Sunday, October 14, 2012

What to Read Before You Read the Classics

Classic Literature and the Bible

By Adriana
Welcome to the beginning of a very long series called "Classic Literature and the Bible". I could have already written a hundred posts on this subject with the short list of classic titles I've read in the last several months. I'm starting to see that the debt classic literature owes the Bible is massive.

Why is hardly anyone writing about this? Is it because little children no longer go to Sunday School and learn to chant their thees and thous? Perhaps. I think we can all agree that the Bible is fading from our cultural subconscious.

Abraham and three Angels - Marc Chagall
Abraham and Three Angels - Marc Chagall

If you are a college student reading this post, pay attention here: If you plan to study the Western canon of literature in school, start by reading the King James Bible from cover to cover. I promise you will have a major edge when it comes to understanding nuances, themes, symbols, references, characterization, and on and on and on. (I do confess: I am a Christian, so if you become converted along the way, I'm not going to be sad about that!)

Seriously. It should be required reading. Nearly every book I've read on this list of "History's Greatest Hits" has had one common thread: references to Scripture.
I came to the classics feeling very unworthy and unprepared. I'm still humbled by the great thoughts I absorb every day from some of the greatest minds in the world; however, I'm discovering I was more prepared than I thought I was.

When I was a child, my parents read the Bible to me every night in the King James Version. In hind sight, I can see that, other than learning to read, knowledge of the Bible has given me the best possible advantage in terms of comprehension.
The Jacob's Dream - Marc Chagall
The Jacob's Dream - Marc Chagall
I've researched this subject online and though I did not find much, the following two articles are well worth your time:

The New York Times Book Review (Just before Christmas 2011, the NY Times reviewed the Bible. Isn't that cute?), "The Book of Books: What Literature Owes the Bible", by Marilynne Robinson.
 The Bible is the model for and subject of more art and thought than those of us who live within its influence, consciously or unconsciously, will ever know.

National Geographic, "The Bible of King James", by Adam Nicolson. I have a hard copy of this article, which is also available at the website in it's entirety. After you read the article, don't forget to look at the photo gallery.

First printed 400 years ago, it molded the English language, buttressed the “powers that be”—one of its famous phrases—and yet enshrined a gospel of individual freedom. No other book has given more to the English-speaking world.

David - Marc Chagall
David - Marc Chagall

Classical Quest now publishes a "Classics and the Bible Sundays" post each Sunday right here. You can also find the same posts at the Classics and the Bible blog. Visit Classics and the Bible to search all archived posts in which I make a connection between the Bible and classic literature.

How well do you feel your education prior to reading the classics has served you?

23 comments:

  1. I do so agree about the importance of reading the Bible to understanding Western literature. I will post a big long reply later when I get to a better place!

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  2. Perfect idea! Anna Karenina is loaded with references to Scripture.

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    1. Thanks Ruth. I'm thinking about starting a page with a reference guide. I would love to have feedback on this. I'm only halfway through Anna Karenina, but so far my recommendation for it would be to read the Sermon on the Mount. (Matthew 5, 6, & 7) Any other suggestions?

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  3. OK, I'm going to try now--we are at my brother's house for the weekend and I'm doing this on my tablet. So. I went to Cal Berkeley for college, and I was a lit major. Pretty much everyone there was smarter than I was--I was totally outclassed. :) Some of my favorite classes were in medieval literature, but all of them really needed some knowledge of the Bible for background.

    I took two classes in medieval lit from my favorite professor. We read "The Quest for the Holy Grail," which has a whole lot about what Adam and Eve did, and the Passover, and all sorts of stuff. The professor was utterly stunned (I was too actually) to discover that I was the only person in the whole class who knew things like what happened in the Garden of Eden or what Passover was. She had to spend a couple of weeks of class time on a crash course in Jewish and Christian history.

    I had never realized before how many of my classmates had no knowledge whatsoever of the Bible. And they were English majors! At a big fancy university! They were working under a terrible handicap without realizing it.

    So, anyway: a solid knowledge of the Bible is crucial to understanding Western literature. It's best if you know it very very well indeed, as all the writers did (no matter what their beliefs were), because they will throw in constant little quotations or reworked phrasing that they expect you to recognize.

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    1. Oh my goodness Jean! How sad! Thank you for sharing your story. I too am very surprised that you were the only one in your whole class who was familiar with Scripture. I knew the general ability to comprehend literature has been decaying for quite some time, but I would not have thought it was THAT bad!


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    2. Well, don't extrapolate from one literature class. Most of my classmates came from secular homes and had just never learned that material. But that's a problem if you want to be an English major!

      I look forward to your Sunday updates--I think it's a great idea.

