Religious Rewriting, Sacred Storytelling

Religious Rewriting, Sacred Storytelling

Courtney Sender

In Review | Books This Is Why I Came: A Novel, by Mary Rakow. Counterpoint, 204 pages, $24.

Illustration for Religious Rewriting, Sacred Storytelling

Illustration by Katherine Diemert


This is why I Came, by Mary Rakow, MTS ’74, is the type of lyrical volume that a pencil-happy reader will leave thoroughly underlined. Though written in prose, the book has a poetic sensibility. Rakow’s sentences brim with heavy-hitting, deeply felt lines about love and duty, faith and grace, conflict and disappointment. In Rakow’s telling, the biblical Abraham, racked with guilt over his memory of violence toward Isaac, cries “at small things that didn’t usually make him cry, saying, also with tears, that he loved her [his wife, Sarah], that he was not a great man, pacing as if the whole project of the world were in his head like a problem to be solved” (28). This is a book of intelligence, beauty, and emotional power and clarity.

Rakow’s book is difficult to pin down formally. The cover calls This Is Why I Came a novel, and the promotional materials emphasize the framing story of Bernadette, who comes to confession on Good Friday after a thirty-year absence, toting a hand-bound, collage-like “Bible of her own” (ix). Bernadette serves as both authorial stand-in and contemporary frame story, but the book’s true core is a set of reimagined biblical stories. Most of This Is Why I Came takes the form of a collection of very short stories based on the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament (to which the book refers as parts 1 and 2, respectively).

This Is Why I Came is its own Bible, at once a rejection, homage, and exegesis of its source material. Reverent and skeptical by turns, the book’s overall feeling is nonetheless one of unflagging and profound admiration for the stories of the Bible, as potent narrative if not as sacred text. This interplay between the sacred and the secular, inherent in retelling stories that some take as truth and some as fiction, lies at the heart of the book. Yet Rakow’s sometimes uneasy reconciliation of parts 1 and 2 raises questions about the structural and thematic cohesiveness of the two, and about the consequences of applying a Christian worldview to a Judeo-Christian text.


The Bible has served as source material for an astoundingly diverse cohort of authors, from John Milton in the seventeenth century, to John Steinbeck, Toni Morrison, José Saramago, and Anita Diamant in the twentieth, to Marilyn Robinson and Aimee Bender in the twenty-first, as just a tiny sample. Across vast distances of time and cultures, and varying degrees of belief, doubt, and disdain, these authors have returned to the Bible in order to excavate its myths. Why?

I taught a creative writing class at Yale University last fall, in which we asked exactly that question. Called “Reading and Writing the Unreal,” the class interrogated the potential reasons why an author might choose to base her work on a preexisting text or story, whether Bible or fairytale or Greek myth. We listed ways in which, to our modern sensibilities, the original texts fall short: a lack of psychological realism, feminist perspective, queer inclusiveness, sociopolitical resonance, ethnic/racial/national diversity, and so on. Yet we noted the continued attraction to such source material among authors, even while many add modern elements as a way of lambasting the original texts.1 My students viewed the power of these stories as a sort of chicken-or-egg puzzle: maybe they retain resonance because they are well known; maybe they are well known because of their resonance. I tend to fall into the latter group, and, if This Is Why I Came is any indication, Rakow does, too.

Rakow’s stories are drenched in desire. Bernadette the author, who often reads as a stand-in for Rakow the author, returns to church because she “wants to join the book [her Bible] to the corpus [the statue of Christ] on the floor . . . the wood and paint and real people, real pews, real altar” (ix). Even God is defined primarily by his neediness, particularly his overwhelming desires to be remembered and adored. God tells Moses: “My people love me then they don’t. They come to me then they forsake me. I want to bind them to myself. I want to make my presence permanent among them” (42).

Throughout part 1—where, in contrast to part 2, God is a very present and human character—Rakow portrays a fallible God consumed by this desire for eternal exaltation in his people’s hearts. The intensity of his longing is alternately pitied and despised by his Old Testament adherents. Moses “pitied the desperateness of God, frantic with desire” (45); tiredly, he laments that “God’s desire was infinite” (46). In a later chapter, Jonah speaks hatefully of God’s “neediness, his vanity, his predictability and lust” (61). When Jonah fails God as a prophet, we see God “[c]asting about, knowing he must find a replacement, for his need was great . . . [for] a prophet as powerful as Jonah” (63). In Bernadette’s Bible, even Jesus himself is begotten by God’s very human need to be loved. (More later on what this seems to suggest about the respective roles of the Old and New Testaments.)

If there is one point of focus around which part 1 seems to orbit—that is, to hold together as a self-sufficient and singular unit within This Is Why I Came, absent the biblical allusions that bound it—it is in these linked themes of repetition and memory. Rakow explores the intricate relation between the two: the more we see God’s desire for adulation, deepening as we move from Moses to Jonah to Jesus, the more memory becomes a form of repetition. The repeated visitation of trauma, for example, is a powerful theme throughout. A reader may well find features of PTSD or Stockholm syndrome in the characters’ need to repeat their own traumas: Isaac binds himself after Abraham binds him; Noah locks himself in a smaller chamber within the larger container of the arc; Moses sets fire to the furniture after encountering the burning bush; God begets Jesus after failing with Jonah.

This desire to humanize both God and the mythical figures of the Bible—to bring them closer to today’s psycho-realistic truth about the human psyche—reads as the most urgent motivating factor that undergirds Bernadette’s (and, by extension, Rakow’s) act of rewriting these stories. We humans seek and are haunted by repetition and memory; without them, the stories of the Bible could not have achieved such broad recognition and cultural currency. In This Is Why I Came, God and religious figureheads share the same obsessions.

The retelling of these ancient mythologies is a self-aware act for Rakow. This Is Why I Came is a book within a book, and it meditates outwardly on storytelling itself. In fact, stories are presented as uniquely capable of revealing truth. Isaac, for example, in the aftermath of his near death, asks his mother, Sarah, to “Tell me about myself,” because “he could not see himself clearly.” When Sarah recites a descriptive story about him, he “memoriz[es] her words because they felt like news to him and they were news” (31).

Later, even God sees himself clearly only upon reading the stories written about him:

But God’s anger was not hidden from his people and when they told the story of the manna and the quail, and when they wrote it down in sacred books, his anger came more and more to the fore. . . .

God saw that his anger was there when the story of the manna was written on stone tablets. . . . His anger was there when papyrus gave way to vellum and then to parchment. And he despaired, thinking, is this how memory works in my people? (40)

If we are to view storytelling as furtive soothsaying, then it is especially notable that it isn’t until Bernadette’s part 2 (which corresponds to the Gospels of the New Testament) that This Is Why I Came firmly coalesces into a single, propulsive, self-contained story.

As a Jewish reader, I had approached this book expecting to prefer its first half. But as a teacher and practitioner of fiction writing, I perked up in the second; at the Annunciation, there is an immediate and definite shift toward plot-based narrative propulsion. Where part 1 reads like an exquisite story collection, thematically but not narratively linked, part 2 reads like a novel-in-stories. Suddenly, each short section is part of one forward-moving plotline: the narrative of the life of Jesus Christ. In terms of craft, we have stakes, momentum, risk, even suspense. We have the components of story-telling on a broad scale—the scale of the novel—rather than the microscale of each individual story.

To see this thrilling and momentous shift toward dramatic arc, we need only consider the tone of the prose in the first full sentences of each of the first four chapters of part 1, in which Adam “fashions peacock, dove, and parakeet, all the species and subspecies, microscopic and immense, yet is unable, no matter how hard he tries, to make the form he longs to see” (1), and “Abel, an invalid, in the covering of night, took aim and threw the stone out the window, hitting the ewe” (4).

The prose is beautiful: mystical, arresting, surprising. Compare it to the way the chapters begin in part 2: “She ran” (71), and “He’d missed her” (75). Instantly and consistently, the introductory passages of part 2 feature prose that is more fast-paced, urgent, simple, and succinct. The syntax tends toward an unadorned subject-verb-object, featuring few to no descriptive clauses or compound sentences. Grammatical pairings suggest continuation from one section to the next. The “her” in the first line of the fourth chapter harkens back to the “she” (Mary) of the third.

