NY Times Book Review: What Literature Owes the Bible

Just before Christmas the NY Times book review was on a book we’re all familiar with: The Bible.

Marilynne Robinson, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning novel Gilead penned the interesting article which was subtitled “What Literature Owes the Bible.” Here basic thesis was that the bible has made an unparalleled contribution to the wide world of literature. The reason this is so, Robinson says, is that the Bible asks the tough questions and attempts to construct a coherent answer. Those who read it, know it, and interact with it critically have produced some of the greatest works of literature in any society. Thus when great writers such as Milton, Dante, or Dostoyevsky draw deeply upon the biblical narrative for their works of fiction, they are grasping for a very real depth.

What is stunning is the sheer volume of literary super-stars who interact deeply with the biblical text, showing first and foremost that they have read and understand the bible. Then showing that the impact of the scriptures has been more than skin deep. Robinson’s quick review of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury is amazing. The entire work is a study on scripture via the Christ figure (the “idiot” Benjy) and the cast of unknowing characters.

My question is this: in an increasingly biblically illiterate culture, where will the depth come from when it comes to the literature we produce? Will our culture finally snip the final cords of civility and just wallow in the banality? Will cynicism and fatalism be the constant theme, while irony is the only vehicle that can make us feel anything at all? Clearly the literary academy is producing writers who are brilliant and can still hold their own with the likes of Milton and Faulkner. So perhaps the greater question is, will there be an audience for it? When I began this blog post my main worry was, will anyone read it given that it deals with a question of literature and how it has been impacted by a deep understanding of and wrestling with the bible?

When I think of political figures like Newt Gingrich claiming a new found faith, but who has clearly not interacted in any significant way with the text which makes a Christian a Christian, I have to wonder about what kind of world lies in front of us. What text will help us remember what kind of world this is meant to be? What tome will “give expression to a truth most of us know intuitively,” and what heritage or memory will we pass on to future generations? It makes me want to continue to pour over the scriptures and develop an even deeper understanding of them.

The scriptures force us to ask the tough questions about violence, the nature of evil, and the ends of a society. What is the nature of evil? How should a society respond to threats without and within? A deep knowledge and appreciation of the bible can allow us to remain tethered to the ways in which our ancestors have dealt with these questions, while we press into knew iterations of faithfulness. 

About Tim Suttle

Tim Suttle is a pastor, writer, and musician. He is the author of several books: Shrink: Faithful Ministry in a Church Growth Culture (Zondervan 2014), Public Jesus (The House Studio, 2012), and An Evangelical Social Gospel? (Cascade Books, 2011). Tim's work has been featured at The Huffington Post, The Washington Post, Sojourners, and other magazines and journals. Tim is also the founder and front-man of the popular Christian band Satellite Soul, with whom he toured for nearly a decade. He has planted three successful churches over the past 13 years and is the Senior Pastor of Redemption Church in Olathe, Kan. Tim's blog, Paperback Theology, is hosted at Patheos.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11711889008653348555 Greg

    In regards to this contention: "When I think of political figures like Newt Gingrich claiming a new found faith, but **who has clearly not interacted in any significant way with the text which makes a Christian a Christian….**" [emphasis mine], I must ask: How are you informed of this fact? Newt Gingrich has a Ph.D. in European history. He HAS to have at least HEARD of the Bible and perhaps even read it once or twice. Is it the same way that Republicans are informed that Barak Obama "has clearly not interacted in any significant way with the text which makes a Christian a Christian…."?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10974397437648079481 Tim Suttle

    Granted Newt has to have at least heard of the bible. I would not bank on his having read it or seriously studying it.

    What I mean is that Newt Gingrich has been an unethical politician, who cheats on his wives, divorces frequently, and espouses a political philosophy which runs counter to the gospel of Jesus, which in Jesus’s own words is meant to “bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” The year of the Lord’s favor is a reference to the concept of Jubilee – where all debts were cancelled & the economic playing field was leveled to great extent. Gingrich seems politically opposed to this message, when this is part and parcel of what makes a Christian a Christian.

