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The Bible And Literature: A Personal View From Northrop Frye

Northrop Frye was uniquely suited to the task of setting the Bible in its literary and cultural context. Hailed by the New York Review of Books as "the most distinguished literary theorist writing in English", he was also an ordained minister of the United Church. His eighteen books, including Fearful Symmetry: a Study of William Blake, The Anatomy of Criticism and The Educated Imagination and his well-know study of the Bible The Great Code: The Bible and Literature, along with the hundreds of essays, articles and reviews he has written, have profoundly influenced an entire generation of literary criticism.

The first part of the series, consisting of 15 programs, is concerned with the two kinds of unity exhibited by the Bible's narrative and imagery. The second part, consisting of the final 15 programs, is concerned with the concept of revelation: what it is and how the Bible communicates it.

Each program is accompanied by its own program manual which includes a complete transcript of the lecture along with a teacher's guide; an outline of the key facts presented in the lecture portion; a list of Biblical passages cited; suggestions for supplementary reading including cross references to The Great Code and questions for essays and discussion.

The Northrop Frye lectures, a series of 30 programs, is available as a set of 15 one hour sets, or in two sets 7 1/2 hours each (Programs 1-15 and 16-30).

Part One: Programs One to Fifteen

In this section, Professor Frye examines narrative and imagery in the Bible. The Bible's narrative is its story line. It begins where time begins, with the creation of the world; it ends where time ends, with the apocalypse. In between the narrative surveys human history, or an aspect of human history, under the names of Adam and Israel. The existence within the narrative of a recurring pattern - the progression from fall to deliverance - suggests that the shape of the Bible is essential to its meaning.

Further, the Bible's repeated use of such nouns as city, water, tree, bread, wine, temple, and so on, clearly points to a unifying principle in its imagery. Professor Frye shows throughout these images how the Bible polarizes the world between an ideal kingdom and a demonic kingdom - or what would in traditional language be called a heaven and a hell.

Program One: Introduction: An Approach to the Bible
Professor Frye explains the origins of his course on the Bible and Literature and his approach to the Bible through its narrative and imagery, an approach that is consistent with the way that he has examined other works as a literary critic.
27 minutes

Program Two: The Shape of The Bible and Literature: A personal view
The Bible contains a series of U-shaped narratives in which the Israelites forsake their God, fall into catastrophe, pray to their God and are sent a deliverer or judge who frees the people and restores them to prosperity. Frye describes six such rises and falls from Eden to the Second Coming.
27 minutes

Program Three: Images of Paradise: Trees and Water
To the desert-dwelling Israelites, the oasis, a garden with trees and Water, represents a paradisal image. The Tree of Life and Water of Life images occur in the book of Genesis.
27 minutes

Program Four: Parody and Manifest Demonic: Trees and Water
As well as the apocalyptic or paradisal images of the Tree of Life and the Water of Life, the Bible also contains the demonic images of the Tree of Death and the Water of Death. All images in the Bible are binary and form a picture of what is desirable or undesirable - heaven or hell - depending on the context in which they appear.
27 minutes

Program Five: Sexual Imagery: Bride and Bridegroom
The relationship between the individual and the group is expressed by the sexual metaphor "where two are one". In the Bible this metaphor expands to include the images of the Bride and the Bridegroom where the Bride represents all men and women and the Bridegroom is the King of Israel or Christ.
27 minutes

Program Six: Great Whore and the Forgiven Harlot
In contrast to the image of the Bride is the demonic figure of the "Great Whore" so-called because she is spiritually, not sexually, unfaithful. There are three categories for female figures in the Bible: the maternal, the marital and what may be called the "Forgiven Harlot".
27 minutes

Program Seven: Pastoral and Agricultural Imagery: Part 1
As the nation of Israel passes through its pastoral, agricultural and urban phases, the imagery of the Bible reflects these changes. Frye shows how the sacrificial lamb and the offering of blood were given prime importance during the pastoral period.
27 minutes

Program Eight: Pastoral and Agricultural Imagery: Part 2
As Israel's economy changed from pastoral to agricultural, man stopped offering animal sacrifices to God and began to offer "first fruits". In the Bible, the concept of sacrifice evolved eventually into the Eucharist symbols of bread and wine.
27 minutes

Program Nine: World of Angels
In the Bible, angels are messengers between God and man. There are two orders of angels: seraphim and cherubim.
27 minutes

Program Ten: Leviathan, Dragons and the Anti-Christ
There are three major demons in the Bible. The first is the Leviathan, a great sea monster which represents the world of time and space. The second is the dragon representing evil. The third is the anti-Christ which is any heathen god or ruler who attributes divinity to himself.
27 minutes

Program Eleven: The Hero From Across the Sea
The "fisher king" legend is found in the Bible. Christ represents the hero from across the sea who symbolically marries the land (Bridegroom and Bride) and spiritually rejuvenates the kingdom.
27 minutes

