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"On For the Love of God: The Bible as an Open Book" by Marilyn Krysl
A major American poet and critic twice a finalist for a National Book Award, Alicia Ostriker is also an inveterate reader of scripture. She has previously engaged the Bible in two works of literary, cultural criticism, Dancing At the Devil’s Party and The Nakedness of the Fathers. In For The Love of God she addresses six of the Hebrew Bible’s books—The Song of Songs, the Book of Ruth, Psalms, Ecclesiastes, Jonah and Job—and interprets them as counter-texts which resist the Bible’s dominant structures of authority. From my description you might imagine the book as the usual critical analysis of text, but Ostriker is not the typical critic. She is a poet, and demands that critical prose deliver what poetry delivers: the verbal passion of intense emotional engagement.
Her method is daring. Imagine a work of scholarship in which the writer talks about the Hebrew Bible as one talks of a living person full of human contradictions and with an emotional agenda. Of the text she says this: “It is sexual and skeptical, just as I am” (4). She speaks of it as of an acquaintance of long standing who takes an interest in her. “It seems to want me to live more intensely” (4). Thus we are invited to partake of a fierce and gentle wrangling between Ostriker and her Pal/Lover/Antagonist, the text—in which talking to the text becomes synonymous with talking to God himself. And in addition she has the chutzpah to offer him, generously, the intimacy of her self-revelatory attention.
Theirs is an intimate conversation, for Ostriker is both passionate advocate of this text and fierce critic. The Song of Songs, for instance, has been construed by others as an allegory of the love between God and Israel. But the Song “is radical,” Ostriker writes, “because it fuses the physical and spiritual, and portrays an assertive woman whose lover is neither her subordinate nor her superior” (18). Ostriker posits the lovers’ equality as a model for the relation between God and human beings. “What I have written,” she says, “will seem absurd… God as the lover equal to the self? God as the lover who takes no interest in control or dominance but only in delight?... Impossible. And very much more impossible if we are women” (28).
She brings a nuanced cultural awareness to bare when she engages Ecclesiastes’ Qoheleth. “He is like a Wall Street tycoon or media celebrity” she says, “facing the grim reaper” (83). And “in what was probably a third-century BCE Palestine under Ptolemaic rule, Qoheleth inhabited a world like ours, dominated by the marketplace. His profit motif is our profit motive. If he is cynical, his cynicism should sound familiar to us” (83). The conversation between Ostriker and Qoheleth also reads in places like a confab between two women friends divulging self-doubt, longing and anger. “When I am miserable,” Ostriker writes, “I want the moment to go away, but instead…I wrap it stubbornly around myself like a winter coat. I brood that nobody loves me… but I do not deserve to be loved: I’m a bad mother, daughter, teacher, friend, citizen….Or I am brilliant and unappreciated… And so on. Around the loop” (87-88). She then hears in Qoheleth’s remarks her own response to this self-interrogation. “I hear Qoheleth laughing at himself. He laughs at the joke of having a self that inevitably ties itself into knots” (88).
Ostriker’s wrestling with the Psalms addresses the fear we project outward as anger against the other. We become the self righteous voice in Psalm 137, a self that makes the predictable, furious vow: I may be in exile now, but I will never forget, and one day I will take revenge—and happy shall I be, that dasheth thy little ones against the stones. “What I recognize in the poem,” she writes, “is my resistance to a God who deals cruelly with us and still demands our praise” (73). In response she writes a poem to God portraying him as a partner/pal/lover who’s betrayed her trust.
The satisfaction and pleasure this work delivers could not have happened without Ostriker’s confident and self-revelatory candor. “When I read the Song of Songs,” she writes, “I am in love again for the first time, body and soul are fused, and the world is holy” (144). The Psalms are “white hot poems that go straight to the limbic system” (144). And when she reads Ecclesiastes, she remarks “I am intellectually exhilarated and feel capable of achieving serenity” (145). On goes her articulation of our intimate engagement with this religious text. “With Jonah I come face to face with my depressive and suicidal impulses. And when I read Job I am the descendent of East European Jews who thought it was up to them to make the world a better place” (145).
I am not lyric any more
I will not play the harp
for your pleasure….
I will not kill for you
I will never love you again
unless you ask me (72)
Ostriker is just as fascinating when she turns to exegesis, as in her discussion of the subtly layered Hebrew term hevel. The King James Bible translates this as vanity. But hevel also “may mean vapor or mist, with a connotation of breath…and so a suggestion simultaneously of that which is essential to life, and that which is utterly ephemeral.” And hevel, she writes, “may mean “wind.” It may mean “emptiness” or “void,” in a sense adjacent to Taoist or Buddhist concepts of emptiness.” Hevel is not quite vanity “though close. As close as a breath.” Hence the remark: “I have seen all the works that are done under the sun, all hevel and a striving after wind” (79). All human effort, Ostriker summarizes, “is an effort to control the wind, to control the spirit.” Thus “we may find a door that, when passed through, opens straight into the existentialism of Camus” (80).
For the Love of God concludes with Ostriker’s take on the Book of Job. God imagines he’s supplied restitution by giving Job ten new sons and daughters to replace those God killed. But God apparently has little knowledge of a pregnant woman’s labor, birthing and nurturing of children. “When I think of this,” Ostriker writes, “I feel I am hearing a scream thousands of years old, or as if that scream inhabits my own throat… To me, the reparation offered…is obscene. I imagine that one day Job’s wife (that is to say, collective womankind) will gather the chutzpah to question God the way Abraham did, the way Jeremiah did, the way her husband did. I try to imagine her confrontation with God and what she demands as reparation” (136).
You want this book because it’s the elegant, profound version of The Old Testament for Dummies. And you want it especially because Ostriker herself is extraordinary. Think again of her remark that the Hebrew Bible “seems to want me to live more intensely.” Her engagement with these counter-texts enables her—and us—to achieve that quantum leap. Of the text she writes, “I can wrestle with it. It fights back, and we both grow stronger” (144).
Marilyn Krysl’s work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Nation, The Pushcart Prize Anthology, Best American Short Stories 2000 and O. Henry Prize Stories. Her Warscape With Lovers won the Cleveland State Poetry Prize 1997, and her collection of short fiction, Dinner with Osama, won Foreword Magazine’s 2008 Book of the Year Bronze Medal. She has taught ESL in the Peoples’ Republic of China, volunteered as an unarmed bodyguard for Peace Brigade International in Sri Lanka, and tended to the needy at Mother Teresa’s Kalighat Home for the Destitute and Dying in Calcutta. While serving as Artist in Residence at Dr. Jean Watson’s Center for Human Caring at the University of Colorado, she wrote Midwife, a collection of poems describing the lives and work of caregivers, and Soulskin, which showcases alternative healers. She has taught writing and performed her work at nursing conferences across the U.S. and abroad, and most recently at The Healing Art of Writing Conference at Dominican University in California, and at Watson’s World Caring Conference sponsored by the Watson Caring Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado.