I spent an hour yesterday with a Jewish writer from France, born in 1928, who was imprisoned in the French Resistance, escaped, and wrote a few novels. More precisely, I spent an hour in his novel, The Last of the Just. The writer is André Schwarz-Bart.
His novel begins:
Our eyes register the light of dead stars. A biography of my friend Ernie could easily be set in the second quarter of the twentieth century, but the true history of Ernie Levy begins much earlier, toward the year 1000 of our era, in the old Anglican city of York.
Schwarz-Bart then took me on a journey into a line of lamed-vavniks starting in the eleventh century and leading to a story set in the Holocaust. Don’t know about the lamed-vavniks, the legendary thirty-six suffering, messianic figures in each generation who are the only reason God delays the final judgment? The Last of the Just is not only a great way to explore this tradition, but a mind and soul expanding story with its own take on the question of God, suffering, good, and evil in the world. (Note: Lamed-Vav is the Hebrew numerical equivalent of thirty-six).
The Last of the Just will be an early selection in the coming Jewish Book of the Month Club here on Messianic Jewish Musings and other Messianic blogs which are participating.
Lingering thoughts from this sad novel called me early from bed to write about the power religious fiction can have if we let it.
There are a relatively small number of books, Jewish and Christian, which have transported me, as only fiction can, to higher worlds or to deeper spaces in this one.
Tolkien’s The Silmarillion is an experience I hope you will have someday, if you haven’t already. It helps to understand the power of myth and to have read the trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, first. No, the movie, admirable in its own ways, is no substitute for the books. There is much more to Tolkien’s novels than battle scenes and humorous hobbits.
As a theologian, I sensed the reality of Tolkien’s depiction of creation at the beginning of The Silmarillion, the first part of which may already convey to you some of its depiction of God giving the angels a part in the shape of things:
There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Illúvatar; and he made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought, and they were with him before aught else was made. And he spoke to them, propounding to them themes of music; and they sang before him, and he was glad. But for a long time they sang only each one alone, or but few together, while the rest hearkened; for each comprehended only that part of the mind of Illúvatar from which he came, and in the understanding of their brethren they grew but slowly. Yet ever as they listened they came to deeper understanding, and increased in unison and harmony.
Lewis’s The Great Divorce belongs in the category of classic. Though it is a Christian work, it belongs among the books to be read by everyone, as a work of philosophy if not theology for those who do not share its worldview. The residents of a gray and murky world, call it hell, make a field trip to heaven. The glories of medieval theology shine (yes, I said glories — not all was dark in the dark ages) through the pen of a man with such an immense breadth of reading and a gift of simply depicting metaphysical complexities.
Consider this scene, in which the protagonist discovers reality is more real in heaven:
Then some re-adjustment of the mind or some focusing of the eye took place, and I saw the whole phenomenon the other way round. The men were as they had always been; as all the men I had known had been perhaps. It was the light, the grass, the trees that were different; made of some different substance, so much solider than things in our country that men were ghosts by comparison. Moved by a sudden thought, I bent down and tried to pluck a daisy which was growing at my feet. The stalk wouldn’t break. I tried to twist it, but it wouldn’t twist. I tugged until the sweat stood out on my forehead and I had lost most of the skin off my hands. The little flower was hard, not like wood or even iron, but like diamond. There was a leaf — a young, tender beech-leaf, lying in the grass beside it. I tried to pick the leaf up: my heart almost cracked with the effort, and I believe I did just raise it. But I had to let it go at once; it was heavier than a sack of coal. As I stood, recovering my breath with great gasps and looking down at the daisy, I noticed that I could see grass not only between my feet but through them. I also was a phantom. Who will give me words to express the terror of that discovery?
Some religious fiction explores the cosmic and eternal and some the deeper spaces within what we know as reality.
Potok’s The Chosen and his other novels explore the boundary between the premodern world of Judaism and existence in the era of modernity. They are poignant stories and have helped more than one reader long to be part of a community which moves in premodern space and ancient tradition, while equally glorifying emancipation into intellectual and artistic freedom. When I read a Potok novel, I let the tension stand. We don’t exactly have to choose, do we?
There are a slew of Jewish short stories by Shalom Aleichem, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and more. One haunting tale, I can’t remember the author, was about a kid whose Bar Mitzvah portion was the curse portion of Leviticus. His life was one of alienation, as the community shunned and feared him as a harbinger of darkness and suffering.
There are a few stories I heard long ago in high school by Flannery O’Connor, but have now forgotten (any O’Connor fans out there who can recommend some of the best of her work?).
What role has religious fiction had in your life? What works have been powerful for you and why?
If you have further reflections or memories about these works I have already mentioned, please share them. If religious themes in classic works have inspired you (The Count of Monte Cristo, The Scarlet Letter, etc.), please write a thought.
What about contemporary religious fiction of less enduring quality? Frank Peretti, Jerry Jenkins, Joel Rosenberg, Stephen King? Comic books?
What religious fiction has moved, taught, expanded, amused, repulsed, or disturbed you?