Cast Your Life Raft Upon the Waters

Peter S. Hawkins

Quite by chance this Good Friday I stumbled into the antic world of Jay Leno’s Tonight Show. I was looking for a change of pace after a day spent awash in biblical narrative: my morning lecture to Boston University undergraduates on the Gospel of Matthew, a three-hour immersion in the Seven Last Words starting at noon, and then an evening performance of Bach’s St. John Passion. Ready, even desperate, for something else, I turned on the television.

What I found, however, was more of the same—more Bible. But this time my encounter with Scripture was not in the solemn context of Holy Week but rather in the “reality” sideshow of popular culture. Leno was “Jaywalking,” a recurrent feature on Tonight, where he takes to the street and, microphone in hand, asks questions of passersby. It turns out that every year come Easter, when the media in general turn (if only momentarily) to Christianity, Leno administers a Bible Quiz to the unwitting souls who see a camera and hope for their fifteen minutes of fame.

Infamy is more like it, however, because the man or woman on the street, or at least those who make it into the final cut, flunk Jay’s test big time. Where was Jesus born? “Somewhere in Iraq.” What was the crown made of that he wore at his crucifixion? “Flowers” Who will inherit the earth? “The rich.” What two biblical cities did God destroy on account of their evil? “Pompeii and Atlantis.” Cast your what upon the waters? “Life raft.”

When the “Jaywalk” was over I found myself at once amused and saddened, but not surprised. For several years I have been teaching an entry-level course at BU on the Bible—the aptly titled “Religion 101”—and thereby discovered what my otherwise bright undergraduate students did not know. I asked at our initial meeting who had ever heard of the Twenty-third Psalm—surely the lowest common denominator of biblical literacy. Perhaps five hands went up. I then recited the text and asked my question again. This time the room was a forest of hands. Whereas almost no one had heard of anything called “the Twenty-third Psalm,” just about everyone recognized it when they heard it—but not, as it turned out, as Scripture. For the first student I called on, it was a line in Pink Floyd’s Sheep; for a second, a reference in the rapper Coolio’s Gangsta Paradise; for a third, a refrain in Pulp Fiction (although here the text in question was actually Ezekiel 25:17—to some all Bible sounds the same!). Avid consumers of popular culture, my students knew their movies and their lyrics but not the biblical source of “the valley of the shadow of death.” They were shocked when I revealed it.

Consumer Heaven

How to square these demonstrations of biblical illiteracy with what is to be found on any trip to Barnes & Noble or Borders? For there, on the well-stocked shelves, you come upon Bibles not only targeted for men, women, and teenagers, but also, even more particularly, for “Moms,” “Dads,” and a subset identified as “Extreme Teens.” The Promise Keepers Bible vows to help men be all that they can be, whereas in the Women of Destiny Bible, “women mentor women.” For those Christians anxious about the usefulness of the Hebrew Scriptures there is the Knowing Jesus volume offering a “one-year study of Jesus in every book of the Bible.” Other study texts claim to foster African Heritage, Spiritual Formation, and Spiritual Renewal. There are also the “Ultrathin” and “Slimline” Bibles aimed at those for whom a highly portable Scripture is all-important—not pious weight-watchers, as the titles might suggest. Finally, although the fool hath said in his heart, “There is no God” (Ps. 14:1), it turns out that Dummies have a text just for them, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Bible.

The flood of religious books then continues with books on “Christianity,” “Judaica,” “Islam,” and “Eastern Religions”; beyond them, shelf upon shelf offer what might collectively be called “Spirituality”: “Inspirational Fiction,” “Magic,” “Astrology,” “Metaphysical Studies,” and (my personal favorite) “Speculation.”

Again, how to reconcile the common perception that we have “lost” the Scriptures with this proliferation of Bibles and customized study guides? It may be, of course, that a great many more Bibles are owned than are ever read, and that the proverbial best seller is the equivalent of the latest piece of fitness equipment—purchased with good intentions, tried out, and then abandoned.

