Works of literature which touch upon religious themes or ideas require special consideration from the scholar interested in the presence of theological forms concealed within the products of Western culture. The enlightenment has had a decidedly secularizing effect on mainstream Western mentality, effectively encouraging a rational, critical thought process in relation to religious ideas. This has lessened Western dependence on traditional religious doctrine while increasing the intellectual autonomy of the individual to decide for him/herself what to believe. Still, there are certain figures within our society who continue to occupy the roles of spiritual leaders by suggesting, sometimes in a covert manner, definite theological schemes through their work. Literature is a convenient avenue for the discreet but effective promotion of theological views, and authors, as we shall see, do at times assume this role of spiritual leadership, even though many of them would deny that this was their intent. The purpose of this paper will be to discuss what might be some of the theological intentions concealed within five works of literature by Robert Alter, Leonard Cohen, Timothy Findley, Elaine Pagels and Salmon Rushdie.
THE BOOK OF PSALMS
I will begin by considering Robert Alter’s translation of the biblical Psalms. In The Book of Psalms, Alter’s stated intent is to rectify what he considers to be translation inaccuracies with respect to the Psalms in the King James Version as well as other English versions of the Bible. For Alter, the most pervasive problem in translating Psalms is the “intrinsic structural compactness of the biblical Hebrew, a feature that the poets constantly exploit musically and otherwise.” Alter explains that “biblical Hebrew is what linguists call a synthetic language, as opposed to analytic languages such as English.” Alter thus acknowledges the difficulty in conveying this rhythmic compactness in English but insists that “more strenuous effort to approximate it is called for than the existing translations have made.” In Alter’s opinion, “the King James Version is often (though not invariably) eloquent, but it ignores the rhythms of the Hebrew almost entirely. The various modern English versions are only occasionally eloquent and sometimes altogether flat-footed” (Alter, xxix). Aside from rhythmic compactness, Alter is concerned with numerous other linguistic considerations in translation, such as syntax (biblical syntax is more flexible than English syntax) and the concreteness of language (biblical Hebrew uses few abstractions). Alter therefore presents numerous concerns regarding the existing translations of the Psalms – concerns which, taken individually, seem like mere technical and linguistic considerations. Yet Alter does not simply identify these linguistic matters, he employs them as a pretext to reformulate the Psalms in his own fashion. My intent here is not to criticize Alter’s translation, nor to evaluate its merits in relation to other English translations. Finally, I do not contest Alter’s right to undertake such an endeavor. My point is, rather, to emphasize the shear boldness of Alter’s project and its inherently theological nature.
Regardless of the technical inaccuracies cited by Alter, the King James Bible has been the standard biblical text for centuries. As such, it has served as the main textual point of reference for countless spiritual followers. With respect to the Psalms in particular, as Alter himself explains, “through the ages, Psalms has been the most urgently, personally present of all the books of the Bible in the lives of many readers” (Alter, xiii). Alter reformulates the Psalms in the interest of technical accuracy, but in so doing he, to an extent, negatives the existing English translations in favor of his own revision. While it may be granted, for argument’s sake, that Alter’s version of the Psalms is more accurate from a purely linguistic perspective, it remains that Alter, in modifying the sacred text, introduces a new theological reference point for believers. As Alter himself readily admits, the technical limitations of translation are not insignificant, and considerable judgement is often required on behalf of the translator. Hence, in order to complete his undertaking, Alter must, to some extent, engage in a creative process. His version of the Psalms should not be viewed simply as a more technically accurate translation of the original text. Rather, Alter puts forth a new version of the Psalms; a version different from existing ones and thus far unknown to believers; a version which negates old formulations in order to make room for new ones.
THE BOOK OF MERCY
In Leonard Cohen’s Book of Mercy theology is once again present, although in a different form. This deeply personal set of Psalm-like poems constitutes a dialogue between the author and God, or at least an address or an appeal to God on behalf of the author. The poems, then, presuppose the presence of the divine and the accessibility of the divine through the written word. Consider the following entry:
From you alone to you alone, everlasting to everlasting, all that is not you is suffering, all that is not you is solitude rehearsing the arguments of loss. All that is not you is the man collapsing against his own forehead, and the forehead crushes him. All that is not you goes out and out, gathering the voices of revenge, harvesting lost triumphs far from the real and necessary defeat. It is to you I speak, solitude to unity, failure to mercy, and loss to the light. It is you I welcome here, coming through the coarse glory of my imagination, to this very night, to this very couch, to this very darkness. Grant me a forgiving sleep, and rest my enemy (Cohen, #39).