This, in microcosm, is the radical change that takes place in part 2. One very short story links directly, causally, chronologically to the next. In the first chapter, a teenaged Mary meets the angel Gabriel. In subsequent chapters, Mary gives birth to Jesus and, with Joseph, raises him. Jesus grows, comes into his powers, exorcises Legion, mourns his disciple John, forms some nebulous attachment with Mary Magdalene. Finally, Jesus perishes on the cross, arises, and—in the final chapter before we return to Bernadette in the present—is missed by his mother Mary on her deathbed.

It is a hugely satisfying arc. Rakow chooses, wisely, not to dilute its narrative potency by extending the project of rewriting beyond the Gospels and into Acts or the Epistles. Making full use of the singular nature of her part 2, she offers deeply rewarding subplots that develop over time. For example, Mary buries a jar of myrrh when Jesus is a child on page 82, then Jesus digs it up as an adult beside Mary Magdalene on page 139. No such sprawling unity could exist in part 1, where fifty pages from any given event leaves us too far in the future to turn up a buried jar.


When it comes to
unity across the whole of This Is How I Came, part 2 does answer part 1 in a multitude of gratifying, imagistic ways. In part 1, Rakow conveys God’s glory in the image of his adornment in “a deep blue robe” composed of the “nothingness” that was his first creation (13); later, Moses reveals this robe to be the night sky itself, “spangled with stars like gold dust, uncountable” (47).

But when God is angry in Bernadette’s part 1, he is literally stripped of his adornment. Noah sees “the white hall without end, God crouching there year after year, without majesty, emptied . . . the throne sprinkled with blood” (21). At God’s very lowest—which occurs here during the forty wandering years after the Exodus from Egypt—God is naked: “He took off his chiton and his himation of indigo blue and sat naked on the bench wondering, are they right? Is this who I am? Am I a God without mercy?” (41).

These are the most significant questions that persist as we enter part 2, where the character of God disappears from the narrative. Only Rakow’s recurring images, established in part 1, evoke him for the reader.2 Upon Zaccheus’s death, for example, we can only recall Noah’s vision of a crouching God when monks dream of themselves “standing in a long marble corridor, a palace of memory, where there was, in the distance, an empty throne. They saw Father Zaccheus crouching behind it in a silver robe, the blue trim of the garment spread about him like a lake” (167). When Jesus tells Mary Magdalene, “Remember me” (139), then pleads with his disciples at the Last Supper to do the same, the reader recalls God, one hundred pages earlier, begging, “Remember me, Moses” (46).

Finally, and most importantly, God himself reappears for the first time in part 2, answering Jesus’s famous call of “Why have you forsaken me?” by telling the underworld, “Take him, he’s yours” (149). Upon God’s return, Rakow writes—and it is immensely moving and sad—“God hid behind the sun, saying, ‘It is true, then. I am not merciful’ ” (149).

This moment is not only poignant; it is enormously significant to the project of This Is Why I Came. Finally, one hundred pages after hearing a naked God’s darkest existential question—“Am I a God without mercy?”—Rakow offers an answer, in language that responds directly to the form of the original inquiry. Without this answer in part 2, the entire narrative lacks cohesion. This moment solidifies Bernadette’s presentation of part 1 as a marvelous thematic prequel, while part 2 is the stronger, more unified, and ultimately more satisfying narrative.

The entirety of Bernadette’s rewritten Bible, then, can be seen as a tacit attempt at reconciling its parts 1 and 2: they are the two parts of God, classically viewed as unmerciful in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and merciful in the New. That’s mostly, but not entirely, true in This Is Why I Came, as well. After God declares himself unmerciful, the story goes on to develop his ultimate capacity for forgiveness: “God held all of it [the world] in his hands and then, from deep within himself, forgave all of it, both in advance and in retrospect. . . . And God wept at the beauty of . . . his great mercy, magnum misericordiam. That it was infinite” (154–155). In This Is Why I Came, God’s journey is less unmerciful to merciful and more adolescent to adult.