Yet, biblical ignorance is evidently something many people want to overcome; it is also, just as obviously, big business. Unlike the nonprofit Gideons, publishing houses do not give their Bibles away, they sell them. As a result, the availability of the Scriptures and the way they are presented depend on the marketplace and its values. Here, as everywhere else in our culture, the consumer has options and with them, the need to purchase further guidance. “How do you choose the Bible that’s best for you?” asks a guidebook that promises just such a tailor-made solution (and for only $4.99!). Different translations also compete with one another over accuracy, readability, and consumer interest, so that there is no longer any particular version in people’s minds. No single text (like the King James of yore or the German of Luther’s Bible) takes root in memory and thus is known by heart.

Writers Meet the Word

This latter fact has particular resonance not only for teachers of the Bible but also for contemporary writers who, at least on this side of the Atlantic, remain astonishingly in touch with the Jewish and Christian Bibles—and almost always in the King James Version.

Of course, being “in touch” with the Bible does not necessarily mean that our novelists and poets are people of robust, let alone traditional, faith. Nor can even the believers among them count on the reader knowing the text, as did Dante, or George Herbert, or, for that matter, the skeptical Melville or Mark Twain. The relationship of our writers to the “Holy Bible” may represent an ancestral legacy that finally cannot be disowned—sometimes the case among Jewish writers—or may constitute a formidable literary presence that, for better or worse, one doesn’t want to let go. The connection to Scripture may be vexed and stormy; it may involve humor and even spoof, may entail repudiation quite as much as respect for a living spiritual, as well as literary, tradition.

Precisely this range of reactions can be found among a wide sample of American writers willing to speak personally about the Bible in several collections of essays that have appeared since the late 1980s.

First came Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible, which brought together thirty-seven contributors.1 Incarnation: Contemporary Writers and the New Testament followed the format of this book-by-book series of reflections in order to carry on its often quite self-revelatory and idiosyncratic work.2 It gathered twenty-three essays by the likes of John Updike, Mary Gordon, Annie Dillard, and Frederick Buechner. A more recent volume, Joyful Noise: the New Testament Revisited, anthologized what were then, in the late nineties, a group of thirtysomethings: Rick Moody (Ice Storm), Darcey Steinke (Jesus Saves), Benjamin Cheever, and Jeffrey Eugenides (Virgin Suicides and, more recently, Middlesex).3 Later came Killing the Buddha: The Heretic’s Bible (2003), touted as “not so much a rewriting of the Bible as a supercharged hip-hop makeover.”4

A Cloud of Poetic Witnesses

Prose writers predominate overwhelmingly in these collections of essays, but when it comes to poets who continue to wrestle with scriptural angels there is no shortage. I am thinking in particular not only of the late Anthony Hecht and Denise Levertov, but also of Louise Clifton, Andrew Hudgins, Jorie Graham, Allen Grossman, Kathleen Norris, Mary Oliver, Jacqueline Osherow, Gjertrud Schnackenberg, Martha Serpas, Richard Wilbur, Franz Wright, and three recent colleagues of mine at Boston University, Geoffrey Hill, Robert Pinsky, and Rosanna Warren—a cloud of witnesses to the ongoing power of Scripture however it may be construed. With the exception of Geoffrey Hill I’ve restricted myself to American poets in this enumeration, but one can see how far the net extends beyond our shores by looking at David Curzon’s Modern Poems on the Bible, which includes work based only on the Hebrew Bible, and Peggy Rosenthals’s The Poets’ Jesus.5

None of the contemporary writers I have named above build on Scripture as could poets in the past. The more current use of the Bible is usually indirect, elusive, hard to evaluate, told “slant” (to recall the marvelously hard-to-pin-down Emily Dickinson). The place of Scripture is often complicated by irony, yet is no less powerful for being found as much between the lines as in them, for being difficult to evaluate or fully figure out.

Winging It

Take, for instance, Tobias Wolff’s story, “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs,” which first appeared in the 1981 collection of the same name, and which has just been republished in Our Story Begins: New and Collected Stories.6 Wolff’s protagonist, Mary, is a familiar academic type: self-conscious, wary in the extreme, an untenured assistant professor resolved never to rock the boat. She is a historian whose one scholarly monograph opens with a hesitant phrase that sums up her life and work, “It is generally believed that…”

Mary always wrote out her lectures in full, using the arguments and often the words of “approved” writers so as not to risk saying anything controversial. Once, while talking to a senior professor, she saw herself reflected in a window: she was leaning toward her colleague and had her head turned so that her ear was right in front of his moving mouth. The sight disgusted her. Years later, when she was forced to get a hearing aid, she suspected that her deafness was a result of always trying to catch everything everyone else said. Wolff writes: “Her own thoughts she kept to herself, and the words for them grew faint as time went on; without quite disappearing they shrank to remote, nervous points, like birds flying away.”

