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The New Testament and Literature: A Guide to Literary Patterns Paperback – February 1, 2006
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The New Testament may be the most influential book of all time, from both a religious and a literary standpoint. But while the New Testament's impact upon people's religious beliefs and practices has been analyzed-and continues to be analyzed-at enormous length and in intricate detail, amazingly little has been written about the New Testament's impact as literature.
In The New Testament and Literature, Stephen Cox offers a literary guide to the New Testament and to some of the classic works of Christian literature that have followed it. He identifies what he calls the New Testament's DNA, and shows how that DNA is replicated in works by such varied authors as John Donne, Rudyard Kipling, William Blake, Emily Dickinson, T.S. Eliot, James Baldwin, D.H. Lawrence, William Faulkner, Martin Luther King, and C.S. Lewis.
Professor Cox begins with fundamental questions of the origin and nature of the New Testament, identifies its literary genres, and shows how its basic literary patterns unite spe¬cific ideas with specific techniques. So pervasively influential has the New Testament been within English-speaking culture that even works by anti-Christian authors or writers whose orientation to Christianity is ambiguous persistently replicate the New Testament's literary patterns.
Cox's approach is not primarily theological, historical, or devotional. He does something uncommon, something often mentioned or recommended but rarely attempted in a serious way. It looks at the New Testament both as a distinctive work of literature and as a productive influence on later works of literature.
Many books have been written about "the Bible as literature." For some, the phrase means, in effect, the Old Testament as lit¬erature. For many others, it means the study of historical issues that have little to do with the special characteristics of New Testament writing. Few books are willing to assess the literary quality of the New Testament. Fewer still are written for intelli¬gent readers who may not already be very familiar with the Bible or Christian teachings.
Making the New Testament accessible as literature does not mean examining its techniques in abstraction from its vital mes¬sage. Nor does it mean tracing its themes in abstraction from its literary methods. The New Testament and Literature approaches its subject by identifying certain patterns, certain combinations of ideas and methods, that give the New Testament its distinc¬tiveness and coherence and its ability to create resemblances to itself in later literature. I call these patterns the DNA of the New Testament.
Part I (the first eight chapters) explores these patterns, iden¬tifying specific elements of the New Testament's DNA, and examining their effects on the four major types of New Testament literature: gospel, epistle, church history, and apoca¬lypse. The chief examples are the gospels of Luke and John, the Acts of the Apostles, the epistles of Paul to the Galatians and the Corinthians, and the Revelation.
Part II (Chapters 9-16), examines the influence of New Testament patterns on a wide range of English and American lit¬erature.
Chapter 9 shows the persistence of the New Testament DNA in one of the earliest works in the English language, The Dream of the Rood, and in a story written twelve centuries later, Rudyard Kipling's "The Gardener."
Chapter 10 samples the vast popular literature of Christian revival, with special reference to George Foxe's Book of Martyrs, a work of the Protestant Reformation, and Christian hymns of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Chapter 11 discusses the importance of the New Testament DNA in the seemingly opposed religious movements repre¬sented by John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress and the poetry of John Donne and George Herbert.
Chapter 12 explores the tradition of New Testament individ¬ualism, as represented especially in the work of William Blake and Emily Dickinson.
Chapter 13 takes up the influence of the book of Revelation, particularly in American culture. It looks at a variety of popular American writers, including Dickinson, Julia Ward Howe, James Baldwin, and Vachel Lindsay.
Chapter 14 analyzes literary challenges to Christianity, expos¬ing their ironic tendency to assimilate Christian patterns of thought and writing. This chapter considers works by John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, D.H. Lawrence, Harold Frederic, Sinclair Lewis, and others.
Chapter 15 follows some of the many literary responses that Christians and non-Christians have made to attacks on Christianity and the New Testament. The authors considered here include Thornton Wilder, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, John Betjeman, Martin Luther King, C.S. Lewis, and Robert Browning.
Chapter 16 studies two distinguished examples of twentieth-century literature, the fiction of J.F. Powers and the poetry of T.S. Eliot-vivid illustrations of the way in which the same New Testament patterns can renew themselves in works that seem radically different in approach and style.
For the reader's convenience, Part III presents the texts of some of the works discussed in the book.