Uncommon Knowledge

Once I made what is, I fancy, a common mistake in college and registered for an elective English class. At one point in the course, the professor told us to make allusions that our audience would understand, and furthermore to consider our classmates our audience. To illustrate what our audience would not understand, he asked for a show of hands from anyone who recognized the name Nebuchadnezzar. The percentage of those who did raise their hands was about one out of ten. The lesson? No biblical allusions. (We should all take a moment and consider what it means that it couldn’t be a historical allusion.)

This is a question Christian writers now face: With biblical illiteracy on the rise, should biblical allusions be on the wane? Knowing that many people simply will not understand the reference, should it still be made? To find the answer, I think it is useful to move the conversation back one step to the more general question. Should writers limit themselves to allusions they can be confident their audience will understand?

There are two immediate answers to this question. My professor gave the first – Yes. The danger of this lies in reducing writing to the lowest common denominator, carefully pruned of any historical or literary references that imply you read books not optioned by Hollywood studios. The second answer, of course, is No, and it is exemplified by the writer William F. Buckley, whose writing style was once summarized as, “Look it up, serf.” The danger of this lies in becoming abstruse, indecipherable, maybe pompous and obnoxious. One’s communication (and what else is writing?) should not encrypted with obscure allusions.

There ought to be somewhere authors and readers can meet in between the lowest common denominator and encryption. As with so many things, an excellent example of this is found in Jesus Christ. Consider this passage from the Gospel of Matthew:

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. (Matthew 23:23-24)

That final sentence – strain out a gnat but swallow a camel – would sound proverbial and esoteric taken alone. But it’s perfectly explicable in its context. It’s an extravagant image to illustrate how the Pharisees keep the law in small matters and violate it in large matters; the point explains the image, and the image sharpens the point. You need only the context to understand.

At the same time, the sentence makes several allusions. It is, first of all, an allusion to the Law of Moses, which prohibited both camels and gnats as unclean animals that would make God’s people unclean. You strain out a gnat and swallow a camel explicitly accuses the Pharisees of breaking the Law of Moses and implicitly accuses them of being unclean. The sentence also alludes to the real Pharisaical practice of straining gnats from wine or drinking water – and indicts that practice as useless in achieving true obedience to the law.

In fact, the more you know of the Pharisees and the Law of Moses the more you see how acerbic and brilliant Jesus’ statement really is. But you don’t need to know any of it to grasp the essential idea. The allusions add meaning; they don’t hide it. And that is the way all allusions should work. Allusions should create new depths of meaning, not lock the whole meaning away. Once you make the meaning clear, you can dare an allusion to uncommon knowledge. And you know something? Those biblical allusions really class up the joint.