FOR THEIR CHRISTMAS DAY ISSUE, the New York Times Sunday Book Review is running an essay by Marilynne Robinson, author of “Gilead” and “Home,” about “What Literature Owes the Bible.”
You don’t need to be a particularly pious or especially bookish to see what Robinson sees in both the Good Book and good books:
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.
The “aliens, the enslaved, people themselves utterly unaware that their lives would have significance” are the heroes (and anti-heroes) from Salinger, Franzen, Kate Walbert, James Joyce, David Mitchell, Jennifer Egan and of course Robinson, among others (not to mention Star Wars and Harry Potter). David Foster Wallace may not adhere strictly to literary realism, but few authors are more focused on the significance Jesus’ “the least of these.” More:
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…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.