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Transformations in Biblical Literary Traditions: Incarnation, Narrative, and Ethics: Essays in Honor of David Lyle Jeffrey

D. H. Williams and Phillip J. Donnelly, editors
Published by University of Notre Dame Press in 2014

Reviewed by Paul R. House, Beeson Divinity School, Samford University

Editing a good festschrift is analogous to integrating faith and learning in a university context. Both must balance research and application. They must show deference to the past while holding out hope for the future. Milestones must be duly noted without leaving the impression that perfection has been reached. Various branches of learning must be included without losing sight of clear unifying concepts. Circumstances will often thwart careful planning and scheduling of completion. Both lack wide-scale market appeal. Thus, Christian scholars might well conclude that the only thing more difficult than doing their job is editing a volume that celebrates one of their own. This volume manages to do both of these hard jobs very well indeed.

No doubt one reason this book succeeds is that its honoree has been such a good example of a serious, engaged Christian scholar. David Lyle Jeffrey, currently Distinguished Professor of Literature and Humanities in the Honors College of Baylor University, has written and taught on the connections between Bible, history, language, imagination, literature, theology, art, and cross-cultural education during a stellar career that now spans four decades. As Ralph Wood asserts, Jeffrey has been a model of “ecclesial humanism” that unites love of literature and history, commitment to people, and service in the church (159-160). The volume’s editors, D. H. Williams and Phillip J. Donnelly, observe that Jeffrey has insisted on a high standard of scholarly engagement without compromising his walk as a disciple of Jesus Christ living under the authority of Holy Scripture (3-4). Indeed, they state that Jeffrey believes that treating the Bible or any other text as “antiquarian relics” effectively “disables the genuinely receptive reading of any text, including scripture” (5). Noting Jeffrey’s personal kindness and his facility in a dozen languages and in literary theory, Liu Yi-Qing concludes,

But most of all, he is a Christian in the best sense of the word. His large mind, his kind and all-embracing character, his selfless devotion to teaching and research—all contribute to the way that he works to benefit students and colleagues, regardless of their race, nationality, religion, and political stance. These qualities stem from his sound humanistic training and from his faith that human nature remains open to redemption. (300)

Another reason the editors succeed is the high level of work produced by their contributors, which Williams and Donnelly divide into two sections: European Biblical Cultures: Interventions in Tradition (chapters 1-7); and Dissemination of Biblical Traditions: West and East (chapters 8-13). Chapters 1-3 deal with “pre-Enlightenment moments of change” between the interpretation of the relationship between biblical texts, non-biblical texts, and the cosmic order (6). In chapter 1, Phillip Donnelly discusses how the change from teaching Latin in an immersive way for the purpose of aiding oral religious disputation to the translation of texts as a primary purpose has altered students’ meditative and literary practices (15-41). In chapter 2, Dennis Danielson considers Milton’s Paradise Lost as an example of a biblically inspired epic that reflects a medieval worldview (42-59). Then, Sarah-Jane Murray and Tyler Watson focus on the medieval French text the Ovid moralisé as an illustration of visual storytelling produced through the use of scripture, art, and the literature of pagan antiquity in chapter 3 (60-95).

Chapters 4-7 present essays that examine “ways in which biblical interpretation and imaginative writing intersect in a series of responses to … the Enlightenment” (7). In chapter 4, Stephen Prickett analyzes how Romantic aesthetic theory came to treat the Bible and writings from the Western intellectual tradition as “literature” in the sense of texts that shape lives (96-110). In chapter 5 (111-158), John Fleming notes how David Hume’s extreme skepticism about the Bible’s historicity led to some early nineteenth-century works on the subject, “Did Napoleon Exist?” Turning to the 20th century, in chapter 6, Ralph Wood contrasts Chesterton’s imaginative “ecclesial humanism” with the “integral humanism” of writers such as Jacques Maritain (159-189), and in chapter 7 Dominic Manganiello demonstrates how the treatment of “Friendship and the City” in the works of J. R. R. Tolkien and Charles Williams differs from classical and postmodern authors (190-211).

