A new breed of novel attempts to do better what the Bible has already done.
I seem to find another new novel about a biblical character, written by an evangelical Christian and published by a conservative Protestant house, every time I visit the book store.
There is, of course, nothing new about imaginative literature inspired by biblical narratives. But a number of recent novels, including, for example, Marjorie Holmes’s Two from Galilee (Revell, 1972) and Joyce Landorf’s I Came to Love You Late (Revell, 1977), seem to constitute a distinct and recognizable genre. Recent additions to the group would include Gini Andrews’s Esther (Zondervan, 1980), Lance Webb’s Onesimus (Thomas Nelson, 1980), Landorf’s Joseph (Revell, 1980), Lois Henderson’s Abigail and Ruth (Christian Herald, 1980, 1981), Bette Ross’s Song of Deborah (Revell, 1981), and Roberta Dorr’s Bathsheba (Chosen Books, 1981).
What are we to think of this remarkable outburst of supposedly Christian fiction? Can we be encouraged that recent defenses of imaginative literature from within the evangelical community have conclusively silenced perennial criticisms that fiction (being made up) is not true, that (providing no knowledge) it is not useful, that (serving as an escapist pastime) it is not edifying? Are evangelicals becoming a fiction-writing, fiction-publishing, fiction-reading community? Sales of several of these novels would suggest that is the case.
The phenomenon is worth considering, even if the literary merits are slim. Certainly the desire to bring alive the already vivid world of the Bible is a laudable intention, and the ability of good fiction to fashion a world both apprehensible to our senses and emotions and comprehensible to our minds makes it an apt vehicle for doing so. But fiction’s muse can be a hard taskmaster. One must suppose that a novelistic retelling of a biblical narrative will work best when it is spawned by a gifted and experienced novelist’s sense that “this story is a tale for our times,” not when a writer, perhaps experienced only in informative prose, has the idea that “the moral of this narrative is still relevant.”
Biblical narratives have prompted many great literary works other than Milton’s. Yet it is noteworthy that few great novelists have tried their hands at novelistic versions of Bible stories, perhaps because they recognize the risks involved in attempting to redo or outdo what the writers of the Scriptures are recognized as doing superlatively well.
It is interesting that most of these recent novels represent first efforts in fiction writing by authors known for nonfiction books generally of the “principles for living” variety. One wonders why they have taken up fiction and gone to biblical narratives for their sources. Why not write fiction about contemporary social, religious, and cultural milieus of which the writer has firsthand experience rather than as a novice taking on the daunting task of imaginatively recreating forms of thought, emotion, and language of ancient civilizations?
The judgment must be rendered, if not belabored, that much of this fiction is badly written. One frequently feels the writers have learned the basic rules for good fiction but lack the instinct. One writer understands the importance of activating the reader’s senses, but the generality of her appeal can be soporific: “Flies made a druzzing sound.… Donkeys brayed, camels grumbled, horses neighed.” Readers yawned.
More glaring are the faults of overwriting: gaudy metaphors with no consistent—or apparent—thematic relevance; passages of purple prose tossed like globs of tinsel on a Christmas tree, the labored efforts of essentially prosaic imaginations. Weaknesses of syntax and diction subvert one’s trust in the writer. But the anticlimactic flatness of an illustrative sentence from Joseph disturbs me less than Landorf’s resort to the banal language of psychobabble: “On the sad and grievious [sic] day that Rachel died in childbirth, Sherah found that her own acute suffering had added some maturity to her life and that, if she was to continue to grow, she had to be willing to change some of her attitudes.”
It may seem discourteous to suggest that the fictional imagination of many of these authors is more compatible with that of writers of pulp novels and daytime television than those who wrote the biblical narratives. While appearing to redeem, the packaging of their novels certainly appeals frequently to the conventions of pulp romance fiction. The promises of an “absorbing narrative of adventure and romance,” “a sweeping drama of danger, intrigue, and love,” “an exciting tale of passion, intrigue, and suspense” (not to mention the sensuously romanticized women pictured on several of the jackets) are designed to attract readers who expect fiction to provide escape and promote fantasized daydreaming.
