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The Gospel according to Frank Kermode

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‘The Bible is a familiar model of history,’ Frank Kermode wrote in The Sense of an Ending:

It begins at the beginning (‘In the beginning…’) and ends with a vision of the end (‘Even so, come, Lord Jesus’); the first book is Genesis, the last Apocalypse. Ideally, it is a wholly concordant structure, the end is in harmony with the beginning, the middle with beginning and end. The end, Apocalypse, is traditionally held to resume the whole structure, which it can do only by figures predictive of that part of it which has not been historically revealed. The Book of Revelation made its way only slowly into the canon – it is still unacceptable to Greek Orthodoxy – perhaps because of learned mistrust of over-literal interpretation of the figures. But once established it showed, and continues to show, a vitality and resource that suggest its consonance with our more naive requirements of fiction.

Reviewing The Literary Guide to the Bible, which Kermode edited with Robert Alter, John Barton described them as ‘two critics who have given a new rigour and seriousness to the “Bible as literature” movement’. Kermode’s first piece for the LRB, in the first issue of the paper, was on popular millenarianism. His last, in 2010, was a review of Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. In the middle (among two hundred other pieces) he wrote on Judas Iscariot, Pontius Pilate and Doubting Thomas:

Telling a story, John invented or developed a sceptical person rather than talk abstractly about an atmosphere of scepticism. He did something similar with Judas Iscariot, working in a tradition of Jewish writing in which narrative could be supplemented by more narrative to make particular points, to explain difficulties or to update the story. Since there was obviously a betrayal there needed to be a betrayer; Judas filled the role, and earlier mentions of him were made to fit the character that had developed. It is a complex and rather beautiful process, and once the power of fiction is let loose on such a character there is no knowing how he will end up.

These pieces and others, by Kermode and others, have been collated here. Happy Easter.

Comments on “The Gospel according to Frank Kermode”

  1. streetsj says:

    It’s a bit dangerous for a religion to have as its central text a book which shouldn’t be taken literally. Isn’t it?

  2. Simon Wood says:

    That floored ’em.

    As North Korea marches to freedom, reading their phone book as they do so – it is mercifully short – we evidently read the King James Version uncomprehendingly, with our lips moving, before moving on to Shakespeare, more foggy old tosh, on the desert island of our ignorance.

    I myself liberated a King James Bible from my old grammar school which was demolished and replaced by an academy. There was a cupboardful, neglected. Theft of a bible may be a hanging error in the new Britain, so I’ll keep that quiet.

    However, open the page anywhere in its onion-skin wealth and the book is mind-bogglingly rich in suggestion through the prism of multifaceted translation, image upon image unfolding in muscular English.

    But it is not as mysterious as the Latin Mass, which I remember with virtually hallucinogenic echoes, a Byzantine stained-glass window of rhythmic mysticism, which did not pretend or promise that today, Easter Saturday, was anything but another ordinary Saturday on a weekend, devoid of oppressive meaning, in the incomprehensible gap between the savage – for a kid – drama of Good Friday and the astonishingly translucent, literally light-hearted relief of Easter Sunday.

    If that makes sense.

    • michael bosley says:

      It’s no good stealing the thing if you don’t read it.

      1 Corinthians 6:

      9 Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind,

      10 Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.

      So that’s you out then.

      As an adult, I still find the Easter story “savage”. A god who demands blood sacrifice? Like Christopher Hitchens, I’d say that the moral response is to reject the charge of collective guilt prior to the Crucifixion, and to oppose the tyrant who insists that an innocent man must be tortured to death in place of those he claims are guilty.

      • Simon Wood says:

        It’s only a story.

      • RobotBoy says:

        I’m no more of a theologian than I am a man of faith but I think that redemption story can be read more generously than Hitchens was willing to do.
        What you label ‘collective guilt’ is simply the innate capacity of the human animal to lie, cheat, steal and murder – original sin, if you will. The Law of the Old Testament provided a moral code, allowing us to separate right and wrong, a code without which we were no more than vicious beasts. However, the underlying problem of our sinful nature was accepted as unchanging, the price for having fallen into this world. We’d never be able to stop giving in to the worst aspects of our nature and the punishments for breaking the code tended toward the severe.
        Christ brought a new dispensation that allowed humans to supersede their sinful natures through love and forgiveness, that is to say, what makes us divine. This is the ‘good news’ that Christ preached – heaven coming to us through a flesh and blood man. His crucifixion serves as an example of what befalls those who chose to embrace his message but their martyrdom inspires those who follow him.
        Of course, you have to buy all that ‘through death eternal life’ stuff. ‘Faith is a fine invention…’

      • Higgs Boatswain says:

        As Terry Eagleton observed in his review of Dawkins in this publication, the problem with many of the ‘new atheists’ is that they don’t bother to understand the thing they are arguing against, simply because they don’t think there’s anything worthwhile to be understood. Unfortunately, this makes many of their characterisations of Christianity (and other religious traditions for all I know) appear rather ludicrously off-beam.

