On the Bible and Shakespeare

Growing Together Quiet Day

As we all know, if you are famous enough to appear, but unlucky enough to arrive, on the Desert Island, you will be given the English gold standard of literature: The Bible and Shakespeare. In this reflection I want to consider what they have in common and how they are different.

So let me begin with The Bible. When I was thinking about what to study at the very first session of Growing Together in October 2005, the choice was surprisingly easy. I chose my favourite short book of the Bible, the Book of Jonah. The story is simple and dramatic, the message is clear and the medium is comedy: to get away from God, Jonah plans to sail to the farthest port known to the author, somewhere in Southern Spain, possibly the modern Spanish city of Seville; in panic for the survival of their ship, the sailors throw Jonah overboard; he is swallowed by a great fish and then vomited out; he goes to Nineveh where the people are so penitent that they even dress their cattle in sack cloth and ashes; and then Jonah chides God for being merciful, as he is first sheltered by some great plant which is then eaten by an even more preposterous worm. For me, this is the best text in the whole collection about the relationship between the Creator and creatures and it's a lovely story. And perhaps this story-telling is one of the aspects of the Bible, particularly if we exclude the Apocrypha, which we tend to overlook, with the exception of the Parables of Jesus and the journey in Acts, because our tradition has increasingly focused on dissecting the texts of the Bible to elucidate theological and moral standpoints, and even preferences. 

In the OT, just concentrating on women, there is the wonderfully touching story of Ruth, the bravado of Judith, the imperturbability of Esther and the bloody resourcefulness of Jael (Judges 4.17-23), not to mention Susannah which is one of many colourful stories associated with Daniel. There are stories rich in military history, deceit, treachery and revenge. And in the NT, as I have said, there are the famous parables, particularly in Luke, where the apparently obvious messages are deeply ambiguous - for example, are we the injured man or the Good Samaritan in Luke? (Luke 10.25-37) - and the heroic deeds in Acts. But as well as being a source of dramatic narrative, the Bible is also a resource for moral and theological argument, primarily - and this is often overlooked today - concerned not with private, sexual but with public, economic behaviour, fiercely rhetorical in The Book of Amos and almost monotonously didactic in the most overlooked but instructive Book of Deuteronomy.

Conversely, Shakespeare is unfailingly dramatic and, like all good authors of fiction, he carefully avoids moralising and propaganda but simply portrays the human condition, ultimately resolving, for example, as Jeanette Winterson puts it, the cruelty in Othello with the forgiveness in The Winter's Tale. We might say that Shakespeare is a resource for how we behave and the Bible a resource for how we ought to behave, a thought on which I will shortly place some limitations. The only other remark on the two resources that I would want to make now is that they have a curiously common aversion to family life, particularly portrayed in the bad behaviours of brothers, another observation made by Winterson on Shakespeare in the conclusion of her re-telling of The Winter's Tale, but surely also portrayed in the relationship between Jacob and Esau, ranking the family above society, a ranking which, in Christian terms, is at the very least deeply suspect.

But we are now so unaware of our psychological knowingness that we tend to slip into the analysis of motives without thinking about it. Perhaps the reason why we think that Shakespeare is the greatest of our playwrights is that he was the first English pre Freudian, the first writer to understand the layered nature of our psyche, that things are not always what they seem to be on the surface, that there are hidden motives and contradictions, a far cry from, say, his contemporary Christopher Marlowe whose portrayal of Faustus is superficial by comparison.

But this is not what the Bible is all about. We are confused by the deceitful episodes in the lives of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob because they don't seem to make psychological sense. Well, of course they don't, because the Bible isn't interested in human psychology; its interest is in the necessarily asymmetrical relationship between the Creator and the creature which takes a radical turn at the conjunction of the two Testaments. There is an inkling in the later books of the OT that there will be life after death and this has some, non-specific connection with the coming of a Messiah, non-specific because Judaism is refreshingly innocent of Greek-driven, complex theological speculation. But with the opening of Luke's Gospel (Luke 1; 2; 3Chapters 1-3[/passage]) - the ordering of the four Gospels is purely incidental - we are in a new world. Whereas Shakespeare evolved from jealousy to reconciliation, the Bible makes one, mighty, leap.

And although for us as Christians the NT defines who we are and how we are to behave as creatures, the Bible is, paradoxically, less helpful than Shakespeare in defining the rules of, particularly private, moral conduct. Shakespeare says much more helpful things about love and lust, possession and generosity, power and vulnerability, gain and loss, ambition and chance, joy and sorrow, loneliness and solidarity than the Bible; there are so few stories like David and Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11) that they stand out; so if we were to design a moral code from scratch, outside the teaching of Jesus, we would be better off with the plays than with the Bible in general and with the OT in particular. A case can be made for the moral certainties of the Gospels but these are forever grounded in OT material in a Bible which, we are told, is indivisible. And this is where I come to the crux of our reflection.

There is a tension at the heart of our existence which is expressed in different forms in the OT and NT but which is always present and that is the tension between our DNA and our mandate to resist its promptings. Our DNA tells us to compete for food and for mates which allocates advantage to the physically and/or mentally powerful. Competitiveness in the ad hoc sense of the hunter-gatherer was given a new dimension by the invention of irrigation, bricks and barns and so what we call our instincts push us towards accumulation and propagation; but our mandate is to be generous with our possessions and to be vulnerable in ourselves; and the difference between Shakespeare and the Bible on this critical point is obvious, for whereas the psychologically informed playwright sees this contradiction as an internal struggle, the Bible sees it as an external, that is God-given, God-driven, ranking of generosity in a corporate context over individual selfishness. And I should say, in this context, that interesting though it is, the discussion of whether altruism is in our self interest or truly generous is a side issue.

And yet, for all this apparent moral directness and sense of focus on what we refer to as the two great commandments, to love God, and each other as ourselves (Luke 10.27), we are constantly mired in an argument about the nature of the Bible. Simply to say that it is "The Word of God" without exploring what that might mean is the theological equivalent of "Brexit means Brexit". If it is one, indivisible, corpus dictated verbatim by the Holy Spirit, what do we do about its obvious contradictions? If we rank the NT in some way over the OT, as we do in terms of which Jewish Laws we are prepared to accept and which to set aside, who draws the line and how do they draw it? Or, to be more specific, if we have ranked the general moral outlook of Jesus over the OT to justify our opposition to slavery, even though it goes without direct criticism in the NT, why can't we use the same technique in respect of our understanding of human love and marriage? And why is Saint Paul right in condemning homosexuality but wrong in, implicitly at least, condoning slavery? And why, above all, do we stick so closely to our Biblical understanding of private, sexual behaviour and almost completely ignore the Bible's overwhelming call for socio-economic justice in the public sphere?

At root, those who argue that The Bible is, literally, the Word of God, really can't have it both ways, making claims for the indivisibility of the corpus but basing their arguments on tiny slivers of it which suit their purposes, nor can they pound away at the private and ignore the public; but it is the same people, on both sides of the Atlantic, that wish to impose their view on human sexuality while they oppose socio economic justice in the public sphere. But there is a more fundamental point which we ought to bear in mind: although it is irregular in its chronological ordering, with some later books having been written before their apparent predecessors, the Bible is still, fundamentally, a history of the relationship between the Creator and creatures; and because it is a history it has a shape and forward momentum in the course of which the later arguments build on the earlier, so that Jesus develops a new understanding of the OT. But does this then mean that the last part of the NT, the Letters, primarily of Paul, build on, and should therefore take precedence over, the pronouncements of Jesus? I would argue that this question can only be put in this way if we use the forensic approach to the Bible, taking tiny slivers, or verses of Paul, to represent his thinking whereas it might be more cogently argued, reverting to the psychological sphere, that Paul is the greatest advocate of the love which Jesus taught (1 Corinthians 13) but that his weaknesses lead him into moral pronouncements which are 'below' his beatific vision (1 Corinthians 15). The question, then, is not whether Paul approved of slavery or disapproved of homosexuality but, rather, what his central thesis is and how it should be worked out, bearing in mind that Paul's letters are a glowing testament to both his strengths and his weaknesses. To this extent at least, we have to introduce a level of psychological analysis into our reading of the Bible. An Author, such as Shakespeare, puts abhorrent words into the mouths of characters which does not mean he agrees with them; and Paul does the same thing in Romans, formulating the arguments of his opponents in order to destroy them; and so Shakespeare, and even Paul, say things which are descriptive rather than prescriptive; and they say things which are not all equally important.

For Shakespeare and The Bible, individual conduct never takes place outside a social context which means that we cannot think as Christians of our relationship with God without also putting it into the context of our relationship with each other. We might say, in one of the favourite current images taken from John Hull's great book on the Prophetic Church, that the Cross represents our vertical relationship with God intersected with our horizontal relationship with each other. 

Which leads me to the conclusion that we ought to be much more cautious in reading the Bible than we tend to be, giving its text the same respect which we would give to a Shakespeare play, seeking the literal meaning of the text and its meaning to the author and his contemporaries before extrapolating it to apply to ourselves, with the difference that the history of salvation in The Bible is much more thematically dense than the history of Shakespeare's moral and political concerns.

There is, too, a further consideration which we should not overlook and it comes to mind when we consider Miranda's great speech - O Brave New World - in The Tempest, with the final book of the Bible, The Book of Revelation. If we want an understanding of the forward momentum, the optimism, of the Christian understanding of creation, we need go no further than Miranda; but creation is, at root, a mystery. Why, to use metaphorical language as all language of God necessarily must be, did God create us imperfect so that God in Jesus could remedy the fault, conquering sin and sin's consequence of human death? If we take the Bible too literally, treating it more like a physics textbook or the moral pronouncements of Lord Chesterfield, then we will lose the mystery. If we lose the mystery of God and simply form a personal, quasi erotic, relationship with Jesus, when something goes wrong and the relationship founders, there is no mystery to underpin it. The danger is, in treating the Bible in a post 'Enlightenment' way, that we will undermine its central purpose in order to make its meaning appear simple and beyond controversy. Such an approach confines the word to stony ground (Luke 8.4-15) where it grows up quickly but then withers. If the meaning of the Bible is really that simple, dispute would have ended long ago; but that it is, necessarily, the subject of dispute in a micro sense should not obscure its unifying power of setting out for us the story from Creation to Redemption.

Finally, if we think carefully about these two great volumes of work, the final book of The Bible, a book of terror and tranquillity, tells us why Shakespeare's final plays of reconciliation are so important; in the face of the mystery of God and our own necessary imperfection, forgiveness is the best thing we can hope to give and receive from each other; and we even struggle with that. The rest is harmful delusion. If the Bible is indeed the Word of God then it is sacrilege to use it as a weapon with which to attack others.