Saturday, 28 February 2009

What a difference a generation makes . . .

Update on the Literary Biblical References quiz.

With scores of between 6 and 10 from those who responded (to whom many thanks for taking the trouble and for some interesting comments), I thought it would be more pertinent to Andrew Motion's fears to consult members of the current generation of students. So I asked my 15-year-old daughter to give it a whirl.

She has revealed her score in the comments to the original post .

Hmmm. Beginning to see what you mean, Mr M!

I've asked SD#1 to get her friends to have a go and let me know how they fared.

Meanwhile, further scores and comments from anyone - of any age or religious persuasion - will be most welcome.

How much is our enjoyment and understanding of fiction, poetry and drama enhanced by our ability to pick up biblical allusions and references? And how much diminished if they simply go unnoticed? Is The Bible in (or as) Literature something that should be actively taught as part of the English curriculum in schools and on English degree courses (see Logophile's comment on the original post)? And if not, then is this a vital chunk of our cultural heritage which is going to be lost forever (and apparently pretty quickly so)?

And, all you writers out there: is the Bible still mined for literary purposes? Have you ever deliberately or unconsciously used biblical metaphors, allusions or references in your work, or plundered the Bible in other ways (eg for the titles of novels)?


Levi Stahl said...

Though I take your point, I'm not entirely sure how appropriate that quiz is as a measure of familiarity with the Bible. I would argue that recognizing and being able to contextualize quotations or references is far more important than--as the quiz so often asks--being able to place them in specific books. The writing Belshazzar saw on the wall, for example, I thought was in Daniel, but it didn't really matter because I knew the context, and thus the larger meaning of the phrase.

That said, I do remember my repeated surprise on first reading the Bible (and, in the same vein, Shakespeare) as a college student and realizing that more or less every phrase we've been handed down comes from there.

Anonymous said...

Have just caught up with these fascinating posts after wallowing in a sea of tears for a week or so, J. I didn't do the quiz because I was so brain-numb that I thought I would fail miserably and then feel even more dejected.

My work means that I frequently have to mine familiar (or unfamiliar) sources for quotations and, like Levi, I am surprised at how often the source turns out to be Biblical (and by Biblical, I really mean Old Testament rather than new). As a child I loathed any sort of compulsory bible reading; as an adult - although not an Anglican - I can appreciate the beauty of the language of the King James Bible (ditto the Book of Common Prayer).

Does it help to be able to recognise the Biblical references in a piece of writing? Up to a point - but why stop at the Bible? Trying to spot the eclectic references in, say, T S Eliot (from jazz to the Vedas) will give any student a vigorous literary work-out, if they can tolerate the anti-Semitism. But even in the 1960s, and having benefited from what might be deemed a classical education (well, classical by today's standards), I recall our class having to be coached through Eliot's poetry and the sources of all his literary allusions. But I also remember being mesmerised by The Journey of the Magi the first time I read it, without any prior tuition, and can distinctly recall how I responded to the magic of its language.

Maybe it's like music; most of us can respond to different types of music at a conscious and sub-conscious level, without necessarily knowing why or without necessarily understanding the musical context. Being in possession of the theoretical knowledge adds interest - but in the wrong hands ratchets up the smugness level a notch or two. We've all come across the insufferable bore who knows it all and then proceeds to lecture us accordingly, whether we want to listen or not.

On balance, I suppose that I am more impressed by the ability to recognise beauty, in all its forms, than by a Gradgrind-like possession of assorted facts. Knowledge without the capacity to respond from the heart and the senses is fairly meaningless. Perhaps what matters is how we read, rather than what.

Joanna said...

Students at Oxford reading Eng Lit start by learning Anglo Saxon, and my contemporaries all whinged about this a great deal. The following year, they were lofty in their disdain for the whingeing first years, saying that you could only appreciate the music in English, the rhythms in literature, if you had learnt Anglo Saxon AND learnt to love it. Hogwash I say. And I rather think that, although a little is lost in translation, it's all fine, so long as you are not planning a PhD in early modern literature. Or, I suppose, you could try to interest your daughter by giving her a copy of Adam Nicolson's book about the writing of the King James's Bible (recommended, a good read)

As far as your daughter is concerned - I'd be very pleased that she has such good manners :)


Juliet said...

Levi - you are absolutely right, of course, about the severe limitations of that little quiz as a measure of anything much at all! Like you, I found it fascinating as a student to discover just how much of what we read and write and perhaps above all SAY, in everyday chatter, derives from the Bible and from Shakespeare. And recognising this (even if, as you say, we can't pinpoint the exact chapter and verse, Act or scene) adds, I believe, enormously to the richness of our experience of language and literature and our sense of being part of a deeply rooted culture.

D - thank you so much for your long and thoughtful comment. I hope the sea of tears is gradually abating - you've been very much in my thoughts and those of all your blog-friends these past weeks. Your remarks about the smugness of knowledge-bores really struck a chord with me, and as for "I am more impressed by the ability to recognise beauty, in all its forms, than by a Gradgrind-like possession of assorted facts. Knowledge without the capacity to respond from the heart and the senses is fairly meaningless", well, how perfectly put, D - I so wish I had written that myself! xx

Juliet said...

Joanna - I shall certainly find a copy of the Adam N book and read it myself - sounds fascinating.