[I’ve had in mind for a long time to write a general-access, I mean non-academic, introduction to the Bible. I worked for a long time on this rather long piece, which I meant as the first chapter. However, even if I do the book, I don’t think I’ll use this part anymore; so here it is. Yes, another post on the scripture with which I am obviously obsessed.]
Let’s talk about the 1970s for a moment. Let’s talk about All in the Family.
As everybody who grew up then knows, this was one of the most successful TV sitcoms of all time. Its central character, Archie Bunker, was a fiftysomething longshoreman from Queens, NY. Macho, racist, and sexist, Archie clashed constantly with his liberal son-in-law, Mike—or “Meathead,” as Archie called him. Rounding out the famlily were Archie’s nubile daughter Gloria (“Little Girl”), and confused wife Edith (“Dingbat”). It doesn’t sound like much. But All in the Family ran for 9 seasons, guest-starred everybody from Dan Rather to Sammy Davis Jr., and made its regular cast members household names.
One episode of the show has always stuck in my mind. (It’s season 7, episode 21, if you’re wondering.) It features Archie, Gloria and Mike—Carrol O’Connor, Sally Struthers, and the incomparable Rob Reiner—catching the subway from the Bronx back to Queens. The train breaks down (a glimpse of 70s New York) and they are stuck for a while, underground, in the stationary car.
Actually, what ensues is a brilliant little morality play, punctuated by Archie’s one-liners, but focussed on a random middle-aged couple who are embroiled in a domestic dispute. The wife is tired, bitter, bitchy; the husband drunk, exasperated, and violent. Their argument escalates, the whole car watching. Archie cracking jokes.
Eventually the husband says to the wife: “Remember all the days I used to say that someday, someday I’m gonna kill ya? Well, today is the day!” And he starts enthusiastically strangling her. Everybody steps in—including Gloria. The drunken husband shoves her away. Mike reacts—decking the man. The rest of the episode is an extended denouement.
Mike is devastated by what he has done. In the past he has marched against the Vietnam War, idolized King and Gandhi, abhorred violence. Yet in a moment of crisis—like the drunk husband himself—he resorted to it.
And that’s not the worst part.
“When my fist hit the man’s face,” he exclaims to Gloria: “I didn’t hate it.” Reiner brings his character to a moment of tragic recognition. He’s supposed to be the new American man, the anti-Archie. But deep inside, maybe he’s no different than his father-in-law. Archie’s odd nickname for him starts to make sense: maybe he really is just a big Meat Head, with swinging fists to match, if he lets them go. Woodstock, looking in the mirror, sees On the Waterfront.
Archie retorts: “Of course you didn’t hate it! It’s supposed to feel good!” The older man, veteran of all that black-and-white machismo, is elated. (“All ya done was belt him.”) Finally, this pudgy, wimpy, oversized boy, who has somehow managed to get himself married to the golden-haired Gloria, has acted like a man.
Archie is so eager to make the moment good that he takes up the role, improbable for him, of counsellor. “Listen,” he says to Mike. “I can take you all the way back to the Bible. Back to the book of—Ecclesiastissus. Mark, uh, four two dot seven or somethin.” The studio audience (there was always a studio audience, for the taping of 70s sitcoms) chuckles at Archie’s ridiculous attempt to find his way back to a Biblical citation. The comedy is heightened by O’Connor’s deft rendition of a New York Irish lilt—a speech pattern straight out of the 1930s. “Fait, hope, and charidy,” he intones to Mike: “and of these, the greatest, is violence?”
The audience erupts in laughter. And that’s what I find fascinating.
Archie has misquoted scripture: specifically, the famous conclusion of First Corinthians, chapter 13, in the King James (or Authorized) Version. The scripture is the first epistle (or letter), written by St. Paul to the disputatious Christians of the ancient Greek city of Corinth. Trying to help them resolve their conflicts, Paul reaches for a contrast between this world and the next. “Then shall I know,” he explains, “even as also I am known.” But for now, in this world, knowing is just not what we do.
Instead, we have to find our way “through a glass, darkly.” We have to fall back on basic moral intuitions like faith, hope—and above all, charity. That word, in this scripture, doesn’t mean giving stuff away. Instead, “charity” translates the Latin word caritas; which translates, in turn, Paul’s Greek: agape. Those words mean “love.” And that is the English word you will find in some other versions of this passage.
If we make that substitution (what scholars call an emendation) we hear the scripture Archie is citing in its most beautiful, moving form:
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.
And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not love, I am nothing.
And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not love, it profiteth me nothing.
Love suffereth long, and is kind; love envieth not; love vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,
Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;
Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;
Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.
Love never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. …
And now abideth faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
Or, in the famous King James version that Archie Bunker is trying, and failing, so spectacularly, to remember: “The greatest of these is charity.”
Archie misquotes scripture. The audience laughs—uproariously. You see? That means they get it. They hear the mistake. And that means, in turn, that they know how that scripture is supposed to go.
The writers of this extremely successful show, surely some of the best-paid in that industry at that time, are betting on the line “and the greatest of these is violence.” And they’re not writing for seminarians, or even church-goers. They’re writing for a random cross-section of Los Angelenos and tourists at a taping of a popular sitcom in 1977.
Today, nobody would expect this kind of random North American audience to recognize a misquotation of First Corinthians. Or any other scripture, for that matter.
But All in the Family reminds us that mainstream English-language culture of the post-war generation still lived in a deep and working familiarity with the Bible. This was the era of Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat. Today those shows still get revived; but they couldn’t possibly get written. My own family didn’t go to church, yet I picked up Bible stories from school, from Christmas carols—from TV. The stuff was everywhere. But now, I think, almost nowhere.
So what? Maybe nothing. But if anything, maybe something like this: When I was in college, I met another character who misquotes 1.Cor.13. She was created by John Milton (later to become the author of Paradise Lost), in his dramatic work Comus (1634). Lost and alone in a dark wood, Milton’s “Lady” is threatened by forces spiritual, physical, and sexual. To comfort herself, she calls on
“Pure-eyed Faith, white-handed Hope
(Thou hov’ring Angel girt with golden wings),
And thou unblemished form of Chastity—”
What? Faith, hope, and chastity? A rank garbling of the scripture. And there’s no question that Milton’s audience is supposed to hear it.
When I first read those lines, 25 years ago, I immediately thought of All in the Family—that episode, Archie’s misquote, that I had watched from the living room couch, all those years before. I knew where I was with this line from Milton—and it was many places at once.
Seventeenth-century England, but also twentieth-century Hollywood. First-century Corinth, but also 1970s Vancouver. A thread of meaning connected them all, familiarizing the strange text before me—and making the familiar strange. Nothing could have been more ordinary, to my memory, than sitting in the living room watching All in the Family. But it turned out that what I was doing, when I was doing that, was something really strange: preparing myself to read John Milton. Even, eventually, becoming an English professor. Who tries to write a book about the Bible.
This kind of thing, this complex and time-delayed thread of engagement, is what we call belonging to a tradition. That word raises some people’s hackles, but it just means the stories and practices that get handed down, from person to person, generation to generation. There are multiple, even innumerable, traditions; just as there are multiple, even innumerable, cultures and languages of humanity.
I’m old enough to belong, at least somewhat, to the tradition of the Bible in the English-speaking world. As a result, I’m able to make connections between its far-flung manifestations—and you can’t get much farther apart than Archie Bunker and Milton’s Lady. This kind of thing, basically, makes life more interesting.
Suppose you drag a teenager through one of the great art museums of the world. She or he looks at those endless paintings of saints and Madonnas and fat ugly babies and thinks: W-T-F. To be able to say more, to bridge the gap with the art, it’s necessary to learn the stories and concepts that the paintings are about. If we can do that, we may find that they open up and start to talk to us. It’s more fun that way.
But if those were the only stakes—cultural literacy—they wouldn’t be very high. Learning about the Bible just to understand art based on the Bible? That’s going round in circles.
If there is to be a non-religious argument for familiarity with this text, then it has to be grounded on the actual content of the work. And I’d like to suggest three arguments of that kind.
First: The Bible is pretty crazy. Its stories are wild, painful, powerful. Its poetry is searing, gorgeous, and somtimes hallucinogenic; its philosophy frank, ruthless, and frequently profound. The Bible is long, and sometimes repetitive, and sometimes boring. But overall, it is without doubt one of the two or three greatest books in the history of the world.
A second argument is that you’re already quite familiar with it. If you have ever turned the other cheek; or asked about the spirit, as opposed to the letter, of a law; or told anybody that the writing is on the wall, you have talked Bible.
This isn’t just “cultural literacy” again. It’s more like an argument for personal literacy. Morally, legally, narratively, symbolically, we’re still using Biblical equipment, all the time. The original instruction manual, so to speak, should help us understand it better.
The third argument is the hardest to put. And yet it’s the simplest. The Bible has a lot to teach us. And this whether or not we give the slightest credence to its core message of theism and salvation.
Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is a perfect example. For twelve chapters he goes back and forth, tearing his hair out, struggling to give clear directives for moral complexity.
But then, in chapter 13, he pretty much throws those efforts away—in an all-too-familiar exclamation of frustration and desire. “Fuck it,” he says: “Love.” His way of putting it is just a lot more eloquent.
We will find a lot of moments like that in the Bible: moments of moral recognition that elevate base things we already know.
Why had I always remembered that episode of All in the Family—where Mike slugs the wife-beater, and Archie misquotes St. Paul?
Not because I was especially interested in or moved by the scripture. No: I remembered that episode because domestic violence marred my own family. Aged 8 or 9, I was fascinated by the awful secret, the behind-closed-doors trauma, being put on show in the stalled subway car. And so, I would bet, were millions of children, watching this wholesome show, in prime time.
That sounds like a compliment to the writers and producers of the show. And so it is. But let’s notice how they use the scripture. Mike’s reaction to the drunk husband feels good, but solves nothing. Archie, in a brilliant role-reversal, is the one who shows us—as St. Paul also puts it—a more excellent way.
Now, Archie screws it up. He misquotes Paul, even travesties him. But the mistake still works! The laughter that the audience shares, based on their shared understanding of Biblical tradition, defuses the tension.
Our moral lives, as St. Paul himself recognizes in agony, are a pageant of warring imperatives. We don’t need to be Christian, or Jewish, or anything else to get that. The Bible puts our conflicts on display. But it also reminds us of the resources we will always need, if we are to resolve them.
And the greatest of these is love.