Organic mixed media artwork by Kay Sexton
I learned the Bible, the first two books of it at least, if not at my mother's knee, then up close on our old maroon sofa a couple years before I started Catholic school. That sofa was also where she read me the story of Little Black Sambo, who started out as a boy but ended up as a pancake; "Water Babies," of which I have no memory but the strange title; "Tom Thumb," as well as dozens of nursery rimes, all out of a set of handsome faux-leather red volumes called Journeys through Bookland.
The Bible stories came from another place, probably an abridged version for children. I have no memory of the book itself. What I do recall after all these years like old sepia family portraits are images of Noah's wife turning into a pillar of salt for disobeying God's command not to look back on the destruction of Sodom; the great flood Noah escaped by building an ark to save two of every living creature; the mugging of Benjamin by his brothers for his beautiful coat; and of course the bondage and rescue of the Israelites from Egypt. I was especially impressed by the plagues God inflicted on the Egyptians until the pharaoh relented—the frogs, the duel between the Jewish and Egyptian magicians that ended with the Jews' team turning their staffs into snakes that ate up the Egyptians', and of course the slaughter of all non-Jewish first-borns by the Angel of Death.
Then I turned five and my mother enrolled me in the parish school, where I never heard any of those Bible stories again.
It was many years after those long afternoons pressed up against the flowery warm scent of my mother's house dresses that I came to realize why almost everyone I've known has little or no familiarity with the Old Testament. I was not surprised when I drew blank stares from Catholics if I reference God's command to Abraham to sacrifice his only son or the trick Jacob played on his brother Esau to cheat him out of his inheritance. I knew the Church only teaches what is in the Gospels, the "Old Testament" being just prophetic prelude to the coming of the Messiah. But it came as a shock when I found that none of the Jews I knew were familiar with those stories, either. The books of the Bible are, after all, their holy writ. I didn't expect them to get it when I made a joke about Jesus turning water into wine if I ran out of Pinot Noir at a dinner party. But Sarah's visitation from the two "strangers" who assured her that despite being 90 years old, she was about to conceive a child, and her daring to laugh in their celestial faces? How could a Jew, even a "secular" Jew, not know that one?
Along with "Water Babies" and the Book of Genesis, my mother also read me Donald Duck and Bugs Bunny comics. I understood that the creation story and the presentation of the Twelve Tablets to Moses on Mount Sinai were of a different order than Scrooge McDuck's epic stinginess or Bugs Bunny's casual flouting of the laws of physics. What went on in the Garden of Eden, Cain's murder of his brother Abel, Jacob's long, frustrating campaign to possess the woman he had been promised—these were windows onto an adult world of passion and duplicity not to be found in the pages of Looney Toons or even Journeys through Bookland.
But it was only Donald and his mischievous nephews, not Moses and Noah, who survived my entry into Catholic school. There was drama in the Gospel stories the nuns told us. But the emphasis was on miracles and instruction—the curing of lepers, the virgin birth (whatever "virgin" meant, never mind what birthing involved)—endless retellings of the suffering and death of Jesus. But impressive as they were, miracles and torture were small beer compared with the drama of Eve and the wily Serpent, Moses's smashing of the Holy Tablets when God's people reverted to idol worship, the 40-year trek through the Sinai desert, not to mention the old man's blade that came so close to ending his son's young life, and throughout it all the hovering presence of a jealous, oh-so-angry God who nevertheless stood by his chosen people.
There were important exceptions to the Gospel's magic and gore: the apostle Peter's thrice betrayal of Jesus in the Roman governor's courtyard even as his master was being scourged inside those walls—"I know not the man!"; Jesus's visit to his friend Lazarus's house where he sat and talked with Lazarus's sister Mary while Martha asked why she had to do all the housework by herself. (To add special relevance for me, my mother's name was also Mary, and she had long conversations over the kitchen table with my older brother about the meaning of life.) It was only many years later, reading the Gospels for the first time on my own, that it struck me how the Son of God had a soft spot for Lazarus's sister that went beyond good conversation. Why else would he burst into tears when Mary embraced his legs and begged him to come quickly to revive her dead brother, especially after her sister Martha had just done the same thing and he had told her dry-eyed, even sternly, to go back home and wait there for him?
