15.08.48, Williams and Donnelly, eds., Transformations in Biblical Literary Traditions

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James Morey

The Medieval Review 15.08.48

Williams, D.H. and Phillip Donnelly, eds. Transformations in Biblical Literary Traditions: Incarnation, Narrative, and Ethics: Essays in Honor of David Lyle Jeffrey. Notre Dame Studies in Ethics and Culture. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2014. pp. vii, 348. ISBN: 9780268044282 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
James Morey
Emory University

The first piece of scholarship by David Lyle Jeffery that I recall reading was his compellingly titled "The Bible as Literature in the 1980s: A Guide for the Perplexed" (University of Toronto Quarterly 59 [1990]: 569-580). At a Kalamazoo Medieval Congress in the early 1990s I was knocked back on my heels at the Eerdman's booth when I hefted Jeffrey's A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature (1992). Any student of English literature cannot fail to be humbled and dazzled by the layered depth of any one of the entries, some forty percent of which were written by Jeffrey himself.

The book under review celebrates and advances Jeffrey's work on biblical literature over the last five decades. "Global" is a trendy word that comes cheap these days, but that adjective justly characterizes Jeffrey's lifetime of scholarship. "Augustinian" applies as well, since it signals the semiotic charge of all creation, cultural and pan-cultural, global and super-global. Of the thirteen essays in the collection, two stand out: Ralph C. Wood's "The Nouvelle Humanism of Henri de Lubac and G. K. Chesterton," and Theresa Coletti's "Medieval Biblical Drama in Post-Apartheid South Africa: The Chester Plays in Afterlife." Wood counterpoints the two great French theologians Henri de Lubac and Jacques Maritain, makes it clear that the former got things right, and then treats the reader to the wise insights of Chesterton and to the magnificent intellectual superstructure known as Christian Humanism. Humanist scholarship (as practiced by Jeffrey, and here by Wood) is the best antidote to the hyper-rationalism of Modernism (and its susceptibility to pride) and to the hyper-emotivism of post-Modernism (crippled by despair). Coletti's ground-breaking work shows how a revival of the Chester Plays in South Africa in the 1990s reenacts the central message of Christianity--death and resurrection--on a societal scale unbounded by temporality. Seeing a white man play Pontius Pilate in an English admiral's uniform in South Africa must surely annihilate time and space (281). Just as the Bible can repress, so can it liberate. This essay, and the last two in the collection by Yang Huilin and Liu Yi-Qing on Jeffrey's work in China, demonstrate how the study of biblical and medieval literature can and must extend beyond rarefied scholarly ether to the people and places of our time. As Gregory Maillet reminds us in his comparison of Jeffrey to his fellow-Canadian Northrop Frye, "for 'the Christian poet, words matter, and books matter, because people matter still more'" (p. 225, quoting from Jeffrey's People of the Book [Eerdman's, 1996] p. 378). Maillet makes it clear that Jeffrey is, compared to Frye, the superior linguist and exegete. Mark A. Noll contributes to the Canadian tenor with his comparison of how Quebec nationalists (especially Louis-François Laflèche in the nineteenth-century) participated in some of the same biblical/political rhetorics commonly associated with American Puritans, Presbyterians and Protestants.

Three essays will interest Miltonists: Phillip J. Donnelly's on Latin pedagogy, translation, biblical epic, and the interplay of Humanism and Scholasticism; Dennis Danielson's comparison of how Satan and Adam make sense--or not--of a Copernican model; and Eleonore Stump's odd treatment of Samson which talks itself around the mystery of suffering without once mentioning the Crucifixion.

K. Sarah-Jane Murray and Tyler F. Walton discuss the mythographic background of a series of illustrations from the Copenhagen Ovide Moralisé, Stephen Prickett reviews the history of the term "romanticism," especially with regard to its application in the Enlightenment, and in a lengthy, self-indulgent, but characteristically learned piece John V. Fleming studies the rhetorical modes of mythography and Higher (biblical) Criticism by means of satire and spoof. Dominic Manganiello affords some welcome attention to the third and often overlooked member of the Inkling triumvirate, Charles Williams. In this essay, as in the one by Wood, Nietzsche is again the villain.

The book is handsomely produced, and I noticed only one error. On page 224 read William Cowper for William Langland as the author of the poem "Charity." The concluding bibliography reveals that Jeffrey has published every year since 1971, with a gap only in 1974 when he surely mustered his strength for an astonishing 40 straight years of scholarship, with more to come.

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