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Northrop Frye on Religion

Northrop Frye on Religion

Alvin A. Lee
Jean O′Grady
Volume: 4
Copyright Date: 2000
Pages: 632
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  • Book Info
    Northrop Frye on Religion
    Book Description:

    An annotated edition of Frye?s writings on the Bible and religion over a period of57 years between 1933-1990. The overall variety of writings is wide, including major essays, addresses, sermons, editorials, and representative prayers and benedictions.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-7784-5
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-v)
  2. [Illustration]
    (pp. vi-vi)
  3. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    A.A.L. and J.O.
  5. Credits and Sources
    (pp. xv-xv)
  6. Abbreviations
    (pp. xvi-xvi)
  7. Introduction
    (pp. xvii-xxxviii)
    Alvin A. Lee

    The twelve lectures or addresses presented here under the subtitle ″On the Bible and Human Culture″ were written in the eighteen years that saw the publication ofThe Great CodeandWords with Power. Predictably then, there are approximations in the lectures to matters that are dealt with, sometimes more fully and sometimes more briefly, in those two intellectually massive works, but there are also substantial bodies of thought, commentary, and brilliant insight in these lectures that do not appear in the more extended publications. Much, for example, of what Frye says about the Genesis myths of creation and fall...

  8. On the Bible and Human Culture

    • 1 Pistis and Mythos 1 June 1972
      (pp. 3-9)

      1. The question of the ″crisis of faith,″ which is really, I think, a crisis in understanding the nature of the language of faith, has emerged for me as a by-product of an undergraduate course on the typology and symbolism of the English Bible, which I have been teaching for some years.

      2. To explain the impact of the Bible on Western thought and imagination, it was necessary to deal with the Bible as a whole, as a book beginning where time begins, with the creation, ending where time ends, with the Last Judgment, and telling the story of mankind in between,...

    • 2 History and Myth in the Bible 1 September 1975
      (pp. 10-22)

      We should expect to find the greatest imaginative powers among oppressed peoples. Strong and successful nations, like ancient Rome, Edwardian Britain, or contemporary America and Russia, tend to be somewhat earth-bound in their cultural products and to keep their real imaginative exuberance for their engineering. The intensity of Biblical vision has much to do with the fact that the Hebrews were never lucky at the game of empire. The Bible records only two periods of relative prosperity for Israel: the period of David and Solomon and the period following the Maccabean rebellion, and the reason was much the same in...

    • 3 The Meaning of Recreation: Humanism in Society 12 April 1979
      (pp. 23-34)

      I begin with the fact that my critical interests have always revolved around the Bible, not for doctrinal reasons but for reasons that had directly to do with my work as a literary critic. When I was still a junior instructor, I was trying to write a book on Blake and trying to teach Milton to undergraduates, and I complained to my departmental chairman¹ that I was having some difficulty in reaching my students because we could no longer take for granted the working knowledge of the Bible that we used to be able to take. And a student without...

    • 4 Creation and Recreation 30,31 January and 1 February 1980
      (pp. 35-82)

      These are the Larkin-Stuart Lectures, delivered under the auspices of Trinity College in the University of Toronto and St. Thomas Church, on 30, 31 January, and 1 February 1980. I am greatly obliged to Trinity College and St. Thomas Church for their hospitality and for the honour of their invitation to give the lectures.

      The lectures draw on earlier material of mine, some of it now out of print, and, as the opening page suggests, they are also connected with an ongoing project of greater length, a study of the narrative and imagery of the Bible and its influence on...

    • 5 The Double Mirror 8 April 1981
      (pp. 83-90)

      What I want mainly to talk about is my present preoccupation with the Bible, which I am trying to study in relation to secular literature and criticism. This involves relating it to issues in critical theory, so far as I understand them. I get a strong impression that many contemporary critics are talking about the Bible even when they avoid mentioning it. Many critical issues originated in the hermeneutic study of the Bible; many critical theories are obscurely motivated by a God-is-dead syndrome that also arose from Biblical criticism; many of the principles advanced by such theorists often seem to...

