the Bible (this was one of the topics covered over lunch), as far as the New Testament goes, must be the Letter to the Hebrews, a tour de force of rhetoric. As for the Old Testament, I confess to loving Tobit and Ruth, again as perfect self-contained works of art which expound timeless truths. The same goes for Jonah, one of the best comic tales with a serious message ever produced. My interlocutor was very keen on Jeremiah, whom I admitted to not knowing well; and he also said he liked the Old Testament more than the New.

There was once a time in England when people spent hours discussing the Scriptures; and it used to be said that the King James Bible was one of the great monuments of the English language. But this healthy interest in Scripture long predates the Reformation. In my first year at university I had the great privilege of studying Anglo-Saxon Literature with the late Bruce Mitchell and the late Reggie Alton both of whom opened my eyes to the fact that the first speakers of English produced a literature that was, in a sense, written in the shadow of the Bible. One of the greatest poems in our language is the Dream of the Rood, a meditation on the Cross and its meaning. And what about the epic poem Beowulf? According to Bruce Mitchell “Beowulf was the first boy scout”, and the poem was, though set in a pagan past, inspired by the deeds of heroism that pervade the Old Testament. Wikipedia’s entry has this to say, which I think is a fair summary:

Whether seen as a pagan work with “Christian coloring” added by scribes or as a “Christian historical novel, with selected bits of paganism deliberately laid on as ‘local color’”, as Margaret E Goldsmith did in The Christian Theme of Beowulf, it cannot be denied that Christianity pervades the text, and with that, the use of the Bible as a source. Beowulf channels Genesis, Exodus, and Daniel in its inclusion of references to God’s creation of the universe, the story of Cain, Noah and the flood, devils or the Devil, Hell, and the Last Judgment.

My own view is that Beowulf is a Christological poem, though it can be enjoyed by people who are not receptive to its religious message too. But the important point is that knowledge of Scripture and the flourishing of the saeculum are intimately connected. Our Anglo-Saxon forbears were great artists, and they knew the Scriptures; these two go together, and do not pull in opposite directions. It was their knowledge of the Bible, among other things, that gave the poetry of the Anglo-Saxons its resonance and depth, a quality that is sadly lacking in so much of the literature of subsequent ages.

Our current ignorance of the Scriptures represents a terrible loss to our culture. So: next time you sit down to lunch with someone, why not ask them which bit of the Bible they like best? Who knows, you might be in for a pleasant surprise. You might stimulate their interest or revive your own. Whichever way, it sure beats discussing what was on the telly last night.