Purely as narrative, that progression is profoundly compelling, uplifting, and satisfying.

But what does it imply about its source material?


I am entering now the thorny territory of untangling the writer’s and reader’s respective stakes in both the raw and created material of the Bible and its reimaginings.

First, and emphatically: there is no evidence that Rakow intends to say anything preferential about the Old versus the New Testament. The form of This Is Why I Came puts the two in conversation, not contention.3 Early on in This Is Why I Came, Rakow makes a point of naming the buildings where contemporary people seek God: “church, temple, synagogue, and mosque” (11). In Bernadette, she has created a distancing mechanism between the writer of the reconfigured Bible stories and the writer of This Is Why I Came. Bernadette looks at both sets of stories with an equally sincere eye, wanting simultaneously to believe and to express her skepticism. Though she appears only in the first and the last few pages, Bernadette is a character in a church on Good Friday; she is a lapsed Catholic; she would, of course, have spent her years reckoning with the Bible through the lens of Christianity.

The project of This Is Why I Came is to address a Catholic woman’s questions of logic, doubt, desire, and faith, not tensions between Jewish and Christian interpretations of the Bible. Yet, the presentation of part 1 as mere prelude to part 2—narratively appropriate, fitting, and satisfying as that choice was—nonetheless left this Jewish reader uncomfortable.

I believe it is worthwhile to explore that discomfort. Knowing full well the intentions of both the author and her novel, appreciating the achievement, the discomfort persists. And it cuts to the heart, I believe, of my earlier question: Why rewrite these stories?

Rakow touches on this question in her epigraph:

In 1955 at Ronchamp Le Corbusier said, “Certain things are sacred and others are not, regardless of whether or not they are religious.” To describe the space he’d built there he used the phrase, “Ineffable space.” “Ineffable,” the un-understandable.

I, like Rakow, view storytelling, any story-telling—Bible tales or fairytales or tales about the long line at the supermarket—as sacred. I find biblical stories especially sacred fodder for rewriting, not because I believe in their religious truth, but for much the same reasons Rakow and my class at Yale seemed to. These stories offer chances to breathe realism and humanity into figures whose inner lives the Bible notoriously sells short. In a recent interview, Rakow said, “All of the stories in the Bible are like flash fiction. Very modern. The Bible is mostly emptiness. . . . So you go in and what you fill that emptiness with is yourself.”4

The filling-in of emptiness for many of Rakow’s characters—Joseph, for example, who here appears later in life, though the original Bible account leaves him when Jesus is twelve—is a deep, empathic act. I cried when I read Rakow’s chapter 44, “Mary the Mother of Jesus, Later in Life,” in which an aged Mary sets out to paint her son:

[She had intended t]o paint him in his glory and around him scenes of his life, but instead she painted humbler ones. When Joseph lifted her onto the donkey. When they stopped for shade and he brought grapes from a basket, when they ate together under a tree, gathering wildflowers and berries. . . .

What survives? she wondered. Love and the memory of grapes. (171)

The passage is absolutely secular, yet spirituality breathes from the depth of love conveyed and the tenderness of the prose itself. Rakow’s prose sings at this register of humanistic truth, infused with the sacred power of language and feeling rather than of the capital-D Divine.

Yet, elsewhere, a decidedly Christian sensibility surfaces through that very language. The “church, temple, synagogue, and mosque,” for example, are presented to us in the mystical vision of the future that Cain sees after leaving his family early in part 1.5 Rakow’s Cain sees people “go[ing] in and com[ing] out. . . . To feel light again, innocent and at peace. He called what people seemed to find in those buildings, ‘Forgiveness’ ” (11). But the conception of the place of worship as a place that restores battered innocence and offers forgiveness is a specifically Christian rather than Jewish or Islamic view.

While reading that passage, my guard went up. I recalled the many discussions I’ve had with friends over the years, about the ways our early experiences with one religion shape our understanding of religion broadly. No matter their current affiliation or lack thereof, friends who grew up Catholic tend to view religion as heavily involved in the domain of forgiveness. I’ve responded that, growing up as a Reform Jew, I never went to synagogue in order to confess or seek forgiveness, but rather to participate in a long tradition of spiritual questioning and community.

