Friday, January 13, 2017

What Does "The Great Code of Art" Mean

Northrop Frye's book, The Great Code:  The Bible and Literature, draws its title from the words of poet William Blake, who said, "The Old and New Testaments are the Great Code of Art" (quoted by Frye xvi).

Here's the context from which Frye draws the quote:

 Around his engraving of the famous Roman sculpture, Blake included (as you can see in the image above) a LOT of text, which reads in part:
Jesus and His Apostles and Disciples were all Artists. Their Works were destroy’d by the Seven Angels of the Seven Churches in Asia, Antichrist, Science.

The Old and New Testaments are the great code of Art.

The whole business of Man is the Arts, and all things, common.

No secrecy in Art.   

Art is the Tree of Life.

God is Jesus.

Science is the Tree of Death.

For every pleasure Money is useless.*
A quick Google search reveals hundreds of attempts to decipher Blake's idiosyncratic theology; I have no desire to go there.  What fascinates me is the idea that these sacred texts are difficult, that they are encoded, and that when you decode them, what emerges is not a bloodless theology, but vibrant, living Art.

You, and I, and every human being, have been created in the image of a creative God.  Our creativity is therefore potentially holy and definitely meaningful.

Whenever I feel discouraged, I need to remind myself of this larger context against which our brief, tiny, creative lives are played out.

Our lives are not meaningless, and we are not alone.


Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Thirsting for New Water

The Bible "has had a continuously fertilizing influence on English literature from Anglo-Saxon writers to poets younger than I, and yet no one would say that the Bible 'is a work of literature' " (Northrop Frye, The Great Code, xvi).

Waterfall, Cloud Forest, Costa Rico.
©2017 Tina Quinn Durham

At what point is a treasure trove of inspiration exhausted?  Will the Bible always be a source of creative inspiration?

When we keep draw upon the myths of the past for our fantasy, our movies, and our serious literature, we don't merely copy them. We re-vision them – that is, we consciously attempt to see the past in new ways, from new perspectives.

At the Gethsemane Encounter (a Buddhist-Christian conference at a Trappist monastery), Fenton Johnson talks to a Buddhist nun named Dr. Yifa.  She tells Fenton Johnson: “I joined the sangha [the community of monks] to make it richer and more attractive to others. A pond is dead water unless it has a stream of new water coming in” (Keeping Faith:  A Skeptic's Journey 13).

Perhaps this applies, not merely to monastic communities or communities of faith, but to everything.  In agriculture, cross-pollination occurs when a plant pollinates a different variety of the same species.  Sure, you could end up losing good qualities of a commercial hybrid or strain, but you also might up with greater genetic diversity and resistance to pests or diseases.  A more productive variety could emerge from this chance encounter.

Nations benefit from an influx of hard-working, highly motivated immigrants who bring new foods, new ideas and necessary skills.  Their cultural influences revitalize art, music, and literature.

It's not just the Bible that "has a continuously fertilizing influence on English [and American] literature."  We have been blessed by "new water" from every people and every culture that has come to our shores.

When we cease to embrace the Other, we will embrace Death.

Durham, Tina Quinn.  Image "Waterfall, Cloud Forest, Costa Rico."  Used by permission.
IAC Publishing, Inc. "What Are the Advantages and Disadvantages of Cross Pollination?" Reference. IAC Publishing, Inc., 2017. Web. 11 Jan. 2017. <>. 
Rhoades, Heather. "What Is Cross Pollination - Learn About Cross Pollination In Vegetable Gardens." Gardening Know How. Gardening Know How, 01 May 2016. Web. 11 Jan. 2017. <>.

Friday, January 6, 2017

The Bible's Disregard of Unity?

Have you ever been in church and heard your pastor talk about the amazing unity of the Bible, a book written by "40 authors... over a period of 1500 years" (  You may have heard him say something like this:

All 66 Books of the Bible Agree

But here is the wonder of it all: When the 66 books of the Bible with their 1,189 chapters made up of 31,173 verses are brought together (KJV), we find perfect harmony in the message they convey. As the great scholar F. F. Bruce noted: "The Bible is not simply an anthology; there is a unity which binds the whole together."
The Bible writers gave God's messages by voice and pen while they lived, and when they died, their writings lived after them. These prophetic messages were then gathered together, under God's leading, in the book we call the Bible (

You may also have heard about the evils of "higher criticism," which fundamentalists regard with the deepest suspicion and hostility, as if the inspired word of God would not withstand the assault of "literary historical-critical methods"and analysis "based on reason rather than revelation" ("Biblical Criticism").  They appear to see the world as being at war, with the central conflict being faith v. reason.

After half a century of living under such teaching, I was truly surprised when I read what Northrop Frye so casually wrote:

"...the Bible's disregard of unity as quite as impressive as its exhibition of it" (The Great Code xvi). 

Frye doesn't question his faith; he just says this.  Like the boy in the fairy tale who proclaimed that the emperor had no clothes, Frye isimply reports his own observations, without making judgments beyond what he sees in the text itself.

Like the townspeople in the fairy tale, I too find myself agreeing with the man who honestly tells me what he sees.  I've been reading the Bible or memorizing it daily for about 40 years.  I've noticed both the "disregard of unity" and the "impressive... exhibition" of unity within the Bible.

However, this is the first time I've said it out loud.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

A Proven Cure for Ignorance and Prejudice

In this post-truth America, where so many are stuck inside political echo chambers and the prisons of their own biases, a true liberal arts education matters more than ever.  Why?  Northrop Frye's comments on academics are equally true for all of us.  Education is transformation!

