Draco Layer Two: The Allegorical or Christological Sense

The world needs good stories.

Caedmon the cowherd sang songs about Creation (see previous layer). He also sang songs about other stories in the Scriptures. 

According to Bede, he sang about “the creation of the world, the origin of the human race, and the whole history of Genesis, of the departure of Israel from Egypt and the entry into the promised land.”

Which should be a bit confusing, given the way most people talk about the Old Testament these days. 
Wasn’t Caedmon supposed to Christian? Why wasn’t he singing stories about Christ?

Well, you see, he was singing those, too. Songs “of the incarnation, passion, and resurrection of the Lord, of His ascension into heaven, of the coming of the Holy Spirit and the teaching of the apostles.” 

But wait! There’s more: “He also made songs about the terrors of future judgement, the horrors of the pains of hell, and the joys of the heavenly kingdom.” [1]

By which time, we are certain he was telling fairy tales, not history.

I know, I know. The most fascinating thing about Jesus of Nazareth is not that he is the Second Person of the Godhead who became incarnate in time and place. It is not that he fulfilled the prophecies of the Suffering Servant (Isaiah), emptying himself to take on the form of a servant (Philippians 2:6-8) so that he might carry the sacrifices of atonement into the Holy of Holies for the redemption of the human race (Hebrews). It is not that he reigns now at the right hand of the Father, enthroned on the rainbow and surrounded by four living creatures full of eyes singing, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty!” (Revelation)

It is that historians can now prove he existed (probably) as a human being (male, most likely) and spent a few years talking to people (maybe) before being executed as a insurrectionist by the imperial authorities some time in the reign of Tiberius (allegedly). Oh, and that he seems to have had ties to Jerusalem. Possibly.

My theological heroine Dorothy Sayers has a scathing take-down of this allergy to mystery in modern Christianity in her account of the reaction to a play she wrote about the rebuilding of the choir of Canterbury cathedral in 1179. Some young men came to her after seeing the play, The Zeal of Thy House, and accused her of making things up: 
The action of the play involves a dramatic presentation of a few fundamental Christian dogmas—in particular, the application to human affairs of the doctrine of the Incarnation.  
That the Church believed Christ to be in any real sense God, or that the eternal word was supposed to be associated in any way with the word of creation; that Christ was held to be at the same time man in any real sense of the word; that the doctrine of the Trinity could be considered to have any relation to fact or any bearing on psychological truth; that the Church considered pride to be sinful, or indeed took any notice of sin beyond the most disreputable sins of the flesh—all these things were looked upon as astonishing and revolutionary novelties, imported into the faith by the feverish imagination of the playwright. 
I protested in vain against this flattering tribute to my powers of invention, referring my inquirers to the creeds, to the gospels, and to the offices of the Church; I insisted that if my play were dramatic it was so, not in spite of the dogma, but because of it—that, in short, the dogma was the drama. 
The explanation was, however, not well received; it was felt that if there were anything attractive in Christian philosophy I must have put it there myself. [2]
Again, it is almost as if we were reading a fairy tale! 

The story of why modern Christians know so little of the magic and mystery of the stories on which their faith is purportedly founded is a long one, having to do with the Reformation, the Enlightenment and historical critical methods of reading the Scriptures. It takes winding paths through the works of David Friedrich Strauss (translated into English by the not-yet-novelist George Eliot). It founders on the anxieties of Victorian English Protestantism and the quest for the historical Jesus declared mythical by Strauss. It catches up on the shores of German liberalism (think Schleiermacher) and philosophy (think Nietzsche) and crashes somewhere in the works of Rudolf Karl Bultmann (“New Testament and Mythology: The Problem of Demythologizing the New Testament Proclamation,” published in 1941). 

By Sayers’s lifetime (b. 1893, d. 1957), it had already completely taken over Anglicanism, although Sayers and her fellow Inklings (she was an honorary one, if not a regular) did their best to try to pump some life back into King Henry’s Church. Sayers herself was invited to write the first play about Jesus performed in England since the seventeenth century. It aired on BBC Radio beginning on December 21, 1941 (note date relative to Bultmann), and running through the rest of the following year—to enormous controversy, on the one hand, because Sayers had the characters speak in contemporary, colloquial English (not KJV!); and on the other hand, because it was objected that it amounted to Christian propaganda because so many people enjoyed it. 

Since then, Anglophone audiences have enjoyed the benefit of regular theatrical and cinematic portrayals of Jesus Christ “Superstar,” variously attempting to square the circle of his divinity with his humanity (or not). Think Godspell meets Jesus of Nazareth meets Jim Caviezel (sequel coming soon!). But as one of my Twitter readers (@brownmp) remarked on the first post in this series, nobody learns to read the Scriptures as Dante (translated in part by Sayers, in full by Professor Esolen) read them, as pointing through the Old Testament figures to their fulfillment in the New Testament, particularly the Gospels, with the result (in my experience) that nobody gets why the historical person should be so hard to portray, although Zeffirelli and Gibson come close. [3]

I know, the mind boggles. I asked my Twitter friend, “Why wouldn’t they teach [the four-fold meaning in seminary]? It is basic to reading the Scriptures!” His answer:
You might get a one day “in case you ever run across this” summary in homiletics 1 or an early exegetical class. But the primary message in even that summary is “this is not an acceptable way of preaching or interpreting today. It’s embarrassing.” Trotting out Joachim de Fiore.

The liberal side sticks to historical-critical and turns every text into sitz im Leben. The conservative side sticks to crit in a different term: grammatical historical. That lets in typology (Christology or the 2nd level) but grudgingly. 

The Old Testament is read typologically, or read in a silo about what it meant to Israel. Moral teaching is ignored because we are under grace, but it is done, is only on the literal (i.e. 10 commandments).

As far as contemplation, you have to read old books or the oddball.
Which, as I answered him, rather explains what makes me so dangerous—all those old books!

Modern Christians miss the drama because, thanks to Bultmann et al., we no longer know how to read mythologically, that is, allegorically, that is, seeing Christ in the fullness of Scriptures, not just as a figure in an historical play. I say, “we,” but my friend is right. It is very rare, even among Catholics, for Christians to have heard about the figures and resonances Caedmon the cowherd would have known in writing his hymns. I know this because whenever I talk about the symbolism in the Scriptures, people react much as Sayers’s young men—as if I must be making it up, and this includes members of the academy who have read my work, particularly about Mary. 

Medievalists may know about the “four senses of Scripture,” if they read Dante, but the feeling of reality for most is not there. It is not that medieval Christians pretended to find Christ in the figures and prophecies of the Old Testament; it is that they knew he was there because the New Testament told them so. The Gospels were not written as historical documents to fill a bureaucrat’s archive. They were written as stories to draw people in, much like modern movies or plays, so that their audience would know that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, sent into the world to battle with Satan and win. The Gospels are, as J.R.R. Tolkien put it, “a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories,” but they are true only insofar as they are marvelous—and vice versa.  

What would it take to tell a story for modern audiences that would show them Christ as the Incarnate Maker of the World? What genius (or inspiration) would it take to accomplish for modern readers what Dante did for the fourteenth century—to show them the reality of their mythological world? Magician and Hopemongerer Patrick Coffin suggested in our Monday Night Marathon on the Mosaic Ark that, in fact, the movies do it all the time, insofar as they recapitulate the Greatest Story Ever Told by using its structure to define the characters and plot. He suggested Little Orphan Annie, E.T., and Saving Private Ryan as examples. (We challenged him on E.T., so he added Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto to the mix.) Which is encouraging, but still skirts the question of Jesus’ divinity, unless you count E.T., but then we get aliens, not the Incarnate Son of God.

You know where I’m going with this. Medieval or GTFO! More precisely, Caedmon and his fellow poets, who somehow figured out how to sing Christ as the Maker and Redeemer of men in a way that was at once mystical and historical, mythological and divine. The story must begin as the Scriptures do, in Light, and proceed as modern thrillers do, through horror, but somehow resolve itself in eucatastrophe or joy without becoming saccharine (“Jesus in a white nightie,” as professor of history Meredith Veldman puts it). [4] It must partake of the allegorical insofar as it points to Christ, while at the same time be credible as a narrative in itself. It must have real characters in real crises, while participating in the cosmic whole. It must be grounded in tradition, but speak to present audiences. It must rhyme with the Scriptures and scan with the structures of the world. It must read like the fairy story we most want to know was true, without breaking the spell and becoming allegory. 

It must, in other words, do what Caedmon did: sing verses that had never been heard before in praise of God.
“Eala Earendel, engla beorhtast, ofer middengeard monnum sended...”[5]

Read on: Draco Layer Three: The Moral or Tropological Sense

Can you solve the riddle and read the signs?


[1] Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, IV.24 (22), trans. Bertram Colgrave (Oxford: Oxford Medieval Texts, 1969; with new introduction by Judith McClure and Roger Collins, 1994), 216-17.
[2] Dorothy Sayers, “The Dogma is the Drama,” in Letters to the Diminished Church: Passionate Arguments for the Relevance of Christian Doctrine (W Publishing Group, 2004), 16-17.
[3] Sayers was more circumspect. As she noted in the Introduction to the published version of The Man Born to be King, “To make an adequate dramatic presentation of the life of God Incarnate would require literally superhuman genius, in playwright and actors alike” (1943; reprint Camp Hill, PA: Classical Academic Press, 2014), 27.
[4] Meredith Veldman, The British Jesus, 1850-1970 (London: Routledge, 2022), highly recommended for the history of Jesus narratives like Sayers’.
[5] “Hail, Earendel, brightest of angels, over middle-earth to men sent.” Advent Lyric V, The Christ of Cynewulf, inspiration for Tolkien’s savior-character Eärendil, but in fact a lyric about Christ.


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