When I felt myself wanting to engage in this debate with Rakow, as well, I was reminded of a poem by the Orthodox Jewish poet Yehoshua November, from his collection, God’s Optimism:6

God, You have made it clear that this is a religion of tests,
but in the books of mysticism
You have also whispered that all the while
You hide just behind the wall,
waiting for us to pass.

Bernadette’s God also hides behind a wall, crouching and afraid of his own anger and lack of mercy. In Bernadette’s Bible, the solution to the problem of the hidden God comes through the addition of a part 2: the revelation of God’s more mature self, and his arc, through Jesus, to forgiveness. November’s poem, by contrast, accepts and seeks that hidden God as he is: “I saw a man praying,” says the poem’s speaker, “and everyone who was there knew / he was very close to God.”

As I was reading This is Why I Came, I wanted to reach into the book and say to Bernadette, Why couldn’t part 1 have been satisfied with this language of uncertainty and beauty, rather than inserting the language of “forgiveness” and “grace”?

But why did I have that urge? After all, I was simultaneously loving the story, moved by God’s development, and compelled by Jesus’s bildungsroman. I was underlining uncountable lines of great beauty per page, so I could return to them in years to come.

I was two people: the reader, and the Jewish reader. One had her imagination at stake, and fell in love with the prose; one had her cultural history at stake, and felt proprietary.

And this, finally, may be why these myths and scriptures retain such power as the raw material for art. The biblical basis of the stories in This Is Why I Came engenders a kind of doubling. By their very nature, all stories involve an imaginative act. Colloquially, we say that we “suspend our disbelief”—a recognition of the way that stories entail their own sort of belief. And when we pair that belief, in the sacred yet secular story, with religious mythologies founded on more literal belief, we wind up creating a composite of incredible potency. Because people—real people, for whom Bernadette is a stand-in—have defined their lives by these stories. A contemporary writer need not agree with or even respect the choices of believers in order to recognize that she takes on the entire weight of those real people when she trains her eye on whichever story, for whatever purpose. This is the power that Bernadette realizes in This Is Why I Came, as she walks past “the wood and paint and real people, real pews, real altar,” seeking to share a made-up Bible of her own.

Notes:

  1. One good example of using biblical allusions to lambaste the Bible is British author Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (Pandora Press, 1985). This semiautobiographical novel follows a young girl, adopted into an English Pentecostal family, as she grows up, leaves the church, and ultimately comes out as gay. Deeply cynical about organized religion, the novel is arranged in chapters named Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, and Ruth.
  2. In his 1919 essay “Hamlet and His Problems,” T. S. Eliot coined the term “objective correlative” to designate recurring images of this sort—that is, “a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion” that the writer intends to evoke in the reader.
  3. In Rakow’s own heartbreaking debut, The Memory Room (Counterpoint, 2004), she beautifully incorporates the poetry of Holocaust survivor Paul Celan (1920–70) into her narrative about the legacy of childhood abuse. The novel is the story of a woman named Barbara, who was raised Catholic and is now grappling with the trauma of her childhood abuse. Told in prose-poetry, Rakow interweaves the Psalms with Celan’s poetry.
  4. Diane Slocum, “Belief and Disbelief Tangle in Expanded Lives of Biblical Characters: An Exclusive Authorlink Interview,” Authorlink, February 29, 2016.
  5. In Rakow’s novel, Cain’s foreknowledge of the modern city recalls the seer quality of that same character in José Saramago’s last novel, the excellent (though far less reverent) Cain. José Saramago, Cain, trans. Margaret Jull Costa (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011); originally published in the Portuguese as Caim (Caminho, 2009).
  6. Yehoshua November, God’s Optimism (Main Street Rag, 2010).

Courtney Sender is a writer and a first-year MTS student at Harvard Divinity School. Her fiction appears in The Kenyon Review, Glimmer Train, Tin House, American Short Fiction, and other publications. A MacDowell Colony fellow, she has taught creative writing at Yale, Johns Hopkins, and the Maryland Institute College of Art.

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.