But for many years I rarely thought about the Bible stories my mother read me in my pre-school days. I was too busy learning my body and especially its most urgent appetites was a dangerous thing, a constant temptation to sin, and sin would result in the excruciating punishment conjured up by the nuns and priests on a daily basis. The crucifix hanging on the wall above the class blackboard was a daily reminder the long-awaited Messiah had died to relieve me of the eternal punishment I deserved for my surreptitious glances at Joyce Barrett's full white blouse as she sat straining over a long-division problem, which the nun, herself covered head to toe in coarse black fabric, was scribbling on the blackboard, the naked flesh of her forearm shamelessly exposed.
I often wondered how anyone could deliberately sin if they took seriously the eternal consequences of their action. And yet, sin I did, by letting my glance linger on a brassiere ad in my mother's copy of The Lady's Home Journal, or when I marveled at the high breasts of Archie's girlfriend Veronica after my taste in comics had progressed beyond Bugs and Donald—or even when I stared at the hind end of a cat. I was up to my ears in the swampy depths of a very material world with occasions of sin everywhere I turned. The confessions I made in a dark box to Father Donovan's dim profile brought little relief. Nor did it matter that my sins against "purity" amounted to feelings I never acted upon. The priest, like all the priests I confessed to, never asked for details beyond how many times, and was it with myself or with another? Sex was always sin, mortal sin. There were no venial, or lesser, sins when it came to sex. And mortal sin meant hell, never-ending eternal fire, no hope of release.
Donald Duck and Bugs Bunny never worried about what would happen to their immortal souls after they died. They lived in and for the moment, untroubled by temptations against the Sixth Commandment. They knew no prohibitions except the physical laws of gravity, which they sometimes overcame as easily as any miracle-working saint. (It was only many years later when I watched a mouse run off my countertop and hang suspended in the air for what seemed an impossible time, his little legs spinning in a blur, that I realized whoever drew those comics must have been inspired by the same amazing feat of weightlessness I was witnessing.)
It was only in my 20s when I discovered Fyodor Dostoevsky's larger-than-life but very human souls and Anton Chekhov's lonely teachers, doctors, and civil servants, along with the characters who populate the short stories of DeMaupassant, Frank O'Connor, and Eudora Welty, that my imagination became engaged again the way it had been on that old sofa. Old man Karamazov could have stepped right out of Genesis. Raskolnikov fleshes out the tortured mind of a murderer like Cain. Chekhov's intellectuals adrift in a world where God has been pronounced dead, his women grappling with the same struggles as their sisters of today, spoke more directly to me than the narratives of the four evangelists. With the moderns I was in a world where human beings walked with both feet on the ground, loved, lied, cheated, and asked for forgiveness from each other, not from a deity who punished those who disobeyed him with exile, plague, and eternal hellfire.
Dostoevsky's, Chekhov's, Balzac's, Dickens's people are the grandchildren of Moses and Abraham. Like most ancestors, especially remote ones, the Biblical figures are superhuman, enhanced in stature by deep time and the special favor of an all-powerful God. Likewise, Jesus remains, to quote Henry David Thoreau, the "well-spring" even of atheist champions of justice. And prior to the rabbi from Nazareth are the prophets, and so on into the remotest chronicles of our species. The figures of the Old and New Testaments are with us wherever men and women turn their imaginations to the representation of their fellow humans. They are in Greek tragedy, struggling like their Biblical counterparts to set themselves right with their God. They are in The Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost in equal measures of Old and New Testament. But they are just as much in Shakespeare and Diderot, in Stefan Zweig and Mark Twain without much reference to a God, indeed sometimes in denial of one. The resemblance may be obvious as in Israel Singer's The Brothers Ashkenazi (twins like Isaac and Esau and just as different from each other as the originals) whose title as well as plot and characters offer a nod to both the great Russian literary tradition as well as to the authors of the Pentateuch. But the characters of the Bible just as surely inform the most secular of authors, the Hemingways and Bellows. Sometimes, these authors even ape the prosody of the Bible, at least the version of the one they were exposed to by the King James translation, which, because of its archaic vocabulary and inflection, can seem for English-speakers to be the Bible. The dialogue in For Whom the Bell Tolls, though purporting to be transliterations of peasant-revolutionaries, is straight out of the King James, as is the diction of The Old Man and the Sea.