        If Hitchens was a little more familiar with the niceties of Christian atonement theology, he would be aware that he is arguing against a claim that very few people actually make (penal substitutionary atonement being more-or-less limited to a few hardline Protestants these days) and which was never very popular outside the Calvinist tradition. I tend to sympathise with this characterisation of PSA (which Giles Fraser has also made, and better), but it’s obviously irrelevant to the majority of Christians who hold quite different ideas about what the work of the Cross achieved.

        • michael bosley says:

          I would be wary of condescending to Christopher Hitchens, but since he is no longer here to respond, that will have to remain a moot point.

          It is to be welcomed that the “psychopathic” God (in Jeffrey John’s terminology) who endorses notions of vicarious guilt and redemption has been repeatedly challenged, but I am sceptical of your claim that “the majority of Christians” now hold to a “quite different” interpretation of the crucifixion.

          The Vatican’s exegesis of the catechism clearly rests upon PSA and I’d wager that a large proportion of Good Friday sermons preached across the country this weekend were based upon it upon it – indeed, this morning, I’ve driven past two Anglican churches displaying posters proclaiming “Jesus died for your sins”.

          This is not surprising given that the Biblical framing of the crucifixion is so unambiguously that of the blood sacrifice. It takes both effort and ingenuity to tear it away from that language.

        • streetsj says:

          I read Eagleton’s piece twice, several years apart and what it seemed to me to say was that Dawkins and his ilk didn’t understand what Christianity was really about; they foolishly assumed that what is preached/chanted/sung/recited/read throughout the country in churches and chapels and what most Christians think of as Christianity is terribly superficial. Theologians have long since moved on from taking any of the God-stuff literally.
          Thinking about it now it seems like just another example of the liberal elite and the left behinders. No wonder Church of England congregations voted for Brexit.

  3. Graucho says:

    Whatever one may think of the content, the writing style of the King James version is some of the finest to be found in English literature. The authors of the New English bible replaced jewels with paste.

  4. Simon Wood says:

    Out of the cloud of unknowing I remember two things recently. I spoke at my mother’s funeral, she was 90. Her faith, I said, for her, was not a matter of life and death, it was more important than that.

    I was hoping for some jolly laughter from the football-crazy Irish clergy. But there was a deathly silence.

    Secondly, my friend, a mystic Welsh pastor in Texas, interviewed me on his radio show. Was I believer or an atheist, he asked me. I asked him back, what was that thing in between, when you weren’t sure? For some reason I could never remember the word.

    “Agnostic,” he said. OK, I said, ask me that.

    “Are you an agnostic?” he asked, somewhat tiredly. And I replied,

    “I don’t know.”

    • hag says:

      I can’t trump that one, but….
      Speaking at my mother’s funeral just before easter (she’d been 91), I mentioned that her ‘charismatic’ faith was rooted in her lapsed Catholicism, and that her stubborn unwillingness to die and prolonged suffering had more to do with her hidden doubts and deep fear of dying than anything else.
      Her happy-clappy congregation was equally silent, but then I remembered that my mother had been a wonderful person not because, but despite of her faith, and so I stopped holding forth and said that instead.
      It may be wishful thinking, but it seems to me that not only do most Christians not take the bible literally (qua Eagleton), their lives don’t even reflect its most basic tenets, unless by accident. The rumbling institutional beasts still cluttering the landscape are a different matter, lending themselves to the analyses of Dawkins and other groin-kickers, but people inhabit a different plane. Of course there may be literary elements worth looking at in scripture, but only for those of a morbid disposition.
      In today’s world of sedentary consumerism, why not choose sports as a guide to life, and indeed the soul, instead? For if promise of redemption, a sense of belonging, some grace under fire, generational continuity, and the odd miracle or two is what you’re after, why look further?
      It follows that my mother’s one and only failure, and she shares this with all religionists, is her inability at a young age to have developed a healthy relationship with her local football club.

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