In vivid contrast many of the orthodox don't read the Bible at all; they just wave it! Little wonder they dislike Blake. His early ironic description of his work as the Bible of Hell certainly helped to confirm their prejudice.
There are essentially two ways to read the Bible; Blake referred to them as black and white. What did he mean? We might look at Urizen's Book of Brass as the black book. It's a book of rules, a book of law. It tells people what to do, and more poignantly, what not to do.
Even today ordinary people see the Bible in this way, which helps to explain why hardly anyone reads it today. The few who do read it dutifully and dully. Such a reading constrains consciousness; it makes the reader obedient and unimaginative. The faithful few who feel that they should read their Bible often approach it in a child like way bordering on the childish. Reading the black book inhibits the imagination, deadens the mind and prevents spiritual development. At its worst it has led to many instances of religious persecution and mass murder.
But Blake read it white. The white book is not a book of rules, but a book of visions, a book of wonders. It provokes thought, causes the imagination to soar. Blake must have learned to read at about the age of four, when he had his first vision-- the frightful face at the window. Perhaps we've all been frightened by the Bible in one way or another; most people have had a sufficiently negative experience to leave it strictly alone. But little William overcame his fright and kept reading, and the next vision we hear of was more positive--a tree full of angels.
All the evidence suggests that for the next sixty five years Blake's Bible reading and his visions went hand in hand; his art is the record of it all. Whoever becomes really interested in Blake's visions will find himself reading the Bible because that's where most of them begin. In spite of this his secular critics have looked all over the world for his sources.
One of the greatest things that Blake has to offer the reader is that he makes you see and read the Bible in a new and better way. Not for nothing did the youthful circle of admirers of Blake's last years refer to him as the Interpreter.
The black book has most often been read as law, as history, in a restricted, literal interpretation. If the priest can get people to see it this way, and only this way, then he has secure control over his flock of sheep. In contrast Blake suggests that it's symbolic. Although written in categories of time and space, the temporal dimension is only instrumental; it points to the Beyond, the Eternal, the Real.
Too often people reading 'black' concern themselves with foolish questions such as "Did it really happen? Was Jonah really swallowed by the whale, or rather by the big fish?" But in Blake's vision that isn't the important thing. The important thing is "What does it mean?" The reader of the black book gets himself tied up in knots about the veracity or historicity of Jonah and his aquatic friend.
Blake shows you the Jonah in your psyche and helps you get some grasp of what the turbulent sea means to you personally. It's experiential, exciting! it puts you in touch with reality!, which is not material at all but spiritual. Literal or symbolic is black or white, and probably the two minds will never meet. At this point I simply urge you to join Blake and read white:
- "Why is the Bible more Entertaining & Instructive than any other book? Is it not because [it is] addressed to the Imagination which is Spiritual Sensation, and but mediately to the Understanding or Reason?"
(Letter To Trusler; Erdman 702-3)
All of the above is taken from Chapter Six of the Blake Primer.