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.