Program Twelve: The Double Mirror: Exodus and the Gospel
Using parallels between the Exodus and the Gospel stories, Frye shows how the Old Testament and the New Testament form a double mirror, interpenetrating and reflecting each other. The New Testament reveals what the Old Testament conceals.
27 minutes

Program Thirteen: The Metaphor of Kingship
In the Bible, the King is identified with the land, as champion in times of prosperity and as scapegoat in times of ruin. Similarly, Christ is both King and scapegoat, King in the spiritual world and mock King in the physical world.
27 minutes

Program Fourteen: King, Priest and Prophet
In the Bible, Christ is presented as the only figure who combines the secular power of the king, the spiritual power of the priest, and the visionary power of the prophet.
27 minutes

Program Fifteen: The Question of Primogeniture
The law of primogeniture by which rights of inheritance are passed to the eldest male is frequently overridden in the Bible. Frye explains how the recurrence of this practice emphasizes the priority of divine intervention over man-made law.
27 minutes

Part Two: Programs Sixteen to Thirty

This section is concerned with the nature of revelation in the Bible.

There is, for Professor Frye, a progression in the Bible in the understanding of revelation. there are seven successive stages of revelation: creation; revolution, which is the exodus from Egypt; law; wisdom, which is the individualizing of the law; prophecy; the Gospels, which internalize the preceding three stages and provide an account of a society as an individual man; and Apocalypse, which presents the final revelation. Each of these stages recreates in a larger context, the stage before it. The Bible is continuous, alive and always recreating itself.

Program Sixteen: Genesis: in the beginning...
Frye discusses the concept of beginnings and the Biblical concept of time.
27 minutes

Program Seventeen: Genesis: Creating the Sexes
The birth of woman from man in Genesis is seen not as justification for a male-dominated society, but as evidence of the priority of the divine creation over nature.
27 minutes

Program Eighteen: Exodus: A Revolutionary Heritage
For Frye, the Exodus story is the central story of the Old Testament. In it God gives himself a name and declares himself on the side of the oppressed. The Exodus from Egypt becomes the pattern throughout the Bible for all deliverances from tyranny.
27 minutes

Program Nineteen: Law: Ordering a Society
Frye explores the role of law in the organization and regulation of society.
27 minutes

Program Twenty: Wisdom: The Proverb
Frye examines the role of the proverb in encapsulating wisdom and in preserving the status quo.
27 minutes

Program Twenty-One: Wisdom: As Playing Before God
In the Bible, wisdom and folly are both represented by a female figure. The figure of folly is described as being possessive as are those who delight in secret knowledge, while the figure of wisdom invites everyone to a communal feast to share her knowledge.
27 minutes

Program Twenty Two: Ecclesiastes: Vanity of Vanities
The Book of Ecclesiastes is basically a series of proverbs punctuated by the refrain "vanity of vanities". The wise man does not attach himself to any one thing, including wisdom.
27 minutes

Program Twenty Three: Job - A Test
The Book of Job deals with the limitations of wisdom and the need for prophecy. Wisdom is aligned with the status quo, whereas prophecy rebels against it.
27 minutes

Program Twenty Four: Job - Restored Humanity
Job perceives the true origin of his predicament and sees a vision of the spiritual universe, unclouded by the material world.
27 minutes

Program Twenty Five: Job - The Question of Tragedy
Frye describes the nature of tragedy and comedy as literary modes and in doing so comes to the conclusion that the Book of Job and the Bible in general have a narrative structure consistent with the comedic mode.
27 minutes

Program Twenty Six: Language of Proclamation - Style and Rhythm in the Bible
What appear to be arguments in the Bible are actually proclamations or metaphorical habits of mind - a thinking in images. Almost every sentence in the Bible is intended, like an aphorism, to be brooded over and pondered not to be argued with.
27 minutes

Program Twenty Seven: Gospel - Rewriting the Commandments
The Gospel reformulates the ten commandments in positive terms, e.g., for the preservation of life, the sharing of possessions, and the forgiveness of transgressions.
27 minutes

Program Twenty Eight: Revelation - Removing the Veil
Apocalypse means removing the veil, revealing the hidden. Removing the filters that screen out disturbing and uncomfortable thoughts leads to a vision of the world which transcends time and space.
27 minutes

Program Twenty Nine: Revelation - After the Ego Disappears
In the Book of Revelation we are led to a simultaneous vision of a world we are trying to attain and a world we are trying to escape. When we have absorbed the vision presented by the Bible, we are offered an insight into what the world looks like when selfhood disappears.
27 minutes

Program Thirty: Conclusion - The Language of Love
Ultimately, the Bible presents a vision of human destiny founded on love. This vision allows man to resolve his conflicts and unify his human and divine natures.
27 minutes