In this poem, Cohen characterizes God as an entity with quite specific preoccupations. Cohen enumerates a series of human concerns which, according to this poem, do not concern God, such as physical suffering, justification of loss, accident and revenge. Cohen then seems to suggest the presence of a merciful God of unity and light, and hints at some sort of eschatology of ultimate defeat. Finally, Cohen speaks to God directly, inviting Him to his couch and asking Him for sleep and forgiveness. As this passage makes clear, Cohen is not simply reiterating pre-established notions of the divine. He is in fact revealing to the reader the nature of his personal God, a God he knows to be present and who he converses with sometimes through natural and physical phenomena, such as described in the following passage:
I entered the hour of self-accusation. A strange sound trembled in the air. It was caused by the north wind on the electric lines, a sustained chord of surprising harmonies, power and duration, greatly pleasing, a singing of breath and steel, a huge string instrument of masts and fields, complex tensions. Suddenly the judgement was clear (Cohen, #23).
These are personal writings, and it would be quite unfair to assume that Cohen is somehow trying to promote a specific theological scheme intended for public consumption. Cohen, one might assume, remains totally indifferent to the reader’s reaction to what are his deepest spiritual feelings transposed into written form. The personal/divine revelations contained in these poems are not up for discussion or debate, just as someone’s emotional retelling of a dramatic personal crisis cannot be the subject of intellectual critique. Yet it remains that Cohen, through these poems, invites the reader to consider his personal theological setup, one that sustains the primordial emphasis on God but substitutes to some extent the constrictions of traditional doctrine with personal spiritual freedom. In Cohen’s theology, God is retrieved or reconstituted from the devastation of institutional practice and released from His designated sacred location. In displaying the nature of his personal connection to the divine, Cohen acknowledges the divine presence and the human potential to relate to it.
NOT WANTED ON THE VOYAGE
Timothy Findley’s Not Wanted on the Voyage is a quite different project from Alter’s and Cohen’s, since Findley is neither trying to “improve” the linguistic reliability of a sacred text (as Alter does), nor is he engaged in some personal appropriation of a religious tradition (as Cohen seems to be). Not Wanted on the Voyage distorts the biblical story of Noah and the ark to such an extent that Findley appears to be making a statement against the authority and credibility of religious texts as such. Findley seems no more interested in pursuing historical accuracy as he is with reinforcing the essence of sacred texts through creative exploitation. Not Wanted on the Voyage is a display of tremendous imagination and literary talent, but unlike Cohen and Alter, Findley is decidedly uninterested in orienting his efforts in support of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Quite to the contrary, Findley seems to be suggesting that the Noah story is merely a product of human imagination, not unlike his own, extravagant version of the biblical tale, which includes among other things a seven-foot-tall transsexual woman with webbed fingers. Not Wanted on the Voyage can be understood therefore as a celebration of the immense power of our imagination, as witnessed in both the creative process of artists and the wilful adherence of inspired believers to sacred stories.
In the book, Noah is obsessed with Yahweh to such an extent that he becomes abusive to those surrounding him, and the willingness and ability of his wife Mrs. Noyes to stand up to him adorns her with the glow of feminist empowerment. Part of Findley’s agenda might then be understood as an attempt to reverse the overwhelming patriarchal bias within Judeo-Christian texts and institutions. But Findley’s broader theological aims are not straight-forward. Findley boldly desacralizes the biblical flood story, leaving little, if any, possibility of reconciliation between his version and the original. Findley’s work borrows its main premise from the biblical narrative but deviates from it to such an extent that the fixation on God as the centerpiece of devotion is lost in a cloud of magical possibilities. It is as if Findley, through his lively and daring recreation, invites each of us in turn to invent our own sacred stories.
THE ORIGIN OF SATAN
Unlike Alter, who updates sacred text in the interest of technical accuracy, and Cohen and Findley, who in their respective ways employ sacred text as a point of departure for their own imaginative constructs, Elaine Pagels in The Origin of Satan is concerned with the dynamics of power and the regimes of truth unfolding throughout the Gospels. As such, Pagels is taking a critical look at the substance of the Judeo-Christian story of Satan as it is presented in the sacred text without intending to necessarily adjust it or in some other way depart from it. In The Origin of Satan, Pagels intends to show how Jesus’ early followers appropriated and transformed the Israelite concept of Satan for the purposes of forming and consolidating a Christian identity in opposition to the Jewish majority. As Pagels explains, for Israelite writers “satan is not an animal or monster but one of God’s angels, a being of superior intelligence and status … In the Hebrew Bible, as in mainstream Judaism to this day, Satan never appears as Western Christendom has come to know him, as the leader of an ‘evil empire,’ and army of hostile spirits who make war on God and humankind alike” (Pagels, 39). Through her careful analysis of the intricate dynamics of power embedded within the sacred texts, Pagels intends to demonstrate how this apparently dramatic alteration of the nature and character of Satan took place within the Judeo-Christian narrative.