    • 6 Repetitions of Jacob′s Dream 13 October 1983
      (pp. 91-103)

      What immediately attracted me about this impressive exhibition was its inspired choice of title, ″Ladders to Heaven,″ and I thought that that would be an appropriate subject for me. As a literary critic, I have a particular interest in images and symbols that are found all over the world from ancient times to the present day, and the ladder, with its various relatives, is one of those images. The primary reference in this particular use of ″ladders to heaven″ is to Jacob′s dream in the Book of Genesis [28:10–17]. This story tells us that Jacob came to a place...

    • 7 The Bride from the Strange Land 25 May 1985
      (pp. 104-116)

      The Book of Ruth is one of the five short books called ″rolls″ (megilloth) among the Writings which have acquired a specific liturgical importance. It is a rather striking fact that, of these five ″rolls,″ three are narratives centred on female figures. The story of the book is familiar but needs to be summarized again for clarity.¹

      Naomi is the widow of a Bethlehemite named Elimelech, who had moved into Moab during a famine in Judaea, much as the family of Israel had moved into Egypt for a similar reason centuries earlier. He and the two sons Naomi had borne...

    • 8 The Mythical Approach to Creation 5 June 1985
      (pp. 117-132)

      The title of this paper is slightly misleading. Creation is a myth, and there are no mythical ″approaches″ to it because there are no nonmythical ones. What I want to discuss is the progression of three phases in the social use of myth, the preliterary, the literary, and the postliterary, as illustrated by the creation myths in Genesis.

      To summarize first of all my general view of myth: a myth to me is primarily amythos, a story, narrative, or plot, with a specific social function. Every human society has a verbal culture, and in the preliterary phase, when abstract...

    • 9 Crime and Sin in the Bible 15 April 1986
      (pp. 133-146)

      The legally trained reader knows much better than I do how difficult it is to define a crime, a misdemeanour, or any form of antisocial behaviour, apart from a violation of a specific law already in existence. Some legislation may be empirical or pragmatic in its basis, like traffic regulations, but there seems to be a powerful deductive force in law that impels us to look for principles and premises from which we derive our laws. A country with a written constitution, like the United States, has at least that means of providing principles, though the amount of amending and...

    • 10 The Bible and English Literature 14 July 1986
      (pp. 147-157)

      I thought it might interest you to hear some of the things I have been struggling with.

      The successor toThe Great Codehas taken a long time to write, largely because I was thinking in terms of a sequel and of course no book of mine has ever been a sequel to anything. Every book you write has to be numbered ″zero″ and not ″number one″; but I had been thinking about the literary patterns of the Bible and it struck me that in literature you have two processes in reading. You first read something which moves in time;...

    • 11 On the Bible 17 April 1989
      (pp. 158-165)

      The Bible being a sacred book, the principles of Biblical criticism have to do with the question of what kind of language is appropriate for the approach to religion. We find in our own culture that the sacred events described in the Bible come to us entirely as verbal events. All statements of belief are verbal formulations; all ritual acts and observances are based on verbal explanations, and religious experience itself is unintelligible without its foundation in words. So the entire being of religion is expressed in the term ″word,″ which is the word of God if the religion is...

    • 12 The Double Vision: Language and Meaning in Religion May–July 1990
      (pp. 166-236)

      The first three chapters of this book were delivered at the Emmanuel College alumni reunion on 14, 15, and 16 May 1990 at Emmanuel College. Although various lectures of mine that were addressed specifically to Victoria College are in print (e.g.,No Uncertain Sounds, 1988), this is my first publication devoted specifically to Emmanuel College. I was very pleased that the lectures coincided with Douglas Jay′s final year as principal, and consequently can be regarded as in part a tribute to him.

      I say in part, because I had also hoped to make this small book something of a shorter...

