The Bible helped inspire David Jasper to study literature.
“In the first instance, it’s a great work of literature,” Jasper said. “That might sound a terrible thing for a priest to say. It is the word of God, whatever we mean by that — but actually it’s the word of God because something like the first chapter of Genesis, the first chapter of the Bible, (is) just extraordinary, imaginative.”
Since beginning his studies, Jasper has become an ordained priest and an academic, authoring numerous books and teaching across the world. He is professor emeritus and Honorary Professional Research Professor at the University of Glasgow, an honorary research fellow at the University of Edinburgh, associate editor at the International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church, and a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.
Jasper will speak at 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy as a part of the Interfaith Lecture Series, closing out the Week Six Theme, “Literature and Meaning-Making.”
Jasper has taught theology for 40 years, he said, but was frustrated in his studies with the way people were looking at it.
“Certain parts of the Bible, which are just wonderful literature, … were being kind of closed down, because you were studying it for doctrinal or religious reasons,” Jasper said. “I wanted to kind of free the Song of Songs or 1 Corinthians 13, or whatever it might be, to be just what they are as wonderful texts.”
While Jasper said he knows “some people will argue to the death” with him that the Bible is literal, he feels the authors of the Bible were more poetic, with a text like Genesis illustrating how they were “exploring their idea of a divine creation.”
“They just saw the world as infused with the divinity of the creator,” Jasper said. “It’s a great poem, and that’s how I understand it first, and then all the theology and stuff comes later.”
Jasper has studied literature and faith across nations. In 2020, he released Literature and Religion: A Dialogue between China and the West, with Ou Guang-an, a Chinese professor of English literature at Shihezi University.
Jasper said what they were looking for in the book was “the things that bring us together rather than the things that separate us,” with Guang-an reading books embedded in English literature, and Jasper doing the same with Chinese texts.
In doing this, Jasper said they looked into words and ideas like “spirit,” seeing how the “Chinese spirit of the people” relates “to our understanding of the Holy Spirit.”
“Does that word have a commonality that we can bring together?” Jasper said. “We actually discovered that it did, so that these great divisions … had a lot more in common than we had in our differences, and that was important.”
Jasper will touch on his many international experiences in his talk today.
“I’ve been fortunate to have taught in various parts of the world,” Jasper said. “The lecture will be a virtual geographical tour through China, India, the USA, Australia, the UK, Ireland, and all the literature that I’ve encountered there.”
Jasper hopes Chautauquans leave his talk with a sense of the importance of literature.
“One of the things that was said to me when I started teaching literature at a university is, ‘You mean you just read novels and poems, and you do that for a living?’ ” Jasper said. “We live in a world, I think, in which … the humanities are really under pressure.”
Higher education, Jasper said, is depreciating the humanities, but they are necessary “in a world in which literature would celebrate aesthetics and beauty and explore the nature of human relationships.”
“Surely, we need that pretty desperately,” Jasper said. “Reading isn’t just a kind of add-on thing that you do when you’ve got a bit of spare time, but is actually something that is fundamental to our very humanity.”