Edited by David Rosenberg
547 pp., $30
In "Communion," the spiritual successor to "Congregation," an earlier volume in which Jewish authors wrote of their relationship to the Hebrew Bible, poet and editor David Rosenberg has gathered another series of essays on the Bible.
They are written not by Biblical commentators and scholars but by 36 living fiction authors, literary critics, and poets, mostly Americans, mostly raised Christian. "Communion," like its predecessor, strives for a new way of reading and writing about Bible stories and poetry.
Rosenberg asked writers to peel away the layers that religious authorities, dogmas, churches, scholars, and translators impose on Biblical writings. What he wants readers to have is an "unmediated" experience with the Bible "as a human text." Communion, here, has to do with writers getting in direct contact with their Biblical counterparts, listening to the ancient voices, then writing from their own life experiences with Bible texts.
A good many have traveled a far distance from their religious upbringing. The result is a very mixed bag. As writing, the level is high. These poets and authors - among them, Joyce Carol Oates, Robert Coles, Peter Schjeldahl, and Hugh Kenner - are gifted and thoughtful wordsmiths.
Churches and theologies are important and influential to these writers as contexts for growing up. But whether Protestant, Roman Catholic (a third of the writers were raised Catholic), Hindu, or Mormon, they describe their religions (sometimes with disconcerting candor) as unchosen accidents of birth.
Helen Vendler helps us understand her early abandonment of Catholicism and subsequent atheism. Even though she still loves the psalms, she nevertheless asserts that Biblical texts are a dead and unrevivable heritage in today's America.
At the other end of the spectrum, poet Kathleen Norris, a practicing Christian, encounters the prophet Jeremiah, then compellingly records the catharsis she experiences. Alfred Corn's self-described "unprofessional Bible scholarship" bespeaks a modesty hardly justified by the fascinating and challenging exegesis of Deuteronomy and examples of Christian topology he provides. And John Barth's synthesis of the Hebrew Bereshith ("In the beginning...") with current theories of the cosmos is nothing less than stunning.
It is important to push past the first essay, a strange choice indeed for opening this volume. The images and impressions will disturb, but even there, a man was reaching for that which, in dire circumstances, might make endurance possible. Many of the essays are intensely personal and resonate with all the vividness and subjectivity of remembered childhood.
Nowhere is there even the vaguest recognition of God as a source of healing for today's ills. On the other hand, many quote the King James Version of the Bible (Oates calls it "one of the incontestably great literary works in our language"), and no writer, however alienated from organized religion, speaks disrespectfully of the Bible.
The best essays use memory to embrace ideas and spiritual themes that transcend the merely personal. Keep a current dictionary handy. Along the way, some new or out-of-the-way words will stretch the vocabulary of even sophisticated readers.
*Linda Giedl is a senior writer and project manager for the public information office of The First Church of Christ, Scientist, Boston.