  9. On Special Occasions

    • 13 The Freshman and His Religion October 1933
      (pp. 239-243)

      Obviously, if we are to convey anything intelligible by this title, we must define our terms at the start. The freshman class is a more or less homogeneous group, but individual frosh may believe in anything from determinism to the evil eye. Any general statement about freshmen must, therefore, be taken for what it is worth, simply as a generalization, and we must be willing to concede a broad and tolerant basis for our definition of religion. Let us understand by religion the relationship of the individual soul to God, and through him to other men. Our civilization is so...

    • 14 Merry Christmas (I) December 1946
      (pp. 244-245)

      Christmas is far, far older than Christianity, as even the pre-Christian Yule and Saturnalia were late developments of it, and it was never completely assimilated to the Christian faith. Our very complaints about the hypocritical commercializing of the Christmas spirit prove that, for they show how vigorously Christmas can flourish without the smallest admixture of anything that could reasonably be called Christian. Christmas is the tribute man pays to the winter solstice, and perhaps to something in himself of which the winter solstice reminds him. We turn on all our lights, and stuff ourselves, and exchange presents, because our ancestors...

    • 15 So Many Lost Weekends March 1947
      (pp. 246-247)

      The latest gathering of the Ontario Temperance Federation, which coincided with the lifting of the liquor ration, included an abortive proposal to form a temperance party. It is with genuine concern that one sees the public utterances of Protestant churches increasingly identified with those of a group of full-time temperance agitators, who give the public the impression that their churches regard the ″liquor traffic″ as of far greater importance than any theological doctrine, any other social question, or any other moral weakness. We say weakness, for the refusal to make any moral distinction between drinking and drunkenness is part of...

    • 16 Merry Christmas? December 1947
      (pp. 248-248)

      A passage in theChristmas Caroldescribes how Scrooge saw the air filled with fettered spirits, whose punishment it was to see the misery of others and to be unable to help.¹ One hardly needs to be a ghost to be in their position, and as we light the fires for our Christmas they throw into the cold and darkness outside the wavering shadows of ourselves, unable to break the deadlock of the UN, unable to stop the slaughter in China or India or the terror in Palestine,² unable to release the victims of tyrannies still undestroyed, unable to deflect...

    • 17 Merry Christmas (II) December 1948
      (pp. 249-250)

      The world clings to Christmas with a kind of desperation: it is the only traditional festival, apart from a flurry of new hats at Easter, that retains any real hold on ordinary life. The reason for its persistent vitality is not easy to see. It is not primarily the influence of Christianity, for in the Christian church Christmas is only one event in a long calendar. The unique popular Christmas outside the church is hardly a Christian festival at all. Its presiding deity, so far as it has any, is the carnival figure of Santa Claus. The cynical answer is...

    • 18 Merry Christmas (III) December 1949
      (pp. 251-252)

      The original Christmas was born of primitive fear. The fear of the growing darkness and the shortening days produced the rite of kindled fires, and the fear of winter the cult of the evergreen tree. Since then, Christmas has been wrapped up in one layer after another of an advancing civilization. Christianity came with its lovely serene story of a divine child and a virgin mother: the Middle Ages brought the carols, and then came the presents, the roast fowls, the mince pies, and the plum puddings. Our present form of Christmas, with its Santa Claus, its Christmas tree, and...

    • 19 The Church: Its Relation to Society 1949
      (pp. 253-267)

      The study of social ideologies begins with theRepublicof Plato, in which Socrates sets out with a group of disciples to find the meaning of justice. Abandoning all efforts to define a mere abstract noun, Socrates decides that one can realize what justice is only by seeing, with the eye of the soul, the form or idea of society.

      In this situation there are three societies involved. One is that of fourth-century Greece, in which the defeat of the cultured Athenians who lacked discipline by the ignorant and brutal Spartans who possessed it may have provided an inspiration for...

    • 20 Man and the Sabbath February 1950
      (pp. 268-269)

      A plebiscite on the legalizing of Sunday sports was the most controversial and highly publicized issue in the recent municipal elections in Toronto, and the results have a significance not confined to that city. The Protestant churches seemed to take the issue as a test case of their social influence, and brought all the pressure they could to persuade their flocks to vote ″no.″ Cardinal McGuigan also came out on the ″no″ side. Two Toronto papers which seemed inclined to support the question promptly went ″no″ too (the third one, theStar, remained firm in its conviction that the Toronto...

