When, toward the end of his life, Northrop Frye (1912-1991) began to write about the Bible as the source code for Western culture, he was not trying to convert anyone to anything. He had been ordained as a Protestant minister before becoming an English professor. But the reminiscences of him I have read suggest Frye was not the proselytizing type, and anyway, literary theory was his true vocation.
In a sense, his point about the Bible was not religious at all. Biblical events, proverbs and patterns of language have built up a lot of cultural momentum over the 3,000 years or so since scribes began to write them down. They still compel attention even when they do not elicit belief. Frye gave one of his books about the Bible an apt title: Words With Power.
What generated much of that power, in Frye’s assessment, was a peculiar intricacy of structure. The texts making up the Bible are diverse in genre, purpose and language yet seem to cross-reference one another. Sometimes this is a matter of overt citation; more often, it is a repetition of imagery or themes. And framing the layers of symbol and allusion as a whole, the Bible embodies perhaps the first metanarrative. The universe is created on the first page. On the last, the world has been destroyed and replaced by “a new heaven and a new earth.” It’s the most comprehensive story ever told.
At least the Christian version of the Bible is. Appropriating the Hebrew scriptures and adding a rather complex sequel in Greek, the Jesus movement repurposed elements of Jewish tradition in radical ways -- especially when a figure named Saul of Tarsus undergoes conversion, changes his name to Paul and composes a sizable part of what becomes the new canon. It is this heterogeneous book, with its vision of “the Word made flesh” in a specific place and time, that interests Frye as a literary critic. Much of what he had to say about the Bible was an effort to translate into secular terms -- broadly viable within the humanities, in ways theological language is not -- what the Christian canon presupposed as the norms for understanding its own meaning.
That Timothy Beal overlooks Northrop Frye in The Book of Revelation: A Biography (Princeton University Press) is not too surprising. A professor of religion at Case Western Reserve University, he does cite Stephen D. Moore, who, a few years back, wrote a lively book with Yvonne Sherwood, The Invention of the Biblical Scholar: A Critical Manifesto (Fortress Press, 2011). Moore and Sherwood praised some of the work being done in their discipline while also (and more memorably) going after other trends with knives drawn. They mention Frye twice, only in passing, with a polite indifference that is, in its own way, devastating. When gunslinging religious studies scholars gather for a showdown, his reputation is not at stake; it’s not even necessary for target practice.
Yet Beal shares Frye’s sense that biblical tropes and images have diffused so widely through the culture that their origins are often barely recognized -- let alone understood in any depth -- while at the same time, their power is generated by the interlocking elements of the biblical text itself. “The Book of Revelation” possesses, as Beal puts it, “a dynamism without beginning or end”; it has emitted puzzling signals into the world for the better part of two millennia and is sure to keep doing so.
And that is despite being almost incomprehensible for chapters at a stretch. Beal offers a thorough synopsis, but he can impose only so much order on the dreamlike procession of angels, dragons, scrolls, battles, armored locusts, poisoned oceans and beasts with horns and crowns in puzzling ratios. Almost nothing in it can be taken literally, apart from some place names. Much of the imagery is adapted from the Jewish prophets Daniel and Ezekial, with the symbology reworked to refer to Roman persecution of Christians in the first century. So construed, its message would be that things are going to get much worse before they get better, but those who keep the faith will see the return of Jesus and a final battle that will obliterate their enemies.
Beal is alert to the contradictory effect of the book’s strangeness on readers. Some in the early church “rejected it altogether … pronouncing it without sense or argument,” in the words of Dionysius of Alexandria in the third century. Martin Luther translated it into German despite saying that “[his] spirit cannot accommodate itself to this book” and suspecting it was not divinely inspired. These expressions of distaste are in response to the book’s riot of symbols, which both demand and frustrate interpretation. But the very same factors drive what Beal calls the “generative incomprehensibility” of the Bible text. Twenty-one woodcut illustrations of scenes from Revelation accompanied Luther’s translation -- psychedelic images that must have fascinated hundreds of readers for every one they put off.
The history of efforts to apply Revelation’s symbology to current events -- and so to gauge the approach of the end of the world -- is long and ongoing. (While working on this article in a coffee shop, I was handed a card by a Jehovah’s Witness who wanted to alert me to developments on that front.) But a narrative of those interpretations would be repetitive and make for a pretty dull entry in Princeton’s series of “biographies” of religious classics. Instead, Beal has balanced discussions of a few important theological efforts to grapple with Revelation -- by Augustine, Hildegard of Bingen and Joachim of Fiore -- with much more attention to how the book's symbols have inspired art and entertainment, if the latter is a word that can be applied to the Left Behind novels and films. He makes a good case for zombie-apocalypse films as a recent manifestation of Revelation's influence. Pieces of the biblical text, he writes, "little story-shaped images, apocalyptic shards, detach from their literary biblical contexts and attach to new media ecologies, taking on new lives."
Northrop Frye probably would have left "new media ecologies" to his fellow Canadian savant Marshall McLuhan. Otherwise I think he would have been interested in Beal's take on biblical words with power.