The Book of Books: What Literature Owes the Bible

MARILYNNE ROBINSON
ΝΥΤ

The Bible is the model for and subject of more art and thought than those of us who live within its influence, consciously or unconsciously, will ever know.

Literatures are self-referential by nature, and even when references to Scripture in contemporary fiction and poetry are no more than ornamental or rhetorical — indeed, even when they are unintentional — they are still a natural consequence of the persistence of a powerful literary tradition. Biblical allusions can suggest a degree of seriousness or significance their context in a modern fiction does not always support. This is no cause for alarm. Every fiction is a leap in the dark, and a failed grasp at seriousness is to be respected for what it attempts. In any case, these references demonstrate that in the culture there is a well of special meaning to be drawn upon that can make an obscure death a martyrdom and a gesture of forgiveness an act of grace. Whatever the state of belief of a writer or reader, such resonances have meaning that is more than ornamental, since they acknowledge complexity of experience of a kind that is the substance of fiction.

Old Jonathan Edwards wrote, “It has all along been God’s manner to open new scenes, and to bring forth to view things new and wonderful.” These scenes are the narrative method of the Bible, which assumes a steady march of history, the continuous unfolding of significant event, from the primordial quarrel of two brothers in a field to supper with a stranger at Emmaus. There is a cosmic irony in the veil of insignificance that obscures the new and wonderful. Moments of the highest import pass among people who are so marginal that conventional history would not have noticed them: aliens, the enslaved, people themselves utterly unaware that their lives would have consequence. The great assumption of literary realism is that ordinary lives are invested with a kind of significance that justifies, or requires, its endless iterations of the commonplace, including, of course, crimes and passions and defeats, however minor these might seem in the world’s eyes. This assumption is by no means inevitable. Most cultures have written about demigods and kings and heroes. Whatever the deeper reasons for the realist fascination with the ordinary, it is generous even when it is cruel, simply in the fact of looking as directly as it can at people as they are and insisting that insensitivity or banality matters. The Old Testament prophets did this, too.

A number of the great works of Western literature address themselves very directly to questions that arise within Christianity. They answer to the same impulse to put flesh on Scripture and doctrine, to test them by means of dramatic imagination, that is visible in the old paintings of the Annunciation or the road to Damascus. How is the violence and corruption of a beloved city to be understood as part of an eternal cosmic order? What would be the consequences for the story of the expulsion from Eden, if the fall were understood as divine providence? What if Job’s challenge to God’s justice had not been overawed and silenced by the wild glory of creation? How would a society within (always) notional Christendom respond to the presence of a truly innocent and guileless man? Dante created his great image of divine intent, justice and grace as the architecture of time and being. Milton explored the ancient, and Calvinist, teaching that the first sin was a felix culpa, a fortunate fall, and providential because it prepared the way for the world’s ultimate reconciliation to God. So his Satan is glorious, and the hell prepared for his minions is strikingly tolerable. What to say about Melville? He transferred the great poem at the end of Job into the world of experience, and set against it a man who can only maintain the pride of his humanity until this world overwhelms him. His God, rejoicing in his catalog of the splendidly fierce and untamable, might ask, “Hast thou seen my servant Ahab?” And then there is Dostoyevsky’s “idiot” Prince Myshkin, who disrupts and antagonizes by telling the truth and meaning no harm, the Christ who says, “Blessed is he who takes no offense at me.”

Each of these works reflects a profound knowledge of Scripture and tradition on the part of the writer, the kind of knowledge found only among those who take them seriously enough to probe the deepest questions in their terms. These texts are not allegories, because in each case the writer has posed a problem within a universe of thought that is fully open to his questioning once its terms are granted. Here the use of biblical allusion is not symbolism or metaphor, which are both rhetorical techniques for enriching a narrative whose primary interest does not rest with the larger resonances of the Bible. In fact these great texts resemble Socratic dialogues in that each venture presupposes that meaning can indeed be addressed within the constraints of the form and in its language, while the meaning to be discovered through this argument cannot be presupposed. Like paintings, they render meaning as beauty.

