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Books About the Big Book

New works on old themes demonstrate enduring interest in the Bible

HAROLD BLOOM'S provocative and ingenious bestseller of Bible criticism, ``The Book of J,'' has been making all sorts of headlines, most recently about the big price for the rights to publish the paperback. As the controversy over Bloom's book indicates, works about religion and the Bible are big business. Here, as elsewhere, popularity may hide a multitude of sins. Indeed, The Book of J may serve a general admonitory purpose in our search for gift books about religion. Bloom is something of a loose cannon in criticism - and a canon maker and breaker, too. In his latest book, he wants to canonize - recognize as a great author - an unidentified figure, the writer of a strand of the early books of the Old Testament called ``J.''

Bloom says he believes that this person is a woman and that she is ``uncanny, tricky, sublime, ironic, a visionary of incommensurates, and so the direct ancestor of Kafka'' - and Jane Austen, and Shakespeare, and so on. He attributes to her subtle imagination the heroines Sara, Rachel, Rebecca, and Tamar, as well as the exuberance of Jacob and others ``who bear away the Blessing by a kind of violence.''

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Here's the hitch: It appears that Bloom derives inspiration not from the Hebrew text so much as from the interpretive version of ``J'' by David Rosenberg now sandwiched between Bloom's essays in this book. Poetic license leads the critic into temptation. For us, beware the bestseller!

Less beguiling and altogether more trustworthy is The Book and the Text, a collection of essays edited by Regina Schwartz. The plenitude of the Bible has inspired essays into various contemporary systems of thought from continental philosophy, linguistics, anthropology, psychoanalysis, to feminism and political theory. Still, as Schwartz points out, the book goes back to the old questions: ``the authority for our interpretations; the relation of the text to the reader; the relation of the text to history; the political force of our interpretations.'' She's gathered some outstanding scholars: Mieke Bal, Meir Sternberg, Robert Alter, Paul Ricoeur, and Mary Ann Tolbert among them. Clearly the best of our critics shine brightly in the reflected glory of the best of books.

Incarnation shows this for creative writers. Edited by poet Alfred Corn, it's subtitled ``Contemporary Writers on the New Testament.'' Each book of the New Testament is covered, and the authors constitute a roll call of current poets and novelists.

John Updike leads off - with the Gospel of Matthew, of course. In an essay I reread several times, Reynolds Price says of the author of the gospel of John: ``Bizarre as it is in so many parts, he says in the clearest voice we have the sentence that mankind craves from stories - `The Maker of all things loves and wants me.''' And I discovered a superb stylist in Marilynne Robinson on the epistles of Peter. The only clinker is the last piece, John Hersey on Revelation. Otherwise ``Incarnation'' is a stunning affirmation that poets and storytellers still find the good book thought provoking.

Last year when Jaroslav Pelikan published the last of his five-volume work, ``The Christian Tradition,'' some reviewers missed the prophetic voices now included, among others, in The World Treasury of Modern Religious Thought. Among the 66 pieces Pelikan has selected, which span the world's religions, one finds Dietrich Bonhoeffer's ``Letters from Prison'' and Black Elk on visions of the other world.

Especially timely is Hamilton Gibb's magisterial essay on the foundations of Islamic thought - must reading for the Bush cabinet and the rest of us, too. This enormously satisfying collection opens with Dostoyevsky's ``Grand Inquisitor'' and closes with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's ``Beauty Will Save the World.'' Dedicated to the universal vision, the volume is a great value and belongs in every personal library.

Pelikan's volume brims with eloquence and passion. The Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity, edited by John McManners, has these and other virtues. Perhaps the presence of so much art - glorious paintings in full color, photos, little-known woodcuts and sketches - permitted the mostly British historians to relax and do their thing: history, which these days includes commenting on everything under the sun.

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The book bears eloquent witness to the idea that, in a world amok with ``isms,'' Christianity is different. The book also challenges today's Christians to cease trying to merge with other groups. This splendid work will serve glorious and humble ends for a long time.

The ecumenical concern surfaces suddenly as the final chapters comment on what Christians believe, the Christian conscience, and the future of Christianity. If this magnificently produced volume seems a bit smug (Kierkegaard may have winced at the accent on the success of Christianity) we are reminded that only this year ``a decent, caring but not very political Protestant pastor in Timisoara stood up to his supine bishop and unwittingly sparked off a revolution that brought a tyrant down in Romania.''

Pity the supine bishop! Was the self-correcting element in Christendom active during the Holocaust when millions of Jews died? ``The Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity'' notes that ``the church resistance to Nazification was divided and often weak'' but ``there were quite a lot of actual martyrdoms.''

In her huge, and hugely compelling, history of The Holocaust: the Fate of European Jewry, Yeni Yahil confronts the essential tragedy. Drawing together 20 years of research into an absorbing blend of narrative and analysis, she does not fail to be bold when all else fails.

Why did the Nazis hate the Jews? ``The deepest source may well have been an enmity toward the Jews for having brought God's Ten Commandments into the world.'' After an exhaustive rendering in minute detail of Hitler's ``final solution,'' Yahil confronts the final mystery: why did not anyone, anyone except Hitler, foresee the worst? In the end, perhaps, there is only tragic pity. Pity and resolve not to be incurious about the evil tendencies of what Jonathan Swift aptly described as homo capax rationis - man, the animal capable of reason.

From this review of recent books, it seems that the inner history of history, the story of our stories, springs from the Bible itself. The arch-critic Northrop Frye has been arguing for more than 40 years that it is myth - the closed circle of ever-circling stories - which gives literature, and the Bible, its universality. Recapitulating and expanding on his earlier ``The Great Code,'' Frye's new Words with Power shows how the Bible ``demands the active and creative response that the imagination makes to literature and mythology.'' Such active reading is well rewarded. Combining great knowledge, cunning, and tact, Frye's book demonstrates why he believes the Bible is more than literature, and why we should, too.

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