This week marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of William Blake, who wrote in his Preface to Milton: "And did those feet in ancient time." These words open stanzas which are among the best-known of English poetry. They have become a very necessary alternative to the English national anthem for those of us with republican commitments.
The enthusiasm for his work that we see today eluded him in his lifetime. Blake called us to attend to what he called "minute particulars" in order to understand the world. Take a poem like London. Biblical images from Ezekiel and Revelation inspired him as he walked through London and saw the iniquities on the streets.
Blake knew what was wrong with theology, church life and politics. Above all, he believed that there was too much use of the Bible and theology to beat people around the head, and to keep them in their place, rather than to liberate them and enable them to know their worth. Blake would have none of the "miserable sinners" language, for example. Nevertheless he recognised that what he called the "mind forg'd manacles" of cultural conformity stopped people reaching their potential. His life's work was dedicated to exposing the extent to which infatuation with habits of thought prevents human flourishing.
Blake had no time for conservative Christianity's infatuation with the Bible as the top-down "supreme authority" in the life of the church. Such sentiments were a symptom of false religion, which contracted out responsibility for biblical interpretation to priests and scholars. All God's people, inside and outside the churches, have the responsibility to attend to the energetic activity of the Spirit in creation, in history, and in human experience.
The Bible had to be seen for what it was, he said - a mixed collection of texts which might make a contribution to human betterment. In the annotations he made in one of his books, Blake asserted: "I cannot conceive the Divinity of the books in the Bible to consist either in who they were written by or at what time or in the historical evidence which may be all false in the eyes of one man & true in the eyes of another but in the Sentiments & Examples which, whether true or Parabolic are Equally useful as Examples given to us of the perverseness of some & its consequent evil, & the honesty of others & its consequent good."
Blake loved the Bible because it acted as a stimulus to an imaginative engagement with society and also with the nature of God. Blake wrote that what he wanted to do in his art and poetry was "rouze the faculties to act". That meant empowering the readers and hearers of texts and pictures to have the courage of their convictions and not be dependent on the experts to tell them what a text or picture meant. The Bible fulfilled this function as well as any other text, because it was "addressed to the Imagination ... and but mediately to the understanding or reason".
Too much study of the Bible is either completely dismissive of it, or excessively reverential. It doesn't allow for creative, imaginative engagement with it, recognising its limitations and delighting in it as a resource through which to stimulate understanding, rather than a book of moral precepts. Blake is as indignant as anyone about those elements in the Bible which have been used to condone injustice, oppression and preoccupation with tradition.
He doesn't attempt to make the Bible internally consistent, or universally benevolent, and he fully embraces its problematic elements as a means to question dominant readings within politics and religion. In particular, he challenges its depiction of God as a remote monarch and lawgiver, and the use made of such imagery to justify patriarchy and authoritarianism. His astonishingly diverse array of poems, engravings and paintings, permeated as they are with the Bible, make Blake simultaneously both England's greatest Christian artist and also its most radical biblical interpreter.
(c) Chris Rowland is the Dean Ireland's Professor of the Exegesis of Holy Scripture at the University of Oxford. This piece is slightly adapted from one which appeared in The Guardian, with grateful acknowledgements.