Academics, like other people, start with a personality that is afflicted by ignorance and prejudice, and try to escape from that personality, in [T.S.] Eliot's phrase, through absorption in impersonal scholarship.  One emerges on the other side of this realizing once again that all knowledge is personal knowledge, but with some hope that the person may have been, to whatever degree, transformed in the meantime" (The Great Code, xv).

It's interesting to me that Frye describes scholarship almost as a descent into the underworld, in the hero's journey.  In some ways it is a journey to the realm of the dead, because the disciplines of the humanities are our only time machine.  Through art, literature, music, philosophy, history and religion, we can engage the thoughts and emotions of people from the past, and reach out to people from our future.

Does scholarship truly take place in Hades?  During finals week, most college students would probably agree. The semester that I had 12 units of 400-level literature classes definitely felt like a trip to Hell.  But I did emerge with heightened knowledge, and a real awareness of how the novel has evolved over time. 

Was I transformed by my experiences at the university?  I believe that I was.  Through reading poetry, I learned to value diversity.  Elizabethan revenge tragedy taught me that creativity can flourish with few props and even under conditions of censorship.  Attempting to write fiction for actual readers brought me humility.  Encountering living authors and scholars opened up a new world of thought and experience for me.  I realized that one can actually live the life of the heart and the mind.

If I master the eschatalogical defeat of death through scholarship on my hero's journey, I'll definitely let you know.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Into the Fray!

What can you do with a B.A. in English Literature and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing, Poetry?  I am an expert in my own arcane field, but sometimes feel unprepared to write about anything else.

Famed literary critic Northrop Frye felt something similar when he undertook to write a book about the Bible:
A scholar in an area not his own feels like a knight errant who finds himself in the middle of a tournament and has unaccountably left his lance at home.  In such a situation he needs encouragement as well as help" (The Great Code ix).

Frye's strategy for success in this challenging endeavor was to re-frame his task as a writer.  He says:
All of my books have really been teachers' manuals, more concerned with establishing perspectives than with adding specifically to knowledge" (xiv). 
Although Frye calls this "inadequate" and"secondhand scholarship," he also recognizes the importance of passing on existing knowledge to less skilled learners:
The teacher may do some of his work as a scholar on a popularizing level, retailing established information to less advanced students (xv).

I am not an expert on much of anything, but my training in critical thinking, close reading and analysis of a variety of texts has prepared me to present a thoughtful perspective on almost any topic.  I am capable of "retailing established information" to people who don't know much about a topic, and I can correlate information from multiple sources and disciplines in a way that makes sense to non-experts.

In a post-truth America, I may indeed be a knight errant, but that makes me no less essential, and I have not left my lance at home.

 "Sometimes you just need to put your head down,
grit your teeth and run into the fray."

Boss, Jeff. "10 Inspirational Quotes from Navy SEAL Training." Entrepreneur. Entrepreneur, 2017. Web. 04 Jan. 2017.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Tackling "The Little Books"

Every January, we want to commit ourselves to a fresh start on something.  For many Christians, that includes reading the Bible from cover to cover in a year.

Personally, I am way too ADHD to read the Bible from Genesis to Revelations.  About the only plan I ever tried that worked at all was the one devised by Robert Murry M'Cheyne in the 19th century.  It will take you through Psalms and the New Testament twice, and the rest of the Bible once, while averaging 4 chapters a day.  Not bad for those of us with short attention spans.  You can try it yourself by clicking here.

Northrop Frye gave me an insight into why it's so difficult to read the Bible straight through:

One reason for this is that the Bible is more like a small library than a real book:  it almost seems that it has come to be thought of as a book only because it is contained for convenience within two covers.  In fact, what the word "Bible" itself primarily means is ta biblia, the little books (The Great Code xii).

Monday, January 2, 2017

Poetry 101: Sacred Prerequisites

From my first reader-response journal entry on Northrop Frye's The Great Code, because Frye's Bible reading, in some ways, mirrors my own:

"This book attempts a study of the Bible from the point of view of a literary critic" - "not a work of Biblical scholarship, much less of theology; it only expresses my own personal encounter with the Bible, and at no point does it speak with the authority of a scholarly consensus" (xi).

I liked the humility of that approach, a famous scholar saying simply that he could "only express" his "own personal encounter with the Bible."  I was curious to see where Frye, who did not claim to be a theologian, was headed next.  Why would a literary critic be writing a book about the Bible AND literature?

Frye's justification for teaching the Bible, not as literature, but in relation to literature is that the Bible has inspired much of the literature that makes up our canon:

"...a student who does not know the Bible does not understand a great deal of what is going on in what he reads:  the most conscientious student [of English literature] will be continually misconstruing the implications, even the meaning" (xii).

When I was a freshman at Arizona State University, the poet Richard Shelton strode into class with a worn leather-bound volume and flung it onto the desktop.  "This is the most important book you will ever read!"  he announced.  "It's inspired poets for centuries.  You can't become a poet without reading this."  He glared at us over a Bible that had been read almost to the point of dissolution, daring any undergraduate in the room to contradict him.

I'd not yet read Milton or Shakespeare's contemporaries; I had just barely discovered the Bard himself, much less Dante, Cervantes, Tolstoy or Dostoyevksi.  As far as I knew, the King James Version was poetry (it featured unicorns, which was always a plus), and you had to know the Bible if you wanted to get to heaven - but it was a prerequisite to writing serious poetry too?

Shelton knew something I was yet to learn: when you appropriate a sacred text, you're not just borrowing an image or a phrase - you're imbibing power.  And that's pretty heady stuff, for a freshman with aspirations to literary greatness.

Northrop Frye and Richard Shelton were both right: whether you are a student of English literature or a novice writer, you have to know the Bible. 

I'm not sure that either of them would have said that you really have to believe it.