Marilynne Robinson identifies the Bible’s unique importance

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Such is the stature of Pulitzer-Prize-winning writer Marilynne Robinson (author of Gilead and Housekeeping) that the very secular New York Times is willing to put her essay about the literary and moral significance of the Bible on the front page of the Sunday Book Review section. Her article is called “The Book of Books” and it traces the impact of the Biblical narrative on Western literature, with Faulkner and Dostoevsky her major illustrations. The sentence that particularly caught my attention is this one:

“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.”

This is exactly what I would have wished to say if I had Ms. Robinson’s capacity for analytical expression. “Religious propaganda” is what we mostly see in what the commentariat refers to as the “Christian” portion of our electorate. “Religious thought” is very much harder to find, makes much less noise, lends itself to no commercial enterprises, draws no crowds.

She goes on:

“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 [Dostoevsky] and Mississippi [Faulkner] to be in any way sufficient to the occasion of Christ among them would be a true report always and everywhere. [Here she analyses in one sentence the central problem of Christian witness: its failure to bear the cross].

She gives illustrations from Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, especially the Easter sermon in the black church, which powerfully illustrates the resonance of the [King James] Bible and the way it creates worlds of meaning among “the least of these.”

Then she goes on:

“But theology is only in part social commentary. Crucially it has to do with the authority of a vision… 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.

Here is the link to the entire article: book of books&st=cse&scp=1

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