Marilynne Robinson: What Literature Owes the Bible

This wonderful piece was published last week in the New York Times. Authored by the writer and novelist Marilynne Robinson, it begins this way:

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.

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