Sunday, November 20, 2011

Illuminating Blake



As Christopher Rowland in 'Blake and the Bible' admirably demonstrates the Bible was both Blake's favourite book, his deep familiarity with which informed both art and poetry, and the text of which he was most cautious.

For this Christian radical, the Bible was a resource for understanding, not an infallible guide, it was a starting point for understanding, never an end, an opening text, never one that closed off avenues of understanding.

For "The Bible or Peculiar Word of God, Exclusive of Conscience or the Word of God Universal, is that Abomination, which....is for ever removed & henceforth every man may converse with God & be a King & Priest in his own house."

It is only by possessing the spirit of interpretation that is Christ, which dwells in every person, however, little regarded, that allows you to understand the real import of the Scriptures. For they are only testimonies to a wrestling with truth revealed and are subject to the distortions of their all too human makers.

"The Spirit of Christ in his children is not bound to any certain form," to quote Blake's teacher, Jacob Boehme, as the spirit of prophecy can alight and flame out of any person. We are all bound to be prophets in Blake's imagination.

But how do we know that we stand in prophecy, if there is neither infallible word interpreted by (infallible) ministers nor traditions of interpretation? How can we know 'they' are reading the Bible rightly as an anxious Evangelical friend asked me of staff in the Balkans working for a Christian development organization who had taken to sharing their reading of the Bible at Monday staff meetings (a radical new departure for all of them)?

It was a fascinating question that quietly gives the lie to imagining that many 'evangelical' strands of Protestantism in truth think much of individual conscience. Think of Luther's authoritarian panic as soon as people did actually begin interpreting the word of God for themselves!

Blake's answer was simple - does it lead to (or emerge from) forgiveness of sins? Do you turn to love your neighbour or, more importantly, your enemy? Does you reading bring peace - both to yourself and to your community?

It is one of those haunting simplicities that suggest why Christianity eludes us yet it is the heart of the message and the criteria by which to judge truth.

Rowland shows how this dynamic - what enables us to be prophets that bring peace, mercy and justice - permeates Blake's work - and how Blake's images are prioritised over the words, their paradoxical combination of ambiguity and directness seeking to subvert any potential idolatry of his own prophetic texts.

Take my vision as sparking inspiration and go vision for yourselves is Blake's intention. In this he is humbly different from some of his radical antecedents and contemporaries who envisaged that their embodiment of Christian vision was historically critical, their role especially important. Blake, unlike those of his contemporaries, was more interested in individual transformation than in historical change.

His re-visioning of Christianity sees it as an invitation to transformation now - any stepping into 'forgiveness of sins' is a last judgement, we do not have to wait upon the kingdom of heaven, it awaits on us crossing its ever-present threshold.

Jacob's ladder of ascending and descending (shown here) is open to all, now.


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