Faith Works 4-23-16
Where There's a Will, There's a Way
[ed. note – if you use this, "Will" must be capitalized!]
"The Devil can cite Scripture for his own purpose."
That line is found in the Bible where, exactly?
Yes, you can look at the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness in Luke's gospel, and Satan does quote the Torah and the prophets, but that pungent phrase: not there.
You may look in Paul's letters and beyond, but a quick online search will reveal it's not in the Bible. It's in "The Merchant of Venice," and the line belongs to William Shakespeare.
Today is the 400th anniversary of his death; indications are that he was (poetically) born in this day, as well, in 1564.
No one has to be told that Shakespeare dominates our cultural landscape four centuries after his passing, and his words have entered our language, both individual coinages (the words "addiction, "arch-villain," and "assassination" just for starters) and mellifluous phrases ("If music be the food of love, play on; give me excess of it!").
But good old Will of Stratford has also snuck into our religion, and our Bibles.
There's a bit of folk etymology and linguistic analysis that makes a case that Shakespeare helped translate the King James Version of the Holy Bible (c. 1611, so it's possible), leaving his "signature" behind in Psalm 46. You can look that iffy claim up for yourself, but don't be bedazzled* by coincidence.
(*Bedazzled, also coined by Shakespeare.)
I've also heard a claim that Will's fingerprints are on the 23rd Psalm, but that's an uncomfortable* stretch as well.
What's perhaps due to the resonance of the language of that cultural moment, as Queen Elizabeth's reign ended and King James' began, is that there are many phrases of Shakespeare that are commonly attributed to Holy Writ.
"Forget and forgive" – King Lear, not in the Bible.
"Neither a borrower nor a lender be" – Hamlet, not the Bible.
"This above all: to thine own self be true" – Ditto.
Likewise, the twist can turn in the other direction: you can find smart people saying something like "As Shakespeare himself said 'eat, drink and be merry'!" Nope, Jesus used that line in Luke 12 as he told a parable.
The Bible is full of poetry. I'm not sure we remember that often enough when reading and studying and sharing God's Word as those words have been passed down. The art and craft of poetic language and meaning, and in the original, occasionally in carefully crafted translation, there is a rhythm and pattern that also evokes meanings beneath meanings, the body in motion beneath the silken robes.
And Shakespeare, too, saw himself more as a poet than a playwright. Perhaps because of questions of propriety and status, or maybe it had to do with patronage, but his pride of place was clearly in the poet's role. Iambic pentameter aside, the plays are rich with poetry in how they are constructed, how the characters speak but even in the stage directions. There is a level of nuance and subtlety to Shakespeare that ironically both makes it live beyond the usual span of years for a dramatic work, but also makes his plays hard to study, as any English class student can tell you.
But a good teacher will always remind students "say it out loud, speak it in order to understand it." If you just try to pry meaning out of Shakespeare reading one line at a time in a darkened room under a study lamp looking at the dead page, you will indeed struggle. When you start to say it, the pageantry* and swagger* will show themselves.
This is also true of the Bible. If you find yourself in study wrestling with the text, speak it. Say it out loud, and as most of the original audience experienced it, you will hear new meaning. "Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue…"
Right, that's Hamlet. By Shakespeare! It works for the Bible, too.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County. Tell him how you hear the Bible speaking to you today at email@example.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.