Coupled with promises of “recreating Old Testament times and customs,” of making “the taste and smell of Biblical Palestine come alive again,” of making “the claims, the miracles and the teachings of Jesus stand before you,” the implicit apologetic for these novels seems clear: “For you folks who like to escape with a good romantic thriller but feel guilty about it, here is a novel that combines intrigue with information, and will actually help your spiritual life and Bible study.” In other words, the jacket advertising saws off the branch on which the novels stand by catering to a distrust or misuse of fiction, and debases the fiction inside by appealing to debased literary taste.
Advertisements aside, we may still ask whether this turn to biblical historical fiction indicates a recognition of the validity of fiction in general. What assumptions about fiction, about the Bible itself, lie behind these novels? What sort of apologetic for fiction do they imply?
One may suppose the authors not only to have thought that biblical narratives have proven moral and spiritual value, but also that biblical historical novels would be easier to write, since so much is given: main characters, basic plot, essential themes, setting. Such a modest invasion of fiction, using, as Gini Andrews says, the “facts” of the biblical account as “pegs on which to hang my story,” betrays, perhaps, a certain notion of fiction as embellishment. Add descriptive detail here, a minor character there, an added or amplified episode: anyone might be able to do it, given sufficient “research.”
Indeed, these authors’ “credentials” are established less by proven fictional talents than by their research into ancient Mideast and Israelite culture. Andrews includes a bibliography of her research. The details and background of Webb’s Onesimus are “authentic,” the jacket assures us, because he “spent nineteen years researching early Christian history and tradition.” (Once during his travels in Asia Minor, Webb even “employed a taxi and hired a Turkish ranger as guide” in order “to gain a local perspective.”) A blurb on the jacket of Landorf’s I Came to Love You Late states that “Joyce’s extensive research has resulted in a faithful re-creation of the people, the culture, the surroundings and the attitudes that existed in Israel in the time of Jesus.”
The implications are that the criteria for writing a good novel are much the same as those for writing nonfiction. Fiction is given the guise of cultural history recast for popular consumption. The reader may feel justified in reading these novels because he will be accurately informed about “everyday life in Bible times.” One may trust Andrews’s portrayal of Esther because she has read Pirhiya Beck’s “Note on the Reconstruction of the Achaemenid Robe” in Iranica Antiqua. But of course, all the research in the world guarantees neither the ability to create a plot and believable characters nor the mastery of language and metaphor that marks the gifted writer of fiction.
Another way these novels authorize themselves is by claiming, as Andrews says, to be “scrupulously faithful to the biblical account.” Such claims serve, I suppose, as an imprimatur for Protestant evangelical and fundamentalist readers, assuring them that the writer shares their high view of Scripture and has not been tampering with the text. But what exactly is denoted by such intended faithfulness is not entirely clear.
It could mean, as Andrews seems to suggest, a faithfulness to the episodes and their chronology in the biblical source, “using these ‘facts’ as pegs.” But to suppose that remaining “true to the biblical account” involves mainly “facts” and chronology, and that such faithfulness constitutes a chief responsibility of the novelist, betrays an inadequate notion of how a novel works—indeed, of how the Bible itself works. It implies that the Bible is in a nonnarrative form, even a “bare bones narrative.” Andrews describes the Book of Esther this way, and then embellishes or translates it into narrative form.
Fiction involves plot, and plot is more than chronology. It is the purposeful shape of an action, which guides the writer in decisions about episode, characterization, imagery, and detail. The writer’s “faithfulness” to a plot allows the reader to apprehend that plot, and the theme embodied in it, by asking at every point in the narrative, “What is this detail of setting, action, or imagery doing here?”
In the Bible, historiography in the modern sense is always subordinated to plot. The power of the biblical narratives (as Robert Alter demonstrates in his recent book, The Art of Biblical Narrative) lies largely in their deft and sophisticated use of principles of selection, which unite every element in the text—lies, that is, in their sense of (God’s) plot. The Book of Esther, for example, exhibits a narrative density and decorum in which everything is designed to create a heroine whose bold faithfulness can inspire an audience tempted to lose their identity in dispersion.
Among Andrews’s embellishments of the Esther story is an account of Xerxes’ Greek campaign. This addition is defended “because Herodotus and other Greek historians give us the only extrabiblical sources of Xerxes’ life and character.… Since they concentrate mainly on the war, it seemed necessary to include this.” Isn’t Andrews’s “scrupulous faithfulness” to history rather than to the biblical narrative, which, with a shrewder sense of story, chose to leave out an episode irrelevant to the purpose of the plot? What principle of selection leads Ross to make Deborah strikingly beautiful and her husband ruggedly handsome? She is remaining “faithful” less to the biblical account than to the conventions of romance.