Parallel to Mary’s personal diminishment is the downhill course of her career. One job goes belly up along with the bankruptcy of a college; another is hopelessly waterlogged in the rainforests of academic Oregon. Then, suddenly, the possibility of deliverance comes out of nowhere: Louise, a former colleague, invites her to interview for a tenured position at an unnamed “famous college” in upstate New York—a campus so charming, so authentically pseudo-Gothic that supposedly it was used as the set for Andy Hardy Goes to College and a slew of later movies. Mary takes in the absurd medievalism of the place: the school’s Latin motto that translates roughly “God helps those who help themselves”; a chapel communion rail that is said to have been taken “from some church in Europe where Charlemagne used to go.”

Full of hope, Mary travels to the crisp, picture-postcard northeast, and reads up on the history of the region. As a careful researcher, she knows that the campus has pre-Columbian roots: it stood squarely in the ancient domain of the Five Nations of the Iroquois. Yet, what seems at first to be a dream come true—a real job in a real place—quickly turns out to be yet another nightmare. Shortly after her arrival, Louise lets it drop that as part of her interview process Mary must give a formal lecture. With nothing prepared, nothing in hand, she panics. Louise’ first recommends that Mary simply wing it, “You know, open your mouth and see what comes out. Extemporize.” When Mary protests that she always works from a prepared lecture, Louise offers something she had once written on the Marshall Plan but gotten bored with and never published: Mary can read it, and no one will be the wiser. The idea of passing off someone else’s work as her own at first appalls Mary, until she realizes that she had been doing the same kind of thing for years—and “this was not the time to get scruples.”

One revelation leads to another. In the course of a campus tour, Mary’s male student guide mentions offhandedly that while the college appears to be old-fashioned, it is not. “They let girls come here now,” he says, “and some of the teachers are women. In fact, there’s a statute that says they have to interview at least one woman for each opening.”

Academic Apocalypse

When her subsequent meeting with the hiring committee proves to be absurdly perfunctory, Mary realizes that she has been had. They were never really considering her for the position. They already knew whom they were going to hire; she had merely been brought to campus to satisfy a rule. With these facts corroborated by Louise, Mary is led off to her martyrdom in a lecture hall where students are already spilling into the aisles and professors sitting in the front row with their legs crossed.

Louise calls the audience to order and announces the Marshall Plan as the subject of the speech to follow. She does not know, however, that Mary had decided that she would rather die than deliver it—that she would “wing it” after all.

“I wonder how many of you know,” she began, “that we are in the Long House, the ancient domain of the Five Nations of the Iroquois.”

Two professors looked at each other. “The Iroquois were without pity,” Mary said. “…Because they had no pity they became powerful, so powerful that no other tribe dared to oppose them…” Several of the professors began to whisper. Dr. Howells was saying something to Louise, and Louise was shaking

her head.
“In one of their raids,” Mary said,

“they captured two Jesuit priests, Jean de Brébeuf and Gabriel Lalement. They covered Lalement with pitch and set him on fire in front of Brébeuf. When Brébeuf rebuked them they cut off his lips and put a burning iron down his throat … While he was still alive they scalped him and cut open his breast and drank his blood. Later, their chief tore out Brébeuf’s heart and ate it, but just before he did this Brébeuf spoke to them one last time. He said—”

“That’s enough!” yelled Dr. Howells, jumping to his feet.

Louise stopped shaking her head. Her eyes were perfectly round.

Mary had come to the end of her facts. She did not know what Brébeuf had said. Silence rose up around her; just when she thought she would go under and be lost in it she heard someone whistling in the hallway outside, trilling the notes like a bird, like many birds.

“Mend your lives,” she said. “You have deceived yourselves in the pride of your hearts, and the strength of your arms. Though you soar aloft like the eagle, though your nest is set among the stars, thence I will bring you down, says the Lord. Turn from power to love. Be kind. Do justice. Walk humbly.”