The Catholic Church marginalizes the Pentateuch. Not so Protestants. For them even the minor figures of the books of the Hebrew bible are front and center along with the Gospels. Of course, both branches of Christianity insist on their own doctrinal interpretations. If the tragedy of an Esau betrayed by his brother or the humiliation of a drunken Noah, never mind the poetry of the psalms and the Book of Esther, break through the walls of sectarian dogma, it happens most easily in the unprejudiced mind of a child hearing those stories for the first time.
Catholic imaginations are limited to the parables and vignettes of the Gospels. Out of the conversation of the Woman at the Well or Judas's treacherous kiss we get not the epic of Genesis but the everyday of the short story—not just narratives that happen to be brief but, like the lyric poem, heavily concentrated on a single incident or moment, all its parts devoted to a tight focus, which when it succeeds, releases a power all out of proportion to its brevity or the modesty of its narrative scope.
After my early days with Genesis and Exodus, it was the Gospels that next penetrated not just my consciousness but parts of my psyche more essential and durable. Every Sunday the mass was paused for a reading of an episode from one of them. The selections were made for doctrinal purposes, but they were stories nonetheless, retold year after year until any Catholic who paid even minimal attention could repeat them from memory—flash fictions of bereavement, bad conscience, jealousy, love-at-first-sight.
It's no accident the four narrative gospels we know were the only ones accepted into the official Christian canon, while dozens of others were not. Even the Inquisitional minds of the early church fathers must have felt the power of those popular narratives. Paul and Thecla was one of them, a novelesque tale of a beautiful young woman, a devotee of Saul/Paul who experienced gruesome tortures and spectacular divine rescues, that was a great favorite in those early days of Christianity. Excluding Paul and Thecla from the canon (the secular novels of that time had similar titles, Daphnis and Chloe e.g.) must have been a hard call. A good love story, especially an unconsummated one, always does well. How those early Christians must have hung on its cliff-hanging plot and the heroine's passionate but chaste devotion to the "thirteenth apostle"!
In a novel of my own, a parish priest has a mid-life crisis during which he confronts a world in which he feels alienated from his fellow human beings, his vocation, and ultimately from himself. The mother he visits every summer at the start of his vacation has become as much a stranger as everyone else he confronts during his two-week road trip—a garage mechanic's wife still grieving the loss of a son who died 20 years earlier and wants none of the priest's anodyne consolation ("Perhaps God wanted him," to which she snaps, "I wanted him more!"); a female hitchhiker who attempts to seduce the priest with farcical results. The rituals of his faith have become a mechanical routine he practices in a lonely vacuum. What do remain fresh for him are those gospel stories, especially the one where Mary, Lazarus's sister, tearfully implores Jesus to come quickly to save her brother's life. That dramatic moment still has a power to move him to tears.
The writing of that novel was a way for me to come to terms with my refusal to bend to the expectations of my parents and become a Catholic priest. I carried the burden of that decision for decades until it was largely exorcised by the writing of that novel. Ironically, it happened thanks in part to the Gospels. In a critical moment in the narrative, the priest also tears up as he recounts that scene where it's evident the Lord and Savior of humankind cares for a member of the opposite sex in a very human way. My priest's sharing of that Gospel story with a woman he has recently befriended is the beginning of his renewal as a human being.