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    3. Well, thank you. :) As I mentioned to Tim below, I don't consider myself a Biblical scholar or anything! I was just a kid who was raised in church and trained to read the Bible for myself. When I started reading the classics, I began to notice lots of stuff I was familiar with.

      Some of my readers are more qualified to do this than I am. I would be thrilled to have your input whenever possible! And please use this idea on your own blog if you feel so inclined! I'd love that.

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  4. I read that children should read and be read too from the KJV to help with their reading and understanding the classics on the Ambleside Online website.

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    1. That sounds interesting Melissa. I'll check that out!

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  5. I'm fond of reading the Bible in various translations. I haven't finished reading it, not systematically, at least, but I'm eager to finish it as soon as possible.

    I read KJV and also several others, sometimes in other languages (including my own language) for comparison, and it's amazing. Once I fill one page on my diary with quotes from literature compared with quotes from the Bible. I agree that the KJV is one of the most influential translation in English.

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    1. I'm glad you commented. It's always fun to hear from a new voice. I checked out your lovely blog. What a treat!

      I have a great esteem for people who can read in various languages. I can imagine it IS quite an amazing experience to be able to make comparisons the way you describe. Feel free to drop your own observations and Biblical references in the comment box any time!

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  6. I totally agree, Adrianna! I was blessed to take a class called The Bible and Literature in my senior year of high school, just after I became a Christian.

    I'm looking forward to your Sunday posts! Great idea, and don't feel any pressure to post every single week. We will enjoy it whenever you get a chance to do it. : )

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    1. Thank you dear friend. :) You are always so gracious. I'm really excited about this too!

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  7. Good idea for a series, Adriana. Tracking Shakespeare's biblical references alone would be a full time job, let alone the rest of the western canon. I'm looking forward to what you find for us.

    Tim

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    1. Yes Tim, I think I have my work cut out for me! The thing is -- I don't consider myself a Biblical scholar. I was just a kid who grew up in church and was raised to read my Bible.

      I came to the classics with wide eyes, an open mind, and very few associations attached. After a while, I started to notice a bunch of stuff in my reading that I was VERY familiar with. So here I am. :)

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  8. Hope you have all the books in that version! Wisdom was written for a time very much like our own. The culture of the Jews was under attack by Greek domination. Economic forms and Greek philosophy was attempting to usurp them from Truth. The "Crown" of Wisdom aids those set in a culture under attack. A prudent book to consider amid the toils of our times!

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    1. I confess, I'm not familiar with Wisdom or any of the deuterocanonical books. That's not to say I shouldn't be! I'm grateful, dear reader, that you have brought this to my attention. Feel free to leave your insights any time!

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  9. Hello!!! :) Thank you for this tip. I am planning to read the classics after i stumbled upon your blog and lucky for me i have the King James Bible. Yes! haha. But as English is my second language there are some passages and words that i don't quite understand. So this would be more like of a "learning new words" for me. I dont mind the "thou" and "thy" much. And i love the "Verily, i say unto you". haha So yeah ill try to start reading the King James bible first from cover to cover(i have not read the bible from cover to cover) so yeah. I'll buzz you when im done and then ask what to read next. Or maybe you could recommend something to read while im reading the bible. I'm sorry this is a bit too long. I hope you get what i am trying to say. And by the way, i was surprised by the new header picture. It's lovely. Are those the same trees from before?

    P.s. I opened my KJB and this is what it has to say: O satisfy us early with thy mercy; that we may rejoice and be glad all our days. psalm 90:14. Thanks again!!!

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    1. Oh im sorry, it should be KJV hehe :)

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    2. First let me just say that I am absolutely in awe of anyone who reads through a classic work in her second language! And the King James Bible?! Wow! I commend you.

      If I was attempting to do what you are doing, I think I would use a website like biblegateway.com to check my comprehension. You can chose from many different languages and translations to create a parallel reading plan. Reading chronologically is also nice. In this way you can read the events in the order they occurred. I found a chronological reading plan here:

      http://70030.netministry.com/apps/articles/?articleid=31608&columnid=3801

      (For some reason, Blogger won't let me post links in my comment box so I'm going to post these links for you on my Classical Quest Facebook page.)

      As for classic books to read while reading through the Bible -- there are so many! Anna Karenina immediately comes to mind because I'm still blogging about it on Sundays. Soon I'll be starting The Pilgrim's Progress -- I think Biblical knowledge would be indispensable for that one!

      Love the hopeful Psalm you shared! Thank you for that!:)

      Take care dear!

      Adriana

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    3. OK, I've got those links up for you on Facebook. I hope they help. I've just discovered that "chronological order" is now referred to as "historical linear timeline order". I'll have to get used to saying it that way! :)

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  10. You should have already found the relation between your opportunities and college program of your choice. Go to what are the majors for college to find help in picking a college major.

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Blessings,

Adriana