The Easter service that is the climax of “The Sound and the Fury” is a study in the workings of fiction and Scripture as reciprocal interpretation. Like Dostoyevsky, Faulkner represents Christ in the person of an “idiot.” Yet while the epileptic Prince Myshkin is unworldly and rather childlike, he’s not truly idiotic except in the eyes of those offended by him. Faulkner takes the idea a step further by limiting his 33-year-old Benjy to the perception and understanding of a child of 3. Groaning and disruptive as he is, he accompanies the endlessly patient servant Dilsey to the celebration in her little church. A minister brought in for the occasion preaches a sermon so purely allusive as to seem no more than a series of fragments, except to his hearers, who know his language so well they are “beyond the need for words.” This recalls Paul’s saying that when prayer is insufficient the Spirit intercedes “with groanings, and with sighs too deep for words.” Speaking in idiom and in cadences that are in effect a liturgical language, the preacher conflates the long captivity in Egypt with the numberless generations that have passed while the world awaits its renewal. He invokes the tender realism of Christ’s infancy, all infancy, and conflates the massacre of the innocents with the Crucifixion. These are classic methods of interpretation. The biblical narratives are themselves allusive in this way, anticipating the death of Christ and recalling these foreshadowings and others drawn from Old Testament prophecy as the story proceeds to its climax. The preacher describes the death of generations in the language of the world-desolating flood in Genesis and then “de arisen dead,” who have the blood and the recollection of the Lamb.

It is an Easter sermon, full of assurance that beyond death there is life, that the “immolation and abnegation and time” that have corroded Dilsey’s face will end, and end gloriously. But the central and most moving words come in the minister’s descriptions of the crucified, “de thief en de murderer en de least of dese.” His use of the phrase “the least of these” to mean Jesus comes from the Parable of the Great Judgment in the 25th chapter of Matthew, in which the enthroned Son of Man says, “I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me drink. . . . Insofar as you did it unto the least of these, you did it also unto me.” In the moment Christ’s grandeur is revealed, his identity is conflated with those most profoundly in need. So Faulkner’s Benjy and every Benjy in the world is in fact Christ, not metaphorically but metaphysically. Dilsey, in assuming her endless burden of care for him, has fed and clothed Christ himself, and she has been Christ in her care of him. She must have known this all along — the text is not obscure — but a good sermon changes even known truth into profound realization. The word that has seized the preacher is, again, Christ, who according to the tradition is present in vulnerability, in mercy and in truth. The absolute character of Dilsey’s vision is expressed in her saying, “Ise seed de first en de last,” and “I seed de beginnin, en now I sees de endin.” This is the language of Revelation, and these are the words of “the Lamb that was slain,” the apocalyptic Christ of the sermon. The whole novel is comprehended in the nexus of allusion that makes up the sermon, another tale told by an “idiot,” superficially incomprehensible and in fact profoundly meaningful.

In our strange cultural moment it is necessary to make a distinction between religious propaganda and religious thought, the second of these being an attempt to do some sort of justice to the rich difficulties present in the tradition. The great problem for Christianity is always the humility of the figure in whom God is said to have been incarnate, and the insistence of the tradition that God is present in the persons of the despised and rejected. The failure of the notionally Christian worlds of Russia and Mississippi to be in any way sufficient to the occasion of Christ among them would be a true report always and everywhere. But theology is only in part social commentary. Crucially it has to do with the authority of a vision, of a world that is only like this world in essence. The sermon interprets Benjy’s wordless first chapter, a tale told as passionate memory of gentleness and love, Faulkner interceding to evoke for Benjy thoughts that are too deep for the words of any writer but one who is generous and also great. Everyone knows that life is profaned when such thoughts are neglected, as they so often are. As a statement about human consciousness and the reality that contains us, this vision is always familiar and never easier to accept. Paul quotes an ancient hymn in his letter to the Philippians that says Christ “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.” And this recalls the servant described in the book of Isaiah, “one from whom men hide their faces,” who “was despised, and we esteemed him not.” In its emphatic insistence that the burden of meaning is shared in every life, the Bible may only give expression to a truth most of us know intuitively. But as a literary heritage or memory it has strengthened the deepest impulse of our literature, and our ­civilization.

Marilynne Robinson is the author of three novels, including the Pulitzer-winning “Gilead,” and three books of nonfiction. Her essay collection “When I Was a Child I Read Books” will be published in March.

A version of this article appeared in print on December 25, 2011, on page BR1 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: The Book of Books.

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  1. I am lost for words but as in spiritual matters one cannot understand spirituality through words however eloquent they are placed. The bible attempts to do this but as it is said” the Bible may only give expression to a truth most of us know intuitively”.
    That is why a wise ancient Greek once said 2,500 years ago “Know Thy Self”.