I could draw a straight line from the scene in my novel back to those afternoons I spent alongside my mother on our old sofa. I have no memories of Tom Thumb or the other, secular tales she read me from Journeys through Bookland or the hundreds of Bugs Bunny and Donald Duck comics I read on my own. But Abraham's near-sacrifice of Isaac and Sarah's laughter in the face of the divine emissaries, along with the dozens of Gospel stories I later heard at Sunday mass, endure. Through them I was not only able to recognize the tragedy of Papa Karamazov and his three sons, I felt compelled to create narratives of my own, albeit very much of this world.
And not for nothing the women of my fiction—most of my narratives are about women—are canny and wry like old Sarah or Mary the mother of Jesus, who realizes she's got a head-strong son to manage and knows how to do so without stepping on his ego. Women, apart from the biblical Esthers and Judiths or the women in Greek drama who frustrate the wills of kings or go on sex strike to stop their men from playing too long at war, have been the also-rans of literature, supporting characters for heroic males. In my own work they are front and center because they seem to me the richer, more fully developed members of our species. Chekhov seemed to see women that way, too, as of course did Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters (who all published under male pseudonyms), George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) and our other great women writers.
There's a hard line in the modern secular imagination between the characters populating the Old and New Testaments and the ones we confront in our novels and movies. But the human mind is an imagining organ. Even the "real" people in our lives are its creations. We may fashion privileged places for those we encounter in our personal lives or out of narratives we hear from others—the day grandpa fell down the cellar stairs and got up uninjured and laughing. We may doubt the veracity of the ones we only know second-hand—grandpa did, after all, die the next day—but we insist on the truth of our personal experience with as much certainty as we recall yesterday's thunderstorm. In the end, though, all of the above are stories we preserve in our memories, a faculty neurologists tell us creates a past spontaneously rather that retrieving one as if we were walking hard drives with CPUs of consciousness attached.
Why else do we take care to expose our children to the narratives we most value, tales of revered ancestors and other role models? Why else restrict and privilege those myths? Every society, not just religions, promote and exclude certain texts, though only in liberal democracies where censorship can become public knowledge are we aware of that curation. The latest objection to Huckleberry Finn is not, as it was in Brooklyn, New York, in the 1890s, to the book's "corruption of the young" but to its use of the "N" word (itself reduced to a single letter when discussing its use). Most of Greco-Roman literature is lost to us because of elimination by Christian and Jewish divines 2,000 years ago. Lucretius's De Rerum Naturam (On the Nature of Things), sparkplug for the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment, survived for centuries as a single manuscript in a remote German monastery until it was discovered by a 16th-century bookworm. Our narratives may evolve—indigenous Americans are no longer portrayed in school texts and movies (always in sync with each another) as savages bent on scalping and raping innocent white people—but their intent is still to imprint on us collective memories out of which we see ourselves as one people with democratic, peace-loving aspirations, a "nation of immigrants," a "shining city on a hill."
Today reality still is divided for most of the world's human inhabitants into the natural and the supernatural, the physical and the metaphysical, populated by a variety of material and spiritual beings inhabiting a space somewhere between the divine and the animal. In the West we call them "gods," "angels," "devils." Others give them other names and assign them different functions. Like us humans, they are individuals and have discrete personalities. The "messengers" who told Sarah the good news of her pregnancy sat down to lunch with her and her husband before they broke the good news, as did the Lord God himself on at least one occasion in the Hebrew Bible. Gods have the same emotions we do, anger being the most obvious. Yahweh and Zeus/Jupiter frequently act out of rage, though one would think they should not be so surprised by the lapses of their human creations after so many previous disappointments.