These authors seem inadequately to understand that the responsibility they have taken upon themselves to be “faithful to the biblical account” involves not only concerns of chronology and culture, but also, and more important, narrative concerns such as the genre and plot of their sources. They betray a hermeneutic naïveté about how the meaning of a biblical story is part and parcel of the manner in which it is told.
as far as God,
the growing back
of cold nights
cannot hold him.
in contested places
like the crickets’
when the last leaf
falls in silence
from the wall.
I’ve seen him
to the daisies,
the terrible news,
like a lump
in all our pores.
The conventions of romance, for instance, set immediately into play in a number of these novels, raise expectations in the reader that guide his reading in a radically different way than does, for example, the biblical story of the prophetess. A romantic novel about Deborah need not be bad fiction, although its edifying value may be rendered suspect, as must be its “faithfulness” to the biblical source. An aspect of the bad fiction of The Song of Deborah is the author’s inability through her language to differentiate, and therefore to portray convincingly, the potential conflict between Deborah’s love for Lapidoth and her love for God, between her romantic passion and her prophetic zeal. In other words, one’s experience in reading these novels is not only quantitatively different from reading the biblical narratives, owing to greater detail, but qualitatively different, owing to changes in genre, plot, and therefore theme.
Of course, we may grant the intention of these authors to be faithful to the biblical characterizations of their heroes and heroines. Yet it is difficult, for example, to imagine Ross’s prophetess, her “senses reeling” at the sight of the battlefield gore, “emotionless” after the Israelites’ victory, taking part in the triumphant “Song of Deborah” recorded in Judges 5, praising God for his just wrath and vengeance. It is not unreasonable to say that Deborah represents an ideal of contemporary evangelical piety and womanhood transported anachronistically back to the Israel of the Judges. Her language of familiarity with “Jehovah” imitates that of the modern evangelical’s converse with his personal Lord Jesus.
Indeed, praised on the jackets for their “faithful re-creations” of Bible times, these authors seem all the more culpable for their failure to embody convincingly the forms of thought and emotion of ancient cultures. Most of their characters think and feel like moderns. Worse might be said. The quality of emotion, the range of concerns the authors are able to manifest, parallel not even those of authentic contemporary religious life. They imitate rather the popular mass media and literary genres of commercial television, soap operas, and Gothic romances. All the details that supposedly authenticate the setting thinly veil the fact that, if translated from camels to cars, shekels or siglots to dollars and cents, these characters would fit comfortably, at best, into a sharing group, and at worst, into “Dallas.” More worrisome is the feeling one gets that these writers have not even sensed as an issue, let alone as a novelistic problem, the hermeneutic fact that different cultures have different forms of thought and expression.
To transpose modern people into olden times is not novelistically illegitimate, and to interpret biblical narratives in contemporary language may helpfully jolt us into a refreshed recognition of the Bible’s permanent contemporaneity. But deliberate anachronism is not the apparent purpose of our biblical novelists, whose stated intention is rather to recreate biblical characters in their historical settings.
To show the relevance of authentic religious issues of life—sin, guilt, repentance, forgiveness, faith, and doubt—to modern experience is always a worthwhile enterprise. It is one performed by such Christian novelists of contemporary life as Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Frederick Buechner, Thomas Keneally, Graham Greene, and others. This is the sort of “faithfulness to the biblical account” by which one can define and judge a Christian literary imagination at work. I am suggesting, however, that the opposite procedure is at work in many of the recent biblical historical novels. It is that of imposing modern forms of experience and alien generic forms on the biblical narratives. The risk is that the biblical stories will be cheapened by translating the archetypal religious concerns of their protagonists into irritating encounters with the banal idols of contemporary culture. The danger is that reading these novels will emasculate the power of God’s Word by stimulating, instead of subverting, our habitual tendency to interpret the Bible in terms of our own life, rather than vice versa.
Indeed, it is precisely the ability of good fiction to crack open such provinciality, to give us new perspectives on life, and to make us aware of insular “eyeglasses” that gives it a role to play in the Christian life. By helping us now and again to step back from habitual categories of interpreting experience, or the Bible, fiction can promote the process of sanctification whereby God’s Word remakes those categories on its own terms.
John E. Skillen is a doctoral candidate in English literature at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina.
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