Each of these chapters contributes something important to the study of how readers have used biblical material since medieval times and to an understanding of how the Humanities aid an informed integration of biblical faith and careful scholarship. For example, Donnelly’s chapter will help those of us who teach ancient languages weigh out the intellectual and spiritual consequences of using translation as a basic tool for today’s students. Danielson’s essay will push scholars trained in human-focused modern and postmodern views of reality to consider the more humble medieval view of humanity. Thus, new perspectives on creation and humanity’s place within it could be gained. Murray’s and Watson’s contribution may help literature and art professors explore how words and pictures contributed to interpretation long before the Internet era dawned. Prickett’s and Manganiello’s articles will encourage discussions of how and why “literature” does or does not aid ethical development. Fleming’s contribution will remind biblical scholars that many so-called historical-critical analyses are in fact logic exercises done in the absence of archaeological evidence. Read individually, the articles will interest specialists. Read as a whole, these chapters will help scholars readers engaged in other disciplines examine how the various branches of the Humanities can sharpen and challenge one’s thinking and teaching.

The six essays in Part Two emphasize how biblical literary traditions have been utilized in North America and China. They do so in a manner that encourages, perhaps even urges, readers to share David Lyle Jeffrey’s commitment to Christian discipleship demonstrated through Christian scholarship. Chapter 8 is crucial to the book’s purpose. Here Gregory Maillet discusses the difference between Northrop Frye’s treatment of “the Bible as literature” and Jeffrey’s treatment of “the Bible and literature” (215-228). Maillet argues that like Matthew Arnold, Frye treats the Bible as “literary mythology” that teaches “ethical lessons but not philosophical truth” (217). In contrast, Jeffrey claims, like T. S. Eliot, that the Bible has influenced English literature because it claims to be the authoritative word of God (216). Therefore, Jeffrey stresses the linguistic, historical, and theological foundations the Bible has provided authors (220-225). Jeffrey believes the Bible cannot be treated as just another literary work, for its literary influence cannot be separated from the commitments it commands and the positive and negative responses that command evokes (226).

In chapter 9, Mark Noll ably demonstrates how some of Jeffrey’s fellow Canadians have taken the Bible’s authoritative character seriously without engaging in the polemics that have dogged American Christianity (229-245). In chapter 10, Eleonore Stump presents a fascinating study on “self-destroying evil” and its consequent suffering using the Samson stories (246-267), which is hardly the typical basis for examining the ethical implications of suffering. Chapter 11, authored by Theresa Coletti (268-288), and chapter 12, written by Yang Huilin (289-298), focus on the adaptation of medieval mystery plays in post-Apartheid South Africa and the use of the Bible in interdisciplinary studies in China, respectively. Finally, in chapter 13, Liu Yi-Qing describes how Jeffrey’s teaching in China has provided theoretical soundness and research opportunities for Chinese scholars (299-305). Liu’s suffering under the Mao regime makes his dedication to the textual integrity Jeffrey’s work espouses quite poignant.

All these articles highlight the connection between scholarship and commitment. According to Maillet, Jeffrey’s insistence on the Bible and literature forces one to engage in serious study of language, history, and theology. One cannot simply make general comments about the Bible as a moral force. Noll’s chapter demonstrates that a high view of the Bible need not lead to a high view of conflict. Stump’s essay proves that treating the Bible as a viable source for philosophical discourse yields dividends from seemingly unlikely biblical sources. Coletti’s contribution underscores the healing power of the biblical story artfully presented, Yang illustrates the transcultural nature of the biblical story, and Liu contends that respect for the biblical text leads to respect for all texts, thereby resulting in a more sustainably ethical culture. Commitment is the irreplaceable component in all these pieces.

This book could have many uses. It could serve as a model for other volumes honoring a colleague. It could aid scholars in the specific fields it addresses. It could invite similar contributions from the Sciences, Business, Music, Law, Divinity, and Education. It could initiate young scholars in doctoral programs into the fellowship of Christian scholarship. It could be required reading for a faculty retreat. There are many venues in which it would be beneficial to consider the main point that this volume’s writers stress: the Humanities are essential to Christian faith and learning. In doing so these authors provide a fine tribute to David Lyle Jeffrey. Whatever future the book has, it will have one particular beneficial effect on readers. It will make them want to read Jeffrey’s works, which will be a great help to the ongoing integration of faith and learning anchored in faithful interpretation of the Bible and literature.

Cite this article
Paul R. House, “Transformations in Biblical Literary Traditions: Incarnation, Narrative, and Ethics: Essays in Honor of David Lyle Jeffrey”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 44:4 , 423-425

Paul R. House

Beeson Divinity School
Paul R. House is Professor of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School, Samford University.