Pagels’ approach does have one important thing in common with Alter’s, which is to engage religious text from a safe academic distance, only to wind up nonetheless deeply enmeshed in the game of religious hermeneutics. Indeed, while Pagels’ investigations may be deemed academic in nature, they also clearly constitute religious interpretations, or re-interpretations of biblical sources. While Pagels proceeds under the guise of scholarly research, implicit condemnation of Christianity lingers as a constant theme throughout The Origin of Satan. Subtitled “How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans, and Heretics,” The Origin of Satan as a whole stands as an indictment of the Western Christian tradition, a tradition which, according to Pagels, was built on the premise of a toxic dichotomy which opposed God’s people to His enemies. Pagels’ engages in a sort of “theology of history” then, where the cruel historical record of Christians against Jews is traced back to its biblical origins. Pagels avoids broad and immediate conclusions, but the outlay of her analysis highly suggests that much of the Christian animosity against the Jews throughout Western history is anchored in the Bible. The Origin of Satan is a detailed and enlightening academic work, but the intellectual rigor of Pagels’ analysis is overshadowed by the inculpating spirit of her endeavour, and her effort to derive from a mere biblical device an entire history of Judeo-Christian tensions is, finally, more of a theological enterprise than an academic one.
THE SATANIC VERSES
In The Satanic Verses by Salmon Rushdie, we find ourselves once again in the adventurous territory of the literary appropriation of sacred texts. What Rushdie is doing in relation to Islam and the Prophet Muhammad is in a broad sense similar to Findley’s reworking of the Noah story insofar as both works comprise a sort of fantasy derived from religious narrative but characterized by undefined moral aims. Findley and Rushdie both belong to a class of writers with enough courage to directly reference religious material and to produce from it works of fiction with the open-ended interpretational possibilities typical of the genre. That is to say, Findley and Rushdie take what belongs to tradition and transform it into something else, something the tradition no longer owns or controls. As a result, the power of interpretation is transferred from religious authority and its institutions to the individual reader.
But Findley and Rushdie differ in their styles of critique, Rushdie often employing his unique brand of wit and sarcasm to poke fun at the rituals and beliefs of the faithful in a very direct and unrelenting fashion:
Amid the palm-trees of the oasis Gibreel appeared to the Prophet and found himself spouting rules, rules, rules, until the faithful could scarcely bear the prospect of any more revelation, Salman said, rules about every damn thing, if a man farts let him turn his face to the wind, a rule about which hand to use for the purpose of cleaning one’s behind. It was as if no aspect of human existence was to be left unregulated, free. The revelation – the recitation – told the faithful how much to eat, how deeply they should sleep, and which sexual positions had received divine sanction, so that they learned that sodomy and the missionary position were approved of by the archangel, whereas the forbidden postures included all those in which the female was on top. Gibreel further listed the permitted and forbidden subjects of conversation, and earmarked the parts of the body which could not be scratched no matter how unbearably they itched (Rushdie, 376).
The passage quoted above is a good example of how Rushdie is willing to ignore the sensibilities of the faithful by purposely ridiculing their beliefs and practices. Throughout The Satanic Verses, Rushdie’s humoristic take on various facets of the Islamic tradition seems to be a call on his part for a general calming of religious sensitivities. Rushdie seems to be asking, if the faithful cannot stand a little humor or sarcasm directed at their beliefs and practices, then what does that tell us about the basis and real strength of their convictions? But The Satanic Verses is more than a simple test of Islamic sensitivity. Instead, Rushdie is making a broader statement about the place and relevance of overdone religious sensitivity within our advanced modern world.
It is clear that Rushdie, unlike Findley, is not rewriting a sacred narrative. But what the approaches of Rushdie and Findley do have in common is the willingness to assert the imaginative nature of our sacred stories, with the undeniable implication that they are just that – stories. The religiously devout, however, are prone to confuse the separate worlds of fiction and reality, with undesirable consequences. For Findley and Rushdie, religious followers should not be upset by the fictional transformation of traditional religious narratives since, in the final analysis, all stories, including religious ones, are mere products of the human imagination. Any negative reaction to a creative manipulation of a sacred story is therefore unjustified, since the authors of these manipulations are merely engaging in the human propensity to become inspired and to create. Cohen, in his own way, is performing a similar exercise, but without the element of provocation. His work too is a definite affirmation of the human involvement in divine inspiration.