    • 21 The Analogy of Democracy February 1952
      (pp. 270-277)

      One difficulty about defining the word ″democracy″ is that it is not the name of a specific form of government, like republic or monarchy. It represents, rather, an informing idea, a process which, because it has developed out of the past, is traditional, and, because it is moving toward a future goal, revolutionary. It is to Dean Acheson that we owe one of the decisive statements about our own time: that democracy is the central revolutionary force now transforming the world, and that the tactics of Communism represent (to use a Communist term) a deviation from the real revolution.¹ Thus...

    • 22 At a Memorial Service for Deceased Students January 1963
      (pp. 278-279)

      At the approach of death we turn to thee, the Holy Spirit of the living God. The inheritance of fear stirs in our minds: at the death of the young we feel shock and outrage; at the cutting off of lives full of promise we ask angry questions; at violent separation we are bewildered. We feel that there has been an unjust choice, even though we know that there is no choice: that all must enter the dark at a decreed time. But thou art the giver of life, and thy gifts are not given in vain. For many generations...

    • 23 Baccalaureate Sermon 19 March 1967
      (pp. 280-286)

      The baccalaureate sermon is traditionally the one occasion when a church-related college speaks to its students in the name of the church. The assumption underlying it is that every important crisis of your life is at bottom a religious crisis. It is only what the Spinks Report calls a ″sectarian college″¹ that can tell you that; you cannot learn it from a purely secular institution. The advantages of being an agnostic are obvious: one does not have to pretend that one knows things that in fact one does not know. But the advantage of speaking from the pulpit of a...

    • 24 Symbols 10 October 1968
      (pp. 287-289)

      I suppose the most primitive sense that we have is the sense of the contrast between light and darkness. There is a visible world of the eye, the world of appearance in the light, and there is a dark world of the ear, where we can see very little, and have to listen intently for sounds, sounds of reassurance or of warning. The Bible begins by telling us that at first everything was dark, and that out of the darkness a word spoke, calling for light. At that point the world in all its visible variety began to burst into...

    • 25 Funeral Service for Virginia Knight 8 July 1969
      (pp. 290-292)

      The purpose of a memorial service of this kind is not to mourn for a death, but to celebrate a life. The impulse to speak nothing but good of the dead is not superstition: it is one of the deepest and most accurate feelings about life that we have. The passages from Scripture that I read you speak of the lame and the blind, the oppressed and the mournful, flocking into the city of light, where all these handicaps and sufferings cease to exist. As long as we live, all of us are more or less blind and crippled, although...

    • 26 Sermon in Merton College Chapel 7 June 1970
      (pp. 293-295)

      The Old Testament lesson is a collection of proverbs, there being something about the proverb, in all ages, that seems to stir the collector′s instinct. Proverbs are an expression ofpopularwisdom: they are usually addressed to people without great advantages of birth or wealth, and they are much concerned with prudence and moderation, with knowing one′s place, with getting through life with the minimum of trouble. They are deeply conservative and traditional: they say a good deal about wisdom and folly, but by wisdom they mean the tried and tested way, the way of the elders, and the fool...

    • 27 Stanley Llewellyn Osborne 5 May 1971
      (pp. 296-298)

      Mr. Vice-Chancellor:

      Stanley Osborne is one of our own graduates, both of Victoria and Emmanuel Colleges. After being graduated from Emmanuel, he studied music, and earned a doctorate in music, going on later to earn a second doctorate in theology. He entered the ministry of the United Church, and after the usual number of assistantships and pastorates, he became principal of the Ontario Ladies′ College,¹ a post he filled for twenty years. He took on an exuberant Victorian building and several generations of students, at least a few of whom, private schools being what they are, must have been nearly...

