Bible in English culture, The
A unifying factor
The Bible has been a significant component of English life for many centuries, particularly since the publication of the Authorised Version of the Bible in 1611, with which every citizen was expected to be familiar. Just as most people know television catch phrases today, so references to the Bible would be instantly recognised by almost everyone. It has contributed to developments in civil life, the arts and science.
Influence on the law
The Bible features heavily in the architecture and decoration of the Houses of Parliament, paying silent tribute to its significance in English jurisprudence. Many old parish churches still have copies of the Ten Commandments on the walls, underlining the importance of the Bible for providing the moral cohesion of society. Most British law is ultimately derived from the codes of law within the Bible, of which the Ten Commandments is pre-eminent. The equality of all people before the law is another of its legacies.
The Bible has for centuries fired and filled the imaginations of artists of all genres. The great masters – the painters of the European Renaissance and those who followed them- frequently re-presented the great stories of the Bible, including the annunciation, birth, baptism and temptations of Jesus at the beginning of his ministry, the Last Supper and the crucifixion, followed by scenes of his resurrection. Sculptors have portrayed its characters such as Michael Angelo’s David or Epstein’s Jacob. Still to-day, The Shawshank Redemption, The Messiah and Apocalypse Now, with many more films, are echoing its main motifs.
Words and music
The Bible is the main source of inspiration for some of Britain’s greatest works of literature such as Milton’s Paradise Lost or John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. The foundations of English theatre were laid by medieval plays based on biblical events. Frequently biblical teachings are the sub text of Shakespeare’s plays, which often refer to them. Even when authors may have been hardly conscious of the connections, the Bible’s phrases have enriched their language and its themes provided them with avenues of exploration.
Many composers have produced major works exploring biblical accounts, such as Handel’s Elijah and The Messiah, or more recently Jesus Christ Superstar, GodSpell and Joseph and the Technicolour Dream Coat.
The Bible and science
Most people imagine that there is an inevitable conflict between Genesis and Darwin’s theory of evolution, but right from the start there have been ministers and biblical scholars who have supported his essential insights, and scientists who have challenged them, as continues today.
More fundamentally, there is a strong case for claiming that it is the consistency and coherence of the biblical understanding of God, and the reliability of the universe which follows from this, which provided a substantial contribution to the development of the Enlightenment and the sciences which have flowed from it. From a philosophical standpoint these fundamental assumptions are a necessary foundation for science.
Wider social impact
The Bible has also contributed to the wider cultural and social context in the United Kingdom:
The debates about the propriety and nature of the monarchy have often been focussed on biblical texts.
The great social reforms of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were profoundly influenced by the biblical contribution to issues such as liberty, equality and fraternity, as the recent commemoration of The Abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade Act has reminded us.
The debates concerning the limits of authority (whether of the monarchy or parliament) over individual conscience, were shaped by people like Milton and Thomas Helwys in the seventeenth century, who depended heavily on their biblical knowledge as a source of profound truth.
Many of those involved in the Trades Union movement were also driven by the vision for fairness which they saw in the Bible.
The celebrations of ordinary people through the year were shaped by the Christian festivals of Easter, Christmas, Pentecost and days set aside to commemorate saints – the word ‘holiday’ originally meant ‘holy day’.
The Bible provided a common framework for social debate among the educated and from the eighteenth century onwards it was the Bible which lay at the heart of the developing populist education movements.
In short the social institutions and safeguards, as well as many of the benefits people take for granted, were supported by the understanding of human life which was found within the Bible. In this sense, the foundations of Britain’s culture and society can truly be said to be biblical.
The Bible and the environment
Today, as people are facing ever more clearly the perceived threats of global warming, the Bible, with its vision of man’s position within creation and responsibility under God to care properly for it, still has a major contribution to make to the future of all humankind.