We are left to wonder then about the theological void left once the Findleys and the Rushdies of this world have exercised their right to tamper with our spiritual sources. What is an appropriate response on behalf of the faithful to these attacks on the foundations of religious belief? While the literary offensives of Findley and Rushdie might seem harmful and disturbing to the faithful, it is important to realize as well that, given the public attention received by these works, they in their own way continue to generate awareness about the traditions they objectify. While The Satanic Verses is hardly informative on Islam, one of the effects of the public attention it generated was certainly to spread some degree of awareness about Islam amongst those not familiar with the tradition, if by no other means than merely the clarifications put forth by Rushdie’s critics regarding the fundamental tenets of the tradition that ought not to be ridiculed. And while The Satanic Verses is a primarily a work of fiction, which Rushdie did not put together for the purpose of educating the public on Islam, some real aspects of the tradition are conveyed in the book, such as, for example, the oral nature of the transmission of the message of God to the Prophet via the archangel Gabriel.
Yet critics will rightfully point out that it is precisely through his treatment of these characteristics of Islam that Rushdie ridicules the tradition. For instance, the reliability of the oral tradition is questioned by Rushdie as he imagines the Prophet’s suspicious scribe taking it upon himself to modify the words of the Prophet as he records them in writing, seemingly without causing the expected reaction from the Prophet:
So there I was, actually writing the Book, or rewriting, anyway, polluting the word of God with my own profane language. But, good heavens, if my poor words could not be distinguished from the Revelation by God’s own Messenger, then what did that mean? What did that say about the quality of the divine poetry? (Rushdie, 380)
Still, it remains that the book itself, as well as the controversy it triggered, all comprised a discourse related to Islam, and as such mainly served to focus our attention on the tradition.
In defense of Findley, and especially Rushdie, it seems unreasonable to set limitations on the acceptable range of literary exploitation of sacred material. If it is acceptable for Alter to reformulate the Psalms in the name of linguistic and textual integrity, and for Cohen to digress from tradition by way of personal inspiration, then how can it not be acceptable for Findley and Rushdie to submit their own respective creative outputs in regards to religion?
The academic study of religion, despite itself, often gets entangled with theology, the boundaries between religious studies and theology being somewhat unclear. As I have tried to demonstrate here, Alter, Cohen, Pagels, Findley and Rushdie all have their respective theological agendas. Alter and Pagels are special cases, since their work is not explicitly theological, but upon closer examination, definite theological positions can be ascertained within it. Findley and Rushdie seem to be mocking, respectively, the Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions, but at the same time their tales comprise alternate, magical narratives that invite spiritual reflection, and so in this sense they constitute theologies of their own kind. As Rushdie’s defenders point out, freedom of expression should supersede the interests of a particular religious group. But if all Rushdie was doing in The Satanic Verses was entertaining his inalienable right to free speech, the book might not have caused such uproar. Rather, it is the dazzle of Rushdie’s detailed, elaborate and carefully constructed alternate religious universe which the faithful should find so disturbing.
In one way or another then, all the authors addressed in this paper allow themselves a certain degree of literary freedom in dealing with their respective traditions. In this sense, all of them to some extent engage in theological discourse. This is not surprising, even with respect to Alter and Pagels whom you might more closely associate with the academic study of religion, since religious traditions are, after all, not dissociable from the theologies which constitute their intellectual foundations. Still, religion is not like any other subject of academic investigation, due to the sometimes irrational basis of religious belief and the potentially sensitive emotional dispositions of believers in regards to their faith. It is therefore not the case that a writer or scholar can simply make any statement about a religious tradition without potentially offending someone or triggering an emotional reaction of some sort. Then again, there are those like Findley and Rushdie whose work might be understood more as a statement against religion as such, as a denial of the legitimacy of the continued presence of religion within modern society, along the same lines of the arguments put forth by Christopher Hitchens, who incidentally described Salmon Rushdie as a personal friend. These authors and their supporters will claim that the negative reactions to their work should be understood merely as symptoms of the continued presence in society of an evil force which must be eradicated.
Alter, R. (2007). The book of Psalms: a translation with commentary. New York, W.W. Norton.
Cohen, L. (1984). Book of mercy. New York, Villard Books.
Findley, T. (1984). Not wanted on the voyage. New York, Delacorte Press.
Pagels, E. H. (1995). The origin of Satan. New York, Random House.
Rushdie, S. (1989). The satanic verses. New York, N.Y., Viking.