    To be blunt & colloquial, I don’t think Gingrich is “about” what the scriptures are “about.” Whatever his politics might be, for Gingrich, they are a totalizing thing. His whole life is about his political beliefs. When a person comes under the Lordship of Jesus – which is what it means to be a Christian – then that person’s whole life becomes about serving the kingdom of God.

    Gingrich seems to have had a spiritual awakening in his life, which is a good thing, but he does not seem to have interacted seriously with the scriptures and their overall concern with economic/social justice and the determination that God will oppose any who allow wealth to accumulate in the hands of a few on the backs of the many (see Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Amos, Micah – really all of the prophets). Whether or not he agrees with this reading of the text, I have yet to see him display an understanding that the Christian scriptures teach a certain way of being human which is opposed to some of what he is politically committed to. Gingrich falls under what I would consider to be a cynical and opportunistic use of religion in order to craft a false personal narrative which is palatable enough to the general public that he will be electable again. It does not mean that he is not a Christian, or his faith is not sincere. I only mean that he does not exhibit the sort of depth of understanding & wrestling with the text that we see demonstrated in the writers Robinson reviewed and summarized in her article.

    I’ve written about this more extensively in these two articles:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/tim-suttle/is-the-gop-losing-faith_b_1157950.html
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/tim-suttle/the-irony-of-the-tea-party_b_981906.html

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11711889008653348555 Greg

    Ok, for the sake of argument, I will grant your supposition that despite his obvious Mensa level IQ, that Newt Gingrich hasn't the faintest notion of what the Bible is about. (But I do NOT think your thesis is well supported in fact.)

    How is Newt any different than any other politician (infamously including Obama)? And aside from Mike Huckabee (who seems to be sincere), can you point to a single shining exemplary politician at any time, anywhere?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10974397437648079481 Tim Suttle

    Greg – I agree with you. Most, possibly all politicians are on the same level with this. I cannot point to anyone on the national level I believe to be doing it perfectly. This is the point I was making when I mentioned Gingrich in my post.

    I singled him out because he has been talking a lot lately about his renewal of faith. Yet I think his political commitments tell a much different story than does the story of God. If he has struggled with the scriptures, his life tells me that he has not understood them. I believe one can discern this by looking at the way he has lived his life, and by discerning the political beliefs to which he is committed. I singled him out as a particularly egregious case and because I suspect he’s talking about religion in order to do well in Iowa.

    I’m assuming that you take exception in part because you have similar political beliefs to Newt, is that right? If so I get your critique of what I wrote.

    My thesis doesn't even concern Newt. That comment can be deleted & the idea stays the same. I'm trying to focus on what Marilynne Robinson was saying – a serious commitment to read, understand, and struggle with the Christian Bible is an important part of what it means to engage the world around us truthfully. I think Newt is an example of someone who has failed, you can disagree on that & it’s fine. The larger point remains: To struggle with scriptures will never be irrelevant. They will continue to impact the arts, politics, music, and every aspect of our culture. Those who do it honestly and well – they will come out ahead.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11711889008653348555 Greg

    If Newt wanted to merely resonate with the evangelicals in a cynical political move, I do not think he would have chosen Catholicism. He is a savvy political operator and I do not think that this subtle distinction is lost on him. He is, after all, from the Bible Belt and he KNOWS which side of the bread the butter is on in the Christian voting block. Besides, he has to compete with Rick Santorum for the Catholic vote.

    Newt aside, what is you view of Obama and Romney in terms of their self-proclaimed Christian faith?
    Now consider Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. What about Jon Corzine- there is only a FEW billion dollars missing from MF Global. Now consider Richard Nixon (a Quaker of all things). All of these men are (in)famous "Christians." I think Al Gore used to call himself a Christian too when it suited him.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10974397437648079481 Tim Suttle

    Yeah, if someone says they are a Christian I tend to take their word for it. Then as brothers or sisters in Christ we can have a serious conversation – even argue & disagree with one another – about how that should be lived out w/out feeling the need to kill each other.


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