Louise was waving her arms. “Mary!” she shouted.

But Mary had more to say, much more; she waved back at Louise, then turned off her hearing aid so that she would not be distracted again.

On one level, it is easy to see—and to relish—what Tobias Wolff is up to. He knows his collegiate setting well: the debilitating caution of academics the terror of being forced, unprepared, to “wing it”; the pathos of those who want teaching jobs and the arrogance of those in a position to give or withhold them. With Wolff, we savor the sweetness of revenge, as Mary finds a desperate joy in rocking the boat, in setting a crowded lecture room on fire with scandal. Nor are we baffled by Wolff’s play with magical realism. When a faux Gothic lecture hall morphs into a Iroquois Long House, or when Mary, standing in a stained glass window’s “circle of red light,” becomes one with the Jesuits on their funeral pyre, we understand the method of the author’s madness.

All of this is easy enough to figure out; but what are we to make of that moment when Mary, at the end of her facts and on the brink of drowning in silence, suddenly hears “someone whistling in the hallway outside, trilling the notes like a bird, like many birds”? Earlier, Wolff said that Mary replaced her own thoughts and words with those of others, so that they “shrank to remote, nervous points, like birds flying away.” Now, as she “wings it” for the first time in her life, those words return to her, trilling en masse, and taking possession of the horrified lecture hall.

Micah Amid the Ruins

What then shall we say to all this “winging”? Is it the result of a hearing aid gone haywire? Are we witnessing a woman going mad? Or are we watching someone who went deaf after listening too intently to other people speak, now discovering the sound of her own voice and refusing to be distracted by any others? This interpretation is appealing in many ways, and yet for those “with ears to hear” it has its limitations. For what Mary actually says when her facts run out—the trilling birds she releases when she puts words in the dying Brébeuf’s mouth—is none other than the language of the Hebrew prophets. Her judgment against those who soar aloft like the eagle and make their nests among the stars; her injunction to do justice and walk humbly—everything that she says is derived from Amos and Hosea, Obadiah and Jeremiah, and, most especially, from the prophet Micah: “[The Lord] has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (6:8, NRSV).

Mary’s “text” is not some boring lecture on the Marshall Plan, but it is also not her own speech. Rather, by telling her college audience to “Mend your lives,” she becomes Micah denouncing the corruption of a proud Jerusalem. Or she becomes Jean de Brébeuf—who knows?—speaking “one last time” to the Iroquois chief about to eat him alive. Willy-nilly, then, the former parrot becomes an apostle, the anxious plagiarist a prophet going for broke.

Wolff’s tone in this story is satirical and tricky, which makes it difficult in the end to speak with confidence about the role that Scripture plays here. After all, a witty revenge comedy sits uneasily with a jeremiad, and the smart critic does not want to make too much of a good thing. Still, “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs” shows us how Scripture is present in contemporary literature—how it can generate new fictions and in turn be reinvigorated by them.

Wolff finds a quirky way to tell the truth in a world in which almost no one says what she means or listens to what anyone else says. The biblical words detonate within that decorous lecture hall, and although we may laugh at the chaos that follows, no one can deny that something happened. Something truly new was said, even though Mary’s incendiary words were in fact already ancient and canonical at the time that Jean de Brébeuf may (or may not!) have spoken them.

The prophet Micah also gains a new context in which his challenge can be heard again, not in synagogue or church, but in an academic lecture hall inscribed within a contemporary American short story. Wolff gains the moral weight that modern speech seems everywhere to have lost, while Micah gets a chance once more to ruffle feathers, shock and assault, to disturb the complacent and comfort the afflicted. We encounter the Bible afresh because we encounter it unexpectedly, out of the confines of its familiar context. It does not matter that the story is funny and the Scriptures cited are not; the humor disarms defenses and lets the words themselves both wound and heal.

What was Tobias Wolff expecting of his readers when he wrote this story? It is unlikely that most people who come to it—the folks caught on the street by Jay Leno’s Bible Quiz, for instance—will recognize the voice of the Hebrew prophets when they read Mary’s speech. Because of this, much will be lost through ignorance of the once canonical text, until in some future moment a teacher or an editor adds a footnote and thereby accords Wolff what