    • 28 The Leap in the Dark 12 December 1971
      (pp. 299-305)

      In the Book of the Wisdom of Solomon, chapter 18, verses 14 to 16, we read:

      For while peaceful silence enwrapped all things, and night in her own swiftness was in mid course, thine all-powerful word leaped from heaven out of the royal throne, a stern warrior, into the midst of the doomed land, bearing as a sharp sword thine unfeigned commandment. And standing it filled all things with death; and while it touched the heaven, it stood upon the earth.

      Obviously, I should begin by explaining why I have chosen so curious a text for an Advent sermon. The...

    • 29 Wisdom and Knowledge 7 September 1973
      (pp. 306-310)

      The lesson read by the president comes from the book called Ecclesiasticus, or the Wisdom of Jesus Ben Sirach, chapter 43, which belongs to a large group of writings called wisdom literature. The Bible does not say much about knowledge, but it does have a good deal to say about wisdom, and consequently about folly. In the earliest wisdom literature the normal unit of communication is the proverb. The proverb is usually addressed to ordinary people, without great advantage of birth or wealth, and what it counsels is above all prudence. Whether we find it in the Old Testament, in...

    • 30 On Christmas December 1973
      (pp. 311-317)

      There is no indication in the New Testament of the time of year when Jesus was born, and the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke are relatively late. The earlier Gospels, Mark and John, begin with the Baptism, which became the main festival, outside Easter, in the Eastern churches. The Western churches seem to have introduced Christmas because of a feeling that the natural birth of Christ should be emphasized, to counteract a feeling that Jesus was not a man who was born and died, but a kind of ghost who manifested himself for a time and then disappeared. We...

    • 31 Wedding of Patricia Russell and Andrew Binnie 2 March 1974
      (pp. 318-320)

      We are gathered in the presence of God to join this man and this woman in marriage. Marriage is an honourable estate, instituted by God to manifest that love without which there is no genuine human life. What the will of God has decreed, the laws of man have accepted as a binding contract. Thus marriage cannot be taken lightly or casually, and you who are present have shown that you realize this by coming here. It is a part of this marriage, as of all others, that anyone who believes that he knows of any real impediment to it...

    • 32 Substance and Evidence 17 November 1974
      (pp. 321-327)

      The author of the letter to the Hebrews tells us that ″faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.″ This sounds like a definition of faith, but I don′t think it is one: I think this author would know that definitions, for the most part, are a quite mistaken way of trying to get things clear. What he′s done is to make a statement that outlines a general area, and somewhere inside that area we can find what he means by faith. We notice that he links faith with hope when he calls faith...

    • 33 Memorial Service for Mrs. Jean Haddow 20 November 1979
      (pp. 328-331)

      Now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept. For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. . . . So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which giveth...

    • 34 A Breath of Fresh Air 23 March 1980
      (pp. 332-337)

      The Old Testament lesson that I chose for today comes from the Book of Wisdom in the Apocrypha, where the author identifies himself with the legendary King Solomon. He wasn′t King Solomon: he lived many centuries later than that weak and extravagant horse trader, but I′m going to call him Solomon because he needs a name. Solomon, then, says that all of us, including kings who get a reputation for wisdom, are born as squalling babies, little pellets of ego, confronted with a huge and frightening world. We have to keep fighting for our balance and sanity in this world,...

    • 35 Baccalaureate Service (I) 29 March 1981
      (pp. 338-338)

      When we were born we were sent forth from the presence of God, to manifest that presence by life. The presence remains with us until we are called back into it at death. It is closer to us than the air we breathe. The end of the knowledge with which you have been entrusted is to become aware of that presence. No knowledge that does not lead to such awareness is genuine knowledge.

      The blessing of the one and only God, in his three persons of power, wisdom, and fellowship, be and abide with us....

