Saturday, April 29, 2017

Literary Devices in Scripture — Luke 10:16

(Carl Heinrich Bloch - The Sermon on the Mount)

The most emotionally and spiritually moving passages of scripture are often those that employ literary devices.  Especially effective is the layering of multiple devices within the same passage.

I am not saying that the only moving passages are those that employ literary devices.  Some passages derive their power solely from their substantive content.  The story of Joseph who was sold into Egypt, encompassing his years of struggle, his rise to power, his reconciliation with his treacherous brothers, his magnanimous gift of forgiveness, and his reunification with his sorrowing father, would be powerful with or without literary devices.

I am saying that the linguistic grace of literary devices often adds to the spiritual and emotional power of many scriptural passages.  The same can be said for passages in Shakespeare, Milton, and anywhere else that they are employed.

Consider, for example, Luke 10:16, where the effect of multiple devices is subtle, yet beautiful.  In this passage, Christ is instructing the “other seventy.”  He says to them, “He that heareth you heareth me; and he that despiseth you despiseth me; and he that despiseth me despiseth him that sent me.”

The repetition of “he that” at the beginning of three successive clauses is an example of anaphora.  The repetition of “me” at the end of these clauses is an example of epistrophe.  The combination of anaphora and epistrophe constitutes symploce.  Moreover, this verse contains a super-symploce (that’s my term), because the subtle repetition of “you” in the middle of the first two clauses is an example of mesodiplosis, and it is embedded between the uses of anaphora and epistrophe.

The repetition of three clauses of nearly identical length is an example of isocolon (tricolon, to be even more specific).  Or you could label it parison, whose definition overlaps considerably with that of isocolon.  Connecting the clauses with two and’s instead of one is a minimal but effective use of polysyndeton.

The first clause exhibits a conduplication of the word “heareth,” the next two clauses the word “despiseth” (did you catch my zeugma there?).  These conduplications also amount to the use of diacope in one of its definitions.

You could argue that the contrast between “heareth” and “despiseth” creates an antithesis.  You could also argue that the verse employs alliteration, involving both consonance and assonance, in the repeating consonant and vowel sounds of “h” and long “e.”

Finally, the first two clauses set up an expectation from which the third suddenly departs: you—me, you—me, me—him that sent me.  I do not yet know which literary device encompasses this particular tactic, but some rhetorical label probably covers it.  It is certainly an effective manipulation of reader expectations.  The phrase “him that sent me” is a use of periphrasis that further enhances the effect of the shifted expectation.

Note also the way this tactic is structured here, especially as I have abbreviated it (you—me, you—me, me—him that sent me).  It smacks of anadiplosis in the second and third clauses, though anadiplosis (if defined narrowly) is not employed in this verse.

To push our analyzing even further, we might say that the progression from “you” (the seventy) to “me” (Christ) to “him that sent me” (the Father) creates an ascending gradation—or, more specifically, an auxesis.

All of these literary devices are operating in this one short verse, yet they are used subtly, naturally, gracefully, without distracting the reader or detracting from the message, without any gaudy cluttering of words, without obscuring the idea conveyed.  They slip by the untrained eye or ear unnoticed, yet something subtle resonates in the heart of the person reading or hearing them.

The verse has meaningful substantive content without the literary devices.  It teaches a profound principle relating to missionary work and the delegation of divine authority—to reject Christ’s ministers is to reject both Christ and God the Father.

The literary devices add beautiful form to this insightful substance, thereby compounding the verse’s power.  The graceful language does draw some attention to itself, but in a good way, because its beauty amplifies rather than diminishes the edification derived from the message.

Christ used literary devices with divine mastery, creating some of the greatest literature in the world, and the King James translators rendered that mastery into sublime English.

A wonderful way to improve your language, whether spoken or written, is to immerse yourself in the language of God, especially when you study not only with your head, but with your heart open to the influence of the Spirit.

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