'Everyone communes with the Bible,' wrote Marilyn Butler recently in her Cambridge inaugural lecture, commenting on the recent re-inclusion of the Biblical canon in the canon of English literature. Northrop Frye celebrated the literary rediscovery of Scripture in The Great Code, and now Frank Kermode and Robert Alter, two critics who have given a new rigour and seriousness to the 'Bible as literature' movement, have brought together a constellation of literary and Biblical specialists, from both sides of the Atlantic, to explain the Bible from a literary standpoint for what the blurb calls 'cultivated general readers'. It is hard to see how the task could be performed better. At its best, the Guide does not merely introduce lines of interpretation unfamiliar to the non-specialist, it also breaks new ground; and, as would be expected from the editors' own works, it seeks to appeal to readers who are prepared to open their minds to literary theory. Thus it avoids the kind of uncritical aestheticism which used to spoil 'literary' readings of the Bible, while not being in the grip of any doctrinaire method. The editors' positive thesis - that the Bible can be read, in Jowett's famous phrase, 'like any other book' - is ably vindicated by almost all the contributors. There is also a negative thesis: that previous Biblical criticism has been defective in literary perception - of which more later.
LRB 5 May 1988 | PDF Download