    • 36 Funeral Service for Jean Gunn 16 November 1983
      (pp. 339-342)

      God did not make death, nor does he take pleasure in the destruction of the living. He created all things, that they might attain to their full being: the generative forces of the world are wholesome, and there is no poison of destruction in them. Neither is there any kingdom of death upon the earth, for rightness is immortal. [Wisdom of Solomon 1:13–15]

      Seeing then that we have such hope, we use great plainness of speech. At this day the veil is on our minds, but when we turn to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Where the...

    • 37 Baccalaureate Service (II) 14 April 1985
      (pp. 343-343)

      Let us serve the mind of God with honest reasoning, with tested evidence, with impartial judgment, with respect for all creative gifts.

      Let us serve the spirit of God by working for peace on earth, for good will and tolerance, for fulfilling the dignity of all human beings.

      Let us strive for the courage to succeed without arrogance and to fail without despair.

      Let us listen to the wise man who would have us rejoice in each one of our years, however many or few, and however frequent the darker days.

      Let us abide, now and always, in the presence...

    • 38 The Dialectic of Belief and Vision 3 December 1985
      (pp. 344-359)

      I apologize for a somewhat forbidding title, which was extracted from me in a hurry, and I hope most of the argument will lie down in pleasanter pastures. I am continuing the debate with myself that I started in my bookThe Great Code, which was a tentative exploring of the question: what place does the creative imagination, and the kind of response that we make to a work of literature, have in the study of religion in general, or of the text of the Bible in particular? As I have said in that book and elsewhere, the Bible is...

    • 39 To Come to Light 5 October 1986
      (pp. 360-366)

      Mark′s verse occurs four times in the synoptic Gospels, and Luke, who quotes it twice, adds the clause: ″What you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed upon the housetops″ [12:3]. At the time and place of the New Testament, there were various cults claiming a special knowledge of mysteries to be revealed to initiates. According to this text, the Gospel doesn′t reveal a special knowledge so much as an expanding of vision, one that makes a new kind of sense of whatever genuine knowledge we already have. I say genuine knowledge, because we remember that Adam and Eve...

    • 40 On Lent 23 March 1988
      (pp. 367-370)

      Lent, like Christmas, is far older than Christianity. The word itself comes from an Old English word meaning spring, and it goes back to the time when human societies committed themselves to agriculture and had to depend on grain crops for their food. It is probably even older than that, but it can at least be traced to a time of anxiety for the burial of the seed in the ground. Ezra Pound remarks that there seem to be two kinds of people: the people who think that sexual and other forms of licence are good for the crops and...

    • 41 Baccalaureate Service (III) 10 April 1988
      (pp. 371-371)

      The knowledge that has been entrusted to you is the food of the spirit. It must be shared with others; if hoarded for yourselves it will spoil. With the knowledge you have, you will often feel as though you had to feed thousands with only five loaves and two fish, but still what you have must be shared.

      The knowledge that you can have is inexhaustible, and what is inexhaustible is benevolent. The knowledge that you cannot have is of the riddles of birth and death, of our future destiny and the purposes of God. Here there is no knowledge,...

    • 42 Baccalaureate Service (IV) 9 April 1989
      (pp. 372-372)

      Let your approach to knowledge be without fear, for God wills to reveal himself, and his revelation is mysterious only because it is infinite.

      Let your approach to the world be without anger, for God cannot be invoked by bigotry or hatred; he cannot be touched by blasphemy; and his providence can never be seen in the context of human folly.

      Let your approach to your life revolve around love, for love is not a virtue among others but the only virtue there is.

      May the vision of the world of the spirit that God made and saw to be...

    • 43 Undated Prayers
      (pp. 373-386)

      Thou art the Eternal Father in Heaven, and we approach thee in the doubts and confusions of our own nature, for of ourselves we know thee only as the unknown God. We seek for thee everywhere: we try to find thee in our own reason, our own affections, our own anxieties, but we cannot by searching find thee out: everywhere there is only the vast shadow of ourselves. We may not come to thee, but thou hast come to us: thou who in the burning bush before Moses gavest thyself a name and a local habitation, and a role in...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 387-406)
  11. Emendations
    (pp. 407-410)
  12. Index
    (pp. 411-432)