Joyful Noise , edited by Rick Moody and Darcey Steinke. Little, Brown & Company, 250 pages, $23.95.
“There is no new thing under the sun.” Ecclesiastes supplies the one-shrug answer to the New Testament, and to anyone who thinks he has something fresh to contribute to the mass of biblical commentary. Readers like me, predisposed by heritage and temperament to prefer the bitter wisdom of the Pentateuch to the “good news” of Christian scripture, will be pleasantly surprised to find that this collection of essays about the New Testament is, on balance, intelligent and provocative, though like any anthology, old or new, it’s a mixed bag.
Rick Moody and Darcey Steinke, two New York City novelists, conceived of this volume as an answer to the hegemony of the religious right. The idea is to broadcast the voices (liberal voices) of writers and artists vitally engaged with the New Testament. It’s a book for people who are tired of being mistaken for Ralph Reed clones merely because they profess admiration for Christ’s teachings. It’s for people who want to declare their devotion to the Gospels without being snickered at by Manhattan sophisticates. Joyful Noise is meant to remind us that Christian faith does not imply a clenched morality or pissy ideas about ethical conduct; along the way, it also reminds us that “Christers,” as Barry Hannah here admits to calling them at a callow age, can read with acuity and write good sentences too.
In his foreword, Mr. Moody explains that he and Ms. Steinke suggested to the contributors that they stick close to the text and deal with the actual words of the New Testament. Those who obey this injunction, and especially those who open their eyes wide enough to take in the palimpsest effect of Scripture nearly 2,000 years in the making, find something interesting to say.
The quick and the dull alike feel the need to mix in some kind of spiritual self-portrait with their commentary. Of the 21 contributors (who include Mr. Moody and Ms. Steinke), only one eschews the first-person singular (poet Catherine Bowman, whose lyrical meditation on Jesus’ feet, a brief podiatric reverie, is not as entirely whimsical as it sounds). Here’s how it goes in the navel-gazing 90’s: “The New Testament? Let me tell you about my childhood.” The tyranny of the first person is in no way a new thing under the sun (Solomon, in the guise of “the preacher,” sprinkles his majestic “I” liberally through Ecclesiastes), but these days the default discourse (auto-memoir mode) threatens to blot out all other forms of writing. Even when the spotlight should be on the word of God, we trot out the precious testimony of personal experience.
The best of the bunch are all novelists. Madison Smartt Bell takes as his text I Corinthians 13, Saint Paul’s ode to caritas, which the Revised Standard Edition translates as “love,” the King James Version as “charity”: “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three, but the greatest of these is charity.” Confused childhood memories play against Mr. Bell’s adult understanding of the subtlety of these verses. He interprets Pauline caritas as a love rooted in “complete and limitless knowledge of others”-an omniscience usually unavailable to us except through epiphany or revelation. He offers, without a trace of preachy pride, a prescription for religious observance in our secular age: “Although an unskeptical belief that God exists may be difficult in our time, the correct and sincere practice of charity forces us to behave as if he did.”
After identifying himself as a “delinquent” Jew, Jim Lewis does a splendid job of showing how the New Testament tries to smother the Old. His close reading of the opening verses of John (“In the beginning was the Word,” etc.), and especially his confident fix on the word “was,” takes us well beyond the expected rap about the wholesale appropriation of Hebrew material to validate Christian gospel. When Mr. Lewis reaches verse 17 (“For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ”), he has his reader fully tuned to nuance: “It is intended as a death knell, that particular ‘was’; it resounds with a pastness that no previous occurrence of the word quite attained.”
Joanna Scott makes a brave and sane effort to snatch the Book of Revelation out of the hands of “the self-appointed spokesmen for the apocalypse,” zealots and doomsday cultists who shudder at the number 666 and declare themselves enemies of the New World Order-Pat Buchanan and pals. By reading Revelation as “a culminating vision-or dream-experienced by a man who was steeped in Scripture,” Ms. Scott hopes to defend against the literalist reduction of a text strewn with paradox.
Jeff Eugenides and Anne Patchett are sly skeptics, coolly skirting outright mockery but all the same winking at dorky Christian enthusiasts. Ms. Patchett writes about the Church of Holiness Faith in Appalachian Tennessee, a snake-handling sect who got that way when its founder read Mark 16:18 (“They shall take up serpents …”) with what Ms. Patchett delicately calls “a passionate heart and a literal mind.” Mr. Eugenides reports on a youthful try at speaking in tongues (“Go ahead, I told myself. Try it. No one’s looking”). Though half of his essay is an extended comic riff, including a definition of glossolalia as “a Berlitz Method,” Mr. Eugenides has a serious pitch to make about what he terms “progressive revelation”-he warns Christians against “the placing of a period in the middle of history’s ongoing sentence.”
The less successful essays come in various unfortunate shapes and sizes. There is more childhood reminiscence, courtesy of poet and novelist Lisa Shea, coupled with a news report on her capacity for faith. Coco Fusco, an “interdisciplinary artist and writer,” arranges a drippy show-and-tell about a famous relative: her Episcopalian cousin, “the first woman bishop in New York State.” And there are two leaden essays that devolve into fervent pulpit-pounding, one by Bell Hooks, an activist academic, the other by Eurydice, a former Spin contributor.
Eurydice’s essay is everything you would hate to see in a book about Scripture: the earnestness of promiscuous italics wedded to stiff-jointed pedantry. She starts out writing about the Eucharist, veers into a condensed history of the early church and ends by yearning almost nostalgically for a return to “pre-Pauline sexual innocence and natural un-self-consciousness.” To which one can only reply: as if.
Eurydice’s pedantry is offset by the aw-shucks ignorance of novelist and television producer Kim Wozencraft. “My interpretation may well be flawed,” she writes, “but the biggest difference I see between the messages of the Old and New Testaments is that the New Testament replaces vengeance with forgiveness.” This toxic chestnut should serve also as a useful reminder: Read the Testaments before you try to interpret them.
Based on the evidence assembled in Joyful Noise , there were three kinds of religious instruction foisted upon the generation of Americans “presently arriving in the fullness of adulthood” (Mr. Moody’s phrase). There was the family’s weekly pray-together outing, services sometimes followed by Sunday school; Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar ; and a course in college called “The Bible as Literature.” The first, imposed by parental authority and quickly discarded by rebellious children, mostly generates confusion and sometimes lifelong trauma. The second has been known to instill warm and fuzzy Christian sentiment suffused with an inhibited sexual charge. The third mostly nurtures enlightened agnosticism, but every now and then encourages a faith wary of dogma and inclined toward the philosophical. Writes Mr. Moody, who seems to have touched all three bases, “Jesus, in addition to any of his other accomplishments, was a great moral thinker.”
Studying the Bible in college, at the temple of “secular humanism,” is probably the most effective way of getting young Christians to check out the Holy Scripture with their own two eyes. The practice has a peculiar but happy side effect: If the lesson takes, it turns the students into People of the Book.