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Literature and the Bible - Discovering the Influences and Similarities

Updated on August 24, 2013

Long Story Short

  • The Bible is an allegory for all kinds of stories.
  • It serves as basis and/or source of inspiration for most writers (a very popular and obvious example being Pulp Fiction).
  • Why? Because it is a wildly popular book, especially in the Western culture.

The Bible and Literature

Throughout history, it is clearly noticeable that Western literature is filled with allusions, metaphors or symbols that are more or less connected with the Bible.

For example: gardens, serpents, floods, slavery, fishes, fishermen, freedom, betrayal, and so on, are found almost in every work of art. However, the biblical symbols are seldom used in order to explore larger conclusions or to draw comparisons and connections.

To better explain my statement, consider Samuel L. Jackson's character in Pulp Fiction. Throughout his extensive use of swear words, Samuel L. Jackson's character has an impressive (and pretty lengthy) quote from the Bible, more specifically Ezekiel 25:17.

Two conclusions can be drawn following this line of thought:

1. Quentin Tarantino had contact at some point with the Bible.

2. Jules Winnfield becomes all of the sudden a more complex character, not just some ruthless henchman. His quote from the Bible, filled with rhetoric and meaning, is nothing short of spectacular being placed in the context of angry mobsters.

The following paragraphs of this hub will try to show how can you (most likely a non-Bible specialist) can identify potential biblical situation, and how to interpret one.

Remember Ezekiel?

Writing Something with Biblical Value

At this point, I think it is safe to assume that most of the writers aren't biblical scholars. However, one can be able to understand the techniques that "point" to something bigger.

So, if a text resonates outside itself, it is very likely that the allusion refers to a biblical myth or allegory. If not, it's either Ancient Greek, Roman, or Shakespeare, particularly for the Anglo-American literature. I realize that my statement can be a bit over-generalizing at this point (which it is) but unfortunately for English majors, if one really wants to mathematically categorize, literature can be broken down in a handful of myths and themes. If you happen to have some answers or opinions to this ongoing discussion on the breaking down of literature feel free to share them in the comment section!

To return to the discussion, even though you are an established writer, you are not required to know the Bible by heart in order to elaborate complicated plots, themes, characters, and enriching motifs. For instance, you just want a title. John Steinbeck's East of Eden, or William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! are solid examples of Biblical values without actual references.

Since everyone is expecting a better tomorrow due to the harsh conditions, what about trying to write something about that? A book about harshness, loss of hope, post-apocalyptic kind of thing. One might look up a passage or two that will say everything will be alright, that every night is followed by a new dawn, or that life is a continuous rebirth.

However, if you want to be "in-tune" with the current way of thinking, one could ironically look at that new dawn, especially if he/she has witnessed the horrors of a global conflict, such as the Great War. This is what happens in modernism. The "savior" figure that is supposed to bring the new dawn is replaced with anguish and despair, and the "man" faces and becomes aware of his own worthlessness and mortality.

I almost forgot about the names. Literature is full with Jonathans, Johns, Matthews, Stephens, Marcus, and so on. The name must indeed add to the reading experience, but even though it needs to sound good, the name should also carry some message regarding the character or the story itself.

The cover of the Gutenberg Bible.
The cover of the Gutenberg Bible. | Source
Salman Rushdie presenting his book "Shalimar the clown" at Mountain View, USA, October 2005
Salman Rushdie presenting his book "Shalimar the clown" at Mountain View, USA, October 2005 | Source

The Bible, Literature, and Irony

Since I have mentioned irony (which is, by the way, one of the most commonly used techniques in modernism/postmodernism), many works of contemporary literature use the Bible not to show a certain connection, promise, or continuity with the present; rather, they manifest a form of disruption and alienation.

When dealing with such holy items, nothing good can come out of this.

Salman Rushdie, a British Indian novelist, wrote in 1988 The Satanic Verses. His characters were used to parody certain events and important persons from the Koran and the Prophet. Even though Rushdie's intentional use of irony meant assuming certain risks, the Islamic community issued a fatwa (more commonly known as a death sentence) against him.

In the contemporary literature however, Christ figures are no longer capable of saving the world from sin, and they are often ridiculed. It is needless to say that this can cause some aggressive reactions from the conservative religious communities. Luckily, the religious ridicules have grown lighter and more comic over the past years.

Here is what you need to know

  • The Bible is fundamental for the development of Western literature.
  • The plots, themes, motifs, etc. within the Bible are timeless.
  • You do not have to be a Bible scholar to distinguish some biblical patterns.
  • Modern stories are projections (or ironies) regarding the Bible, meaning that they connect to a larger scheme, thereby adding weight and reinforcing biblical symbols, plots, etc.

Final Thoughts about the Bible and Literature

Does the connections between the Bible and literature increase the reading experience?

Most definitely. Even though the allusions are less subtle, they do not change the meaning of a text that much. What do they do instead, is that they make the text a bit more heavier; the contemporary story of a struggle between two brothers has its roots since the beginning of time with Cain and Abel.

Thus, the "modern story" (modern being here anything from the Bible onwards) is a projection of a much older myth. They accumulate over time, and keep the archetypal plot from disappearing.

Introduction to the Bible as a Literary Classic

Food for thought

Have you ever thought of the Bible as a literary object?

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