Theologians tell us the gods of our holy books are just feeble representations of the true Godhead. The average Joe can't be expected to get his head around an infinite being with no beginning and no end, a supernatural personality who doesn't feel remorse and frustration. Most of us cannot imagine such a being, unless we think of God as a force or some other metaphor for Nature, itself a god or goddess. And yet, the evangelists of the Big Bang (originally a derogatory term for an outlandish idea but now scientific shorthand) end up retelling a version of the Genesis story as if they had just invented the wheel. Their universe arises spontaneously out of a biblical void, starting with an infinitesimal, unimaginably dense point that explodes into billions of galaxies each composed of hundreds of billions of stars like our sun.
Have we come full circle from the creation stories of ancient Mesopotamia? Can we now accept them, or at least our version of them, in good scientific conscience? Or is it only a matter of time before we invest the god of the Big Bang with the same qualities as the God of the Jewish and Christian scriptures? There have always been those who claim to apprehend the divinity in something like its pure form, i.e., without humanizing it. We call them mystics. Are Quantum physicists the mystics of our times? They too commune with a reality that flaunts the laws of the material world, existing and not existing at the same time, indestructible, appearing alternately as energy or matter, shape-shifting if observed too closely, in effect having no physical existence at all as we understand that term and yet at the very heart of what it means to be.
Our modern mystics apprehend their Prime Mover in revelations experienced not through prayer and fasting but by deep contemplation, nonetheless for which a blessed few are rewarded with visions, trips to a scientific seventh heaven that much closer to an ultimate Truth than the world of the senses the rest of us are trapped in. Our modern mystics express the rapture they achieve not in words like a Teresa if Avila but in the other-worldly but irrefutable language of mathematics. For the rest of us who must go on living in a universe of gross matter, the world of Einstein and Bohr is inaccessible. We must negotiate our world without the extraterrestrial sojourns of a modern-day Elijah. If we cannot believe in a God who strolls with his creations in the pleasant warmth of a prelapsarian evening or cries out in despair as he hangs suspended on a cross as we ourselves may do when our own personal dramas are coming to an end, then we must have no god at all.
Papa Karamzov's second son Ivan is the intellectual of the family. He has no beef with the old man like his older brother Dmitri who vies with their randy father for the same woman's affections and beats the old man half-senseless in a jealous rage. Ivan is concerned with big issues like God and justice. He reads newspapers, sees the brutal inhumanity of humanity occurring on a daily basis, mostly to the innocent, the weak, to children especially. Ivan grapples with the so-called problem of evil. How could a just and loving God permit such atrocities? Is it because, as the churchmen say, there is a divine justice we cannot apprehend? Ivan refuses to accept that dodge. He must judge as a human being from a human sense of justice, the only one he knows.
When Abraham raises the blade to cut his son's throat out of obedience to a command he has received directly from the Creator, the Ivan in us cries out in protest. Our sense of justice is not assuaged even when we realize the deity never intended for Abraham to go through with the act. Our human sense of right and wrong insists it's unacceptable even for a God to put an old man through such torment. To "test his faith"? No, we say along with Ivan Karamazov. That argument doesn't pass moral muster.
The historian Paul Veyne says we create religion not to explain natural phenomena or to formulate a moral code but out of compelling personal experience, much as we create art. Veyne is not referring just to narratives associated with particular religions but to a universal human phenomenon that can not be understood by anyone but the one who experiences it. There is no way of fully communicating what we experience when we are moved by a particular song or poem. Yet art, like religion, is just a formalized version of what we experience every moment every day asleep and awake that we try to share with others through ordinary language, image and music.
There is a continuum of human experience from rapture to small talk. We capture some of it in religious myth and secular narrative. Out of it comes the Pentateuch, the Homeric epic, and a flood of story and other art that begins thousands, if not tens of thousands of years prior to any written record. It continues now as vigorously as it did three or twenty-three millennia ago. We do it all our conscious and most of our unconscious hours, talking, texting, humming and just thinking, playing our part in the great Imaginary we create just by being alive.