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Bible and Culture

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Concerning the Bible, Theodore Roosevelt observed, “No other book of any kind ever written in English has ever so affected the whole life of a people.”

Whichever way you choose to slice or dice it, the Bible is the foundational book of Western culture. Admittedly, it’s influence has maybe declined during the postmodern era, but in the cultural past one bumps up against its impact time and time again. So with posterity in mind, this post is dedicated to highlighting the Bible and culture, i.e. how the Bible’s stories, language, concepts and teachings have permeated every facet of our lives. Here are some examples:

Literature has been profoundly impacted; so much so that some literary scholars suggest that English literature would barely exist without the Bible. While some may argue to the contrary, T.R. Henn says that the Bible “becomes one with the Western tradition, because it is its single greatest source.” This is certainly true for classical writers like Dante, Milton, Melville, Bunyan, Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Faulkner, Lewis, Hugo, and Eliot. It’s also true for contemporary authors like J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, Archibald MacLeish, Philip Pullman, Michel Tournier, Madeleine L’Engle, Barbara Kingsolver, Yann Martel, Dan Brown, James Frey, and countless others.

Language is woven through with sayings from mainly the KJV Bible like: “Bite the dust” (Psalm 72:9), “Old wives’ fables” (1 Timothy 4:7), “The writings on the wall” (Daniel 5), “By the skin of your teeth” (Job 19:20), “Drop in a bucket” (Isaiah 40:15), “The root of the matter” (Job 19:28), “The salt of the earth” (Mathew 5:19), “In the twinkling of an eye” (1 Corinthians 15:52), “Eat, drink, and be merry” (Ecclesiastes 8:15), “The signs of the times” (Matthew 6:13), “Forbidden fruit” (Genesis 3:3), “Go the extra mile” (Matthew 5:41), “How the mighty have fallen” (1 Samuel 1:19), “Pride comes before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18), and many more.

The Bible fires and fills the imagination of artists and the world of art is adorned with paintings and sculptures inspired by biblical themes. To name a few of the greats: Da Vinci painted the Last Supper, Picasso painted the Crucifixion, Michelangelo painted The Creation of Adam, Bosch painted The Last Judgment, and Rembrandt painted 60 masterpieces on biblical themes. Michelangelo sculpted David, Epstein sculpted Jacob, and more recently in 2008, the controversial $10 million Golden Calf sculpture, by Damien Hirst.

Politicians, like the Presidents of the United States, are sworn in at their inauguration with their hand placed on a Bible. Political speeches are sometimes laced with references to the Bible. Winston Churchill quoted John 14:2 on five public occasions during his career. When Martin Luther King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech he quoted Amos 5:24, “We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” And most recently, the Republican, Donald Trump, tripped over himself, sparking laughter at Liberty University, when he attempted to quote from “Two Corinthians”.

Jurisprudence is undergirded by the Ten Commandments and the codes of law are ultimately derived from the Bible. The moral cohesion of society is rooted in the Bible and the equality of all people before the law is another legacy from the Bible.

Films thrive on using content about or from the Bible. To mention a few: The Lion King is loosely inspired by the story of Joseph. Avatar, according to Pui Lan, “Is a cinematic fable, in real 3-D, of how to remythologize biblical stories and interpret them in subversive ways”. According to Christianity Today, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is actually telling the story of Matthew 6:19-24. Grapes of Wrath is about an exodus of farmers from Oklahoma during the Great Depression and their hope to settle in the Promised Land of California. Kenneth Branagh, the director of Thor says, “Biblical stories: deadly sibling rivalry, parents at war with children, the isolation of the royal circle” were influences in the telling of this Norse warrior story. And Daniel Mumby in, 50 Films That You Wouldn’t Think Are Christian, But Actually Are, makes the point that, “Christianity runs deeper through cinema than the obvious allegories of Narnia, The Matrix and The Green Mile.”

Music of all genres contains biblical themes. There are many well known, hymns, choruses, psalms and chants, as well as the gamut of Gospel and contemporary Christian music,. There’s the classics like Handel’s Messiah, Bach’s Cantatas, Haydn’s Creation oratorio, Massiaen’s Les Visions de l’Amen, and more recently there’s Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen, Babel by Mumford & Sons, Viva La Vida by Coldplay, and of course there’s U2’s music which some would classify as a marriage of Bible verses and rock music. There are many facets to how the Bible has influenced music. Sarah Shewbert points out in the article, The Bible’s Influence in American Music, that “Lowell Mason, Pete Seeger, and Lady Gaga created music in vastly different eras and styles, but they hold one thing in common. Listeners cannot fully understand their music without knowing the Bible.”

Finally there’s fashion. Stylist Magazine mentions how Monique Lhuillier used the garden of Eden as the inspiration for one of her collections. And designer, Alicia Akrie, created a collection for a fashion contest named, Dinner With The Devil. She says the Bible was her inspiration: “I was looking at Psalm 23, where it talks about preparing a table in the presence of enemies and thought how incredible it would be to know you are going to be seated at dinner with enemies and come out triumphantly.”

Much more could be said. Have your say. Share a comment, insight or a story about the Bible and culture.

© Scripture Union Canada 2016

2 Corinthians 4:5

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