The Proverbs of Hell and attacks on Christianity

NEWS | Rory Shiner

Friday 26 June 2015

“With few exceptions, the most devastating attacks on Christianity have always come from within the church.”

So began Ben Myers recent lecture on William Blake in Perth on Thursday night (25 June).

Dr Benjamin Myers, Australian author and theologian, was recently in Perth for the Anglican Diocesan Clergy Conference. Before returning to Sydney, he gave a public lecture in the Spacecubed venue in the Perth CBD. The lecture was organised by the C. S. Lewis Today Committee and hosted by Christian justice advocacy group, Common Grace.

Entitled ‘Proverbs of Hell: William Blake and Scriptural Wisdom,’ Dr Myers argued that Christianity has always had an extraordinary ability to nurture its most trenchant critiques and devastating opponents from within the church, making the attacks of the New Atheists look often anaemic and timid in comparison.

“Think of writers like Luther, Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Karl Barth,” Dr Myers said. These people were “… prophetic personalities who laid the axe to the roots of the Christian tradition. It is one of the strangest things about Christianity that it has always nurtured its own greatest critics, just as the faith of ancient Israel nurtured prophets who launched their bitter attacks on their own faith traditions.”

The particular “prophetic personality” under consideration on this particular evening was the English poet and printmaker William Blake (1757-1827). Dr Myers in particular drew our attention to the section within Blake’s book,The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, titled “The Proverbs of Hell.” In this section, Blake subverts the creation-affirming, order-loving and wisdom-celebrating biblical book of Proverbs with a series of proverb-like sayings in which biblical wisdom is illusive, subverted or contradicted.

In Proverbs, for example, prudence is celebrated as the virtue of the wise. For Blake, however:

“Prudence is a rich ugly old maid courted by Incapacity.”

Biblical Proverbs will often point to examples of wisdom in the animal world, such as the ant’s foresight in storing food for winter. Blake, however points to the fox and the lion:

“The fox provides for himself, but God provides for the lion.”

Dr Myers argued that part of Blake’s project was to question a vision of flourishing and morality that is always the same for everyone. On the contrary, according to Blake, beings flourish in their distinctiveness. Myers introduced the audience to a cluster of Blake’s animal-proverbs to make his point:

“The pride of the peacock is the glory of God.”

“The lust of the goat is the bounty of God.”

“The wrath of the lion is the wisdom of God.”

In all these, Dr Myers argued, Blake’s point is that a creature’s flourishing depends on the kind of thing it is. Pride is condemned in biblical wisdom, as is lust and wrath. But the peacock is built for pride, the goat is given to lust, and the lion is more gloriously lion-like when it is attacking. For Blake, a morality that simply has a one-size-fits-all policy will only oppress and constrain.

Blake was, according to Myers, a profound critic of conventional Christianity and conventional morality. However, for Myers Blake’s point was not to recommend wickedness as a way of life: he is not a relativist or a moral anarchist. His Proverbs, Myers said, were not so much an attack on the Bible as they were an attack on the safe and inoffensive piety of Blake’s day – an attack that, paradoxically, has a profound affinity with the more subversive wisdom literature in the Bible itself, such as in Ecclesiastes and Job, and even sometimes within Proverbs itself.

Myers argued that “where Christianity transforms itself into morality, it inevitably ends up reinforcing the power of the prevailing social order.” This was the thing that Blake was concerned to subvert.

As he concluded Myers said, “If Christians today are to recover the ancient prophetic spirit of our faith, there is no other path for us than a return to the scriptures.”

For Myers, modern Christians, feeling the attack of the new atheists and a changing culture need to learn to read the Bible, as Bonhoeffer says, “against ourselves.” Myers concluded:

“If we have the courage for this, then we will have little to fear from the attacks of atheism. The fiercest attacks, and the fiercest prophets, have always come from within.”

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