Archetypes and the Fourth Gospel

Literature and Theology in Conversation

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Brian Larsen
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , June
     224 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


First published in 1957, Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton University Press) is an attempt at a unified theory of the principles and techniques of literary interpretation, and a group of suggestions for the systematic study of liberal arts and the humanities in a Classical and Christian context. Initially well-received, the book was deemed a useless relic in the 1970s as academics collectively drifted into a demolition project that denies claims of meaning and coherence. The possibility of synthesis and catholicity simply had no place amid the political obsessions and nihilistic iconoclasm of Postmodernism; thus, Frye and other sources useful to archetypal criticism and mythography (i.e., James Frazer, Carl Jung, and Joseph Campbell) were stigmatized, and an essential method of inquiry and intellectual mode was rejected and subsequently forgotten. 

Recent reappraisals fail to redeem Frye from obscurity and irrelevance. Nevertheless, in Archetypes and the Fourth Gospel, Brian Larsen applies Frye’s conceptual framework and controversial aesthetic in an explication of the Gospel of John, and an exploration of the relationship between literature and theology. Larsen asserts that Western literature is incomprehensible without familiarity with the Bible, which is itself better appreciated with perspectives drawn from literary studies. He introduces Frye’s mythoi, and acknowledges the arguments against Frye’s classificatory scheme with some rebuttal before adding corresponding language tropes—metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, irony—from Hayden White’s Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in 19th-century Europe (Johns Hopkins University, 1973) and offering summaries of other efforts to apply literary theory to the Fourth Gospel. Larsen then launches into the main analysis of romance, tragedy, satire, and comedy as expressed through the characters of Jesus, Pontius Pilate, Thomas, and Peter. 

Larsen begins with a description of the basic elements of romance and the scholarly debate on whether this designation is appropriate for the Fourth Gospel. He focuses on the identity and ideal of the romantic hero, as embodied by Jesus, and cites numerous critical sources to develop his affirmative argument. He then applies the distinct qualities of romance to the text, and augments his explanation of characteristic motifs with comparative examples including Homer’s Iliad, Sophocles’s Oedipus, Euripides’s BaccheThe Song of Roland, Edward Spencer’s Faerie Queene, William Shakespeare, Miguel de Cervantes's Don Quixote, Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Larsen effectively establishes Jesus as a romantic hero struggling to maintain an ideal in a corrupt world. 

Larsen writes, “[f]or redemption to be truly understood and the comic aspects of the Christian faith to be appreciated, tragedy and what tragedy expresses must be fully taken into account” (68). He analyzes the trial narrative as a vehicle for issues of knowledge/belief, commitment, and action. Then Larsen examines Pilate as a tragic figure in a tripartite approach utilizing Aristotle’s Poetics as well as alternative views: first, the effect of tragedy upon the audience, especially in the catharsis of fear and pity; second the recurring tragic themes (such as hamartia and hubris, or moral failure and tragic flaw) within the text itself; and third, the deep structural foundations that make tragedy possible (the problems inherent in the human condition). Larsen imagines Pilate as a dynamic character struggling in a dilemma between what is right and what is expedient, and Larsen shows how conflict between positive values leads to confusion, suffering, and possible destruction. 

Irony is presented as a mode of perception and thinking that can be classified as positive, equivocal, or negative. Larsen writes, “[i]rony relies on potential or recognized conflict of understanding” (135). The use of irony is a well-established feature of the Gospel, but as Larsen notes “irony is a slippery concept, difficult or impossible to grasp fully and yet an important aspect of any sophisticated discourse” (14). Irony is often described as “saying one thing and meaning another,” yet it is better understood as the oppositional tension between a superficial interpretation and a missed, deeper dimension of truth. Ironic devices utilize figurative language and symbolic narrative. Positive irony affirms an ideal; equivocal irony emphasizes ambiguity and naïveté; and negative irony is absurd in its admiration or loathing. Larsen notes that irony in the Fourth Gospel appears through a recurring motif—exemplified in Thomas—of an image or sign first misunderstood, followed by a struggle for understanding, then an attainment or movement away from that understanding which ends in a confession or rejection of faith.

Larsen writes, “the general comic pattern of Christianity has long been recognized” (190), but “the tendency toward ridicule is often missed by readers so inclined for confessional reasons or out of reverence for the Bible” (167). Larsen analyzes comic emotions and laughter as an audience reaction with reference to Sigmund Freud. Larsen also discerns the structural elements of comedy, especially as it unmasks a character in folly and exposes him to derision. Specifically, Peter’s faith without understanding causes a mistaken concept of discipleship, and the nature and object of his mission. His stubborn blindness aligns him to the methods and the purposes of the enemies he seeks to combat. According to Larson, a comic resolution in this instance is possible only through a fantastic divine intervention. 

Larsen is bold and compelling in using Frye’s literary theory and comparative examples from literature, though today most people in English departments will fail to notice or appreciate his effort due to an ideological bias against archetypal criticism. Larsen skillfully alternates between explanation and explication, and his interpretive strategy is well-organized and cogent. He successfully integrates a wide range of sources and ideas to enhance reading of the Gospel of John, and the recognition of various characters according to type. Larsen’s interdisciplinary approach proves that profound insight is found in the overlap between specializations. However, the book’s steep price means most students, and others who would be interested, will  need to request it through the library.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Patrick Horn is a Public Scholar.

Date of Review: 
April 19, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Brian Larsen is Associate Professor of English at Simpson University in Redding.


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