Biblical Culture

As a result our culture has become 'biblical' in ways that at first sight seem far removed from the Bible's Hebrew origins or the Eusebian canon. To begin with, we have acquired from it, directly and indirectly, a very particular set of literary expectations. Because it is taken for granted in the Bible that there is a meaning to the whole cycle of human existence, both individual and collective, and that every event, however seemingly trivial, has a figurative, typological, or, as we would now say, symbolic relation to the whole, we have learned in other areas of our existence to look for narrative, with a pattern of hidden meaning, rather than a mere chronicle of events. This expectation runs very deep in Western society, affecting not merely fiction, but biography, history, and, of course, science—that distinctive product of a belief in a rational and stable universe where every part has its meaning in relation to the grand 'story' of the whole. It is a paradox still too rarely appreciated (especially by those puzzled by Newton's obsessive interest in biblical history and prophecy) that the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century probably owed more to Hebrew mysticism than to Greek rationality.

Second, and following directly from this, our idea of what constitutes a book includes within itself that notion of unity with diversity. Our concept of narrative assumes the possibility of many parallel stories—sometimes apparently unrelated; we take for granted sub-plot and main plot; stories within stories; parallel, complementary, and even contradictory stories that may link thematically rather than by direct influence. It is no accident, for instance, that many of the foundational works of English literature: Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, or Spencer's The Faerie Queene are also, in effect, collections of stories relating in various ways to a single common theme. The same kinds of structures were used by Boccaccio in Italy and Rabelais in France. Similarly, the frequency of two or more thematically related plots in Elizabethan drama—and most notably in Shakespeare's plays—emphasizes the origins of English drama in the biblical models provided by the medieval Miracle Plays. Again, popular drama had similar origins on the continent—in Italy, France, and Germany; it was only later that the French court, as ever, leading a francophile Europe, initiated a taste for the more austere and concentrated classical forms.

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