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The Book of Books: What Literature Owes the Bible

A few weeks ago a friend passed me this excellent article from the New York Times by Marilynne Robinson (the author of Gilead). My meager agreement isn’t going to do justice to Miss Robinson or her article, so I’m simply going to pass her words directly on to you. Here’s an excerpt:

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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