Teaching Our civilization's 'great code'


Our literature, and much else in Western art, is saturated with the influence of The Bible — Old Testament and New.

Ernest Hemingway

It has been so for centuries.  The great literary critic Northrop Frye, who called The Bible the "great code" of high Western culture, gave the better part of his life to the brilliant amplification of just that point.

Even the hard-drinking Ernest Hemingway found inspiration and example in Scripture.  His first novel took for its title a phrase "The Sun also Rises" from Ecclesiastes.  A strong, indeed continuous, Biblical presence comes through in the book itself.  Those famously abrupt, rhythmic sentences of early Hemingway owe more than a little to his reading and study of the great King James Version.  Toward the end of his career, he even imitated the parable form.  For what is the story of The Old Man and the Sea but a modern secular parable, and its heavily mannered, cadence-rich sentences an echo, or attempted echo, of The Bible's high style?

Hemingway stands as one example among hundreds, and even thousands, of famous writers whose literary imagination was contoured by The Bible.  Even those who were wild agnostics or atheists were not too proud to learn from the sacred text of Judaism and Christianity.

Lately, however, we have lost that almost automatic, ready-at-hand familiarity with The Bible.  There has been a tidal movement away from Biblical knowledge, a collapse of the intimacy between our culture and its foundational text.

Consider The New York Times.  We don't go to the Times for Scripture, but we should surely enjoy a reasonable expectation that its (presumably) well-educated editors and reporters have not totally forgotten all of it.

Yet, in an Easter piece (no less) bylined to Rome-based correspondent Elisabetta Povoledo, the Times referred to the "Resurrection into Heaven of Jesus."  The phrase is meaningless.  How can one be resurrected (the meaning of the verb is to restore a dead person to life) "into Heaven"?  I'd bet the writer would never mangle a Simpsons reference or misquote a rap lyric.  But she has no idea of the cardinal event of the New Testament.

Which brings me to the hit cable series The Bible, broadcast in March by the History Channel.  There is much being written about the "startling" popularity of this series.  (Every episode attracted more than 10 million U.S. viewers.)  The elites are puzzled that so backward and sidelined an interest as religion could fire so wide an audience.

There has been a tidal movement away from Biblical knowledge, a collapse of the intimacy between our culture and its foundational text.

Actually, the reasons for The Bible's success are easy to determine.  Apart from being acted with professionalism and filmed with skill, it presents The Bible stories without snark or condescension.  There is no filter of leaden irony or mockery built into the telling.  And it doesn't present religion as a species of ignorance or bigotry.  Today, this is rare.

The series presents biblical episodes and character, more or less, as they were first presented — without some jerry-built new postmodern frame to put them in.  Rejecting the modern avant-garde trend toward projecting ancient stories in vulgar modern garb, The Bible isn't presented in what I'll call the Jesus-rides-a-Harley school, with Mary Magdalene as a sex-worker-with-a-hankering-for-Peter subplot.

Moreover, the TV series has a second virtue.

For those who have never closely examined The Bible, the series is an alluring introduction.  For others, who once knew more of it than now they remember, it tags almost-forgotten memories, resurrects (may I use that word?) memories of childhood, readings at Mass or elsewhere, and thereby makes ring again phrases and stories long submerged.

No wonder the series is successful:  It's a link to the "great code" of Western civilization.




Rex Murphy, "Teaching Our civilization's 'great code'." National Post (April 6, 2013).

Reprinted with permission of the National Post.


Rex Murphy is host of CBC Radio One's Cross-Country Checkup and contributes weekly TV essays on diverse topics to CBC TV's The National. (See Rex's TV commentaries). In addition, he writes book reviews, commentaries, and a weekly column for the National Post.

Rex Murphy was born near St. John's, Newfoundland, where he graduated from Memorial University. In l968, he went to Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. His primary interest is in language and English literature, but he also has a strong link with politics. His first book, Points of View, is described on Amazon: "With TV commentator and journalist Rex Murphy, it's easy to put a twist on the old parable: when he is good he is very very good, and when he's angry, he's awesome. Uncommonly dignified, relentlessly honest, unencumbered by de rigueur political correctness, and solidly grounded by his Newfoundland roots, Murphy is that rarest of TV types. He's an everyman who happens to be a Rhodes Scholar, and a personality treasured for his brain, not his looks...A cranky intellect, maybe, but an intellect just the same. It's Murphy's almost reluctant cynicism — delivered in language as sharp as shattered glass and aimed squarely at those in ivory towers — that makes Points of View a must-read."

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