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Focus On: Literature, Fiction, and the Ongoing Creation of New Bibles

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Literature, Fiction, and the Ongoing Creation of New Bibles

James Crossley
St Mary's University

Though obviously integral to Jewish and Christian literature, the Bible—much like classical mythology—has long functioned as a major resource for poets, playwrights and novelists, at least in western literature and for virtually all of the major figures of its assumed canon from Shakespeare through Mary Shelley to Samuel Beckett. This can often be ornamental—and perhaps unconsciously so, such is its weighty reception—but the Bible as a cultural resource is one that has gathered momentum since the Enlightenment. As Jonathan Sheehan has shown, the Enlightenment produced secularized understandings of the Bible as a philological and pedagogical resource, a literary classic, a moral guidebook, and a historical archive (Sheehan 2007). In The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ (2010), Philip Pullman, himself a regular user of biblical imagery (via Milton) to critique religion and indeed deal with God himself, employed long-established historical-critical approaches popular in both biblical scholarship and fiction to unravel the historical process involved in the creation of a biblical text. In his novel, Pullman explicitly used his two characters to reconstruct a more 'liberal' or 'radical' Jesus behind the more Christ-centered propaganda of the institutionalized church, a staple trope of historical Jesus scholarship (Crossley 2018a).

These sorts of Enlightenment understandings of the Bible discussed by Sheehan were also being thought about amidst ideas of European nationalism and Orientalism. In these contexts, and whatever its ancient roots may or may not have been, constructions of the Bible as integral to Western culture and civilization were expanded, including the idea of the Bible as an English classic. This English classic was, of course, the King James Bible. One helpful way of understanding the centrality of the King James Bible to English literature is to see what happened when it has been thought to come under threat from rivals. For example, T.S. Eliot—himself a heavy user of the Bible as both a cultural and (later) a pious resource—expressed his horror at the publication of the New English Bible New Testament in 1961. For Eliot, this seemingly faddish Bible, fronted by an upstart like C.H. Dodd, lacked the 'verbal beauty of the Authorized Version', adding that 'it would be good if those who have authority to translate a dead language could show understanding and appreciation of their own'. Eliot went further still and emphasized the importance of biblical translation for an English heritage:

The age covered by the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I was richer in writers of genius than is our own, and we should not expect a translation made in our time to be a masterpiece of our literature or, as was the Authorized Version of 1611, an exemplar of English prose for successive generations of writers. We are, however, entitled to expect from a panel chosen from among the most distinguished scholars of our day at least a work of dignified mediocrity. When we find that we are offered something far below that modest level, something which astonishes in its combination of the vulgar, the trivial, and the pedantic, we ask in alarm: 'What is happening to the English language?' (Eliot 1962)

More recently still, the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible in 2011 provided an opportunity for our cultured elites to place plenty of emphasis on its perceived literary merits and centrality to British culture and heritage (Crossley 2016: 254-66). The celebrations of the King James Bible may not have reflected popular support but the Bible would elsewhere still have a significant if implicit presence, namely in one of the most influential and nostalgic creations of British culture presented to the outside world: J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series (see Parks 2018). The Bible's popularity may have waned in the UK but literature's love of it as an intellectual and cultural resource helps keep it alive.

What is significant for much of the official recent praise for the King James Bible is what it tended not to include. The more official understandings of the Bible and the King James Bible as integral to national heritage and history can involve the exclusion of problematic content which does not automatically get associated with palatable liberalism, including the perceived weirdness of extended theological discourses, sexual ethics, violence, etc., even though fiction is simultaneously one of the most obvious places where such issues are explored. But these recent heritage arguments typically excluded the imperialism upon which the contemporary liberal British nation state is built. This was not always deemed an embarrassment. The centrality of the Bible to the imperialist project was prominently represented in Thomas Jones Barker's painting, The Secret of England's Greatness (1863), where Queen Victoria is shown presenting the Bible to an African representative. Nineteenth- and twentieth-century British novelists and writers (e.g., Austen, Kipling, Forster, Conrad) would play their part in tacit cultural support for the Empire (Said 1993), as would the Bible itself. A key reason why the Bible would continue to play an integral role was not simply because it was an established literary resource but because the Bible itself was seen as a dominant civilizing artifact of the West, often in distinction from the Orient (cf. Sherwood 2006). Some of the clearest examples of ongoing Orientalizing uses of the Bible can be found in children's literature, where retellings of famous biblical stories reinforce stereotypical portrayals of the Other, notably in one of the most common biblical stories adapted for children: Daniel in the lions' den (Vander Stichele and Pyper 2012).

In the decades and centuries following the English Civil War, the King James Bible may have put its more overtly antimonarchical rival—the Geneva Bible—in its place and out of harm's way, but its role as the book of the Empire became if not its own gravedigger then at least an oppositional resource at the heart of British imperialism. Constructed alongside the emergence of British socialism was a tradition of politically radical interpretations of the Bible, from the Peasants' Revolt and the seventeenth-century Diggers and Levellers, through Blake and the emergence of trade unionism, to the founding of the National Health Service and the development of the welfare state. George Orwell was a notable promoter of this tradition, despite his elite education with the ever-present imperial Bible and his atheism (e.g., 'Such, Such Were the Joys'), and despite his ambiguous relationship with the British Left. Orwell could certainly be critical of religion and the Bible as instruments of class oppression (e.g., Moses in Animal Farm, 'The Lion and the Unicorn') and inspirations for totalitarianism (e.g., 'Notes on the Way', Nineteen Eighty-Four), but he also viewed figures like Jesus as representing purer socialist origins that were later corrupted, and the language of the kingdom of heaven as an earlier form of envisaging popular solidarity that needed to be reclaimed (Crossley 2018b). This sort of language forms a romanticized and Anglicized memory of the past (and implicit alternative to the totalitarian present) in both Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.

But perhaps the most influential analyst of this radical tradition in the English-speaking world is the Marxist historian Christopher Hill, who stressed the importance of literary analysis for historical research. We might include the role of the reception of the Bible as an integral part of this literary history for Hill, as well as his apologetic reconstruction of radicalism in the seventeenth century at a time when people could not turn to Rousseau or Marx (Hill 1993: 8-10). In The World Turned Upside Down, Hill foregrounded (rescued?) the seditious Geneva Bible in his reading of the English Civil War, even though he fully recognized that its full revolutionary power would dim. Hill's early modern radical readers of the Bible, such as Gerrard Winstanley, could be seen alongside the conventional 'greats' like Milton or Marvel (e.g., in their handling of the symbolism of the garden) (Hill 1972: 145).

The World Turned Upside Down was published in 1972 and is full of qualified optimism in light of the revolutionary fervour of 1968. But like the dampening and domestication of radical enthusiasm he saw in the mid-seventeenth century, Hill soon witnessed the harnessing of social upheavals by the Right, which would crystallize into Thatcherism. In this context he turned to what would become important readings of Milton (e.g., Hill 1978; 1984) where he focused on themes such as the origins of apostasy, the establishment of an illegitimate church, and the stretching out of end times to the more distant future. What drove this, Hill stressed, was the importance of having to wait in exile after the failed revolution and in a time when the wicked flourished and so even God's justice had to be put on trial. This failure was anticipated earlier in Hill's more optimistic work, in a passage which can be read as much a part of Hill's context as Milton's:

Property triumphed. Bishops returned to a state church, the universities and tithes survived. Women were put back into their place. The island of Great Bedlam became the island of Great Britain, God's confusion yielding place to man's order. Great Britain was the largest free-trade area in Europe, but one in which the commerce of ideas was again restricted. Milton's nation of prophets became a nation of shopkeepers. (Hill 1972: 379)

The Experience of Defeat ends more ominously: 'In 1644 Milton saw England as "a nation of prophets". Where are they now?' (Hill 1984: 328)

Yet, Hill-the-Marxist could not hold back revolutionary potential, even if it had appeared to have failed. Radical readings of the Bible (e.g., ideas about God within, no heaven or hell, antinomianism), like radical readings that left their mark on the leisured elite Milton, would survive underground and continue to influence radicalism in the following centuries, whether in the American Revolution, the English 'plebeian radicalism' of the 1790s, William Blake, or the rise of biblical criticism. Hill's Milton was certainly confident in the ultimate victory of good over evil, even if the reign of Christ was pushed into the distant future. Hill pushed the idea of Milton's use of Samson as a type of Christ in Samson Agonistes, combining the beginning of liberation, heroic failure, and the hope of a future divine intervention. Hill further stressed that the history revealed to Adam in Paradise Lost(Books XI and XII) has the appearance of a series of defeats but, likewise, there is hope to be found with the poem providing a challenge 'in the present. Some time we must break out of the cycle of failure and defeat'. Indeed, Hill argued that from Comus to Samson Agonistes, 'Milton depicted characters capable of standing alone in discouraging circumstances against the power of evil' (Hill 1984: 312-13, 319). But we should not forget another lesson Hill took from Milton and his contemporary interpreters of the Bible, namely, that universalistic tendencies in the revolutionary impulses and millenarianism of the 1640s and 1650s could be turned into English imperialism and that the combinations of revolution and restoration paved the way for eighteenth-century Whiggery, again with 'a sense of England's destiny to rule the world' (Hill 1984: 325). This particular reception of the Bible was aware of the ambiguities involved as it shifted through socioeconomic contexts.

Hill's readings were about rethinking England. His younger contemporary, Sheila Rowbotham, published her first book—Women, Resistance and Revolution—at the same time as Hill's World Turned Upside Down (Rowbotham 1972). While the Bible and seventeenth-century England remained of interest for Rowbotham (1972: 15-34), her book represented a changing intellectual and cultural world also emerging after the 1960s, such as her much more internationalist concerns with revolutionary women. But it would also become increasingly clear that the Empire itself was writing back, to use an influential turn of phrase taken from Salman Rushdie (Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin 2002), and tackling the imperialist Bible so embarrassing to official celebrants of the King James Bible today. This could take the form of reactions against the symbol of colonization. For example, the Kenyan novelist Ng?g? wa Thiong'o wrote scathing critiques of colonization which include satirizing Christianity and the Bible as part of the imperial process (e.g., A Grain of Wheat [1967], Matigari [1989]). Other writers such as Barbara Kingsolver in The Poisonwood Bible (1998), could foreground the complexities of the relationship between colonizer, colonized and the Bible. The colonizing Bible was again undermining itself, just as it did in England.

Indeed, in the context of American imperialism, the once colonizing Bible could be presented in literature and fiction as part of a normalized language of the colonized, such as in black communities of the American South (e.g., Maya Angelou) to the extent of the Bible potentially becoming a book of resistance. The Bible of British Empire was again brought back to the heart of the now fading Empire, particularly through immigration from the Commonwealth, but changed once more, this time through retellings in histories of the colonized. The colonizer-colonized tension was picked up by Jamaican-born poet Linton Kwesi Johnson who, on the occasion of its 400th anniversary, noted that the King James Bible is 'a most effective tool of colonisation'. But he simultaneously observed that the Bible was 'the only [book] in my illiterate grandmother's house when I was a child in Jamaica' and stressed its influence on Jamaican popular music and oral culture and everyday discourse where it was cited from memory (Johnson 2011). Indeed, he went further and used the Bible to attack the establishment 'Babylon' (a long tradition in reggae, dub, and hip hop, as well as socialist readings of the Bible), in this case Conservative governments and their handling of austerity and the concerns of black youths after the 1981 and 2011 riots (e.g., 'Di Great Insohreckshan', 'Mekkin Histri'; Johnson 2012).

But even the more radical traditions can then be reappropriated, whether through the commercialization of radicalism or the Empire absorbing the language of the colonized through self-serving liberalizing gestures. Was this not the sort of process at the recent wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle and the sermon of Bishop Michael Curry which invoked Jesus the revolutionary fit into a long history of black spirituality and exegesis? The sermon was widely praised for its provocativeness while simultaneously being accommodated by the British establishment, in this case adaptation of progressive thought typical of that most overt relic of colonial power: the British Royal Family.

As part of his examination of the Bible in literature, Hugh Pyper argued that the ongoing creation of new Bibles in translations, editions, interpretations, etc., has helped generate a means of the Bible's own cultural survival (Pyper 2006). Pyper was employing ideas from memetics, to which we can add an angle based on the dynamics of Empire (not to mention the accompanying new markets for Bibles): the Bible, its literary reception, and constant recreations of new understandings about the Bible, can thus be seen as a case study in either a form of dialectical materialism or postcolonial hybridity and complexity (cf. Bhabha, 1994: 102-122). Indeed, we might note that playing the revolutionary game of seizing power with a similar-but-different sort of power, or conventional postcolonial notions of mimicry, are (unsurprisingly) also integral to the Bible and its literary reception. In all the entanglements we have seen, the Bible does not remain the same, whether reusing the language of the oppressor (e.g., Angelou, Johnson) or reinscribing imperial power for new purposes (e.g., the new republic of heaven in Pullman's His Dark Materials). Memories of a theocratic-imperialistic Bible remain strong but are now more unpalatable to contemporary liberalism and so can instead be flipped to create dystopian imperialism we would presumably want to avoid (e.g., Margaret Atwood's A Handmaid's Tale). Receptions of the Bible in literature are seemingly endlessly refracted through new interpreters and new traditions creating new Jesuses, new Gods, and new Bibles. It is little wonder that someone as comfortable (or uncomfortable) with ambiguity and the creation of literary precursors as Jorge Luis Borges could easily perpetuate readings of the Bible and biblical stories in a labyrinthine and ultimately unknowable universe (see further Walsh and Twomey 2015).


  • Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin (2002). The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures. Second edition; London and New York: Routledge.
  • Bhabha, Homi K. (1994). The Location of Culture. Routledge: London.
  • Crossley, James (2016). Harnessing Chaos: The Bible in English Political Discourse since 1968. Updated edition; London: T&T Clark: Bloomsbury.
  • Crossley, James (2018a, forthcoming). "The Bible in the Work of Philip Pullman." Oxford Biblical Studies Online.
  • Crossley, James (2018b, forthcoming). "The Bible in the Work of George Orwell." Oxford Biblical Studies Online.
  • Eliot, T.S. (1962). "T.S. Eliot on the New English Bible." Sunday Telegraph, 16 December.
  • Hill, Christopher (1972). The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution. London: Penguin.
  • Hill, Christopher (1978). Milton and the English Revolution. London: Faber and Faber.
  • Hill, Christopher (1984). The Experience of Defeat: Milton and Some Contemporaries. London: Faber and Faber.
  • Hill, Christopher (1993). The English Bible and the Seventeenth-Century Revolution. London: Penguin.
  • Johnson, Linton Kwesi (2011). "The King James Bible's language lessons." Guardian, 19 February. 2011)
  • Johnson Linton Kwesi (2012). "Trust between the police and the black community is still broken." Guardian, 28 March.
  • Parks, Sara (2018). "The Bible in the Work of J.K. Rowling." Oxford Biblical Studies Online.
  • Pyper, Hugh S. (2006). An Unsuitable Book: The Bible as Scandalous Text. Sheffield. Sheffield Phoenix Press.
  • Rowbotham, Sheila (1972). Women, Resistance and Revolution. London: Penguin.
  • Said, Edward W. (1993). Culture and Imperialism. London: Chatto & Windus.
  • Sheehan, Jonathan (2007). The Enlightenment Bible: Translation, Scholarship, Culture. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.
  • Sherwood, Yvonne (2006). "Bush's Bible as a Liberal Bible (Strange though that Might Seem)." Postscripts 2: 47–58
  • Vander Stichele, Caroline, and Hugh S. Pyper, eds. (2012). In the Picture: Otherness in Children's Bibles. SBL: Atlanta.
  • Walsh, Richard and Jay Twomey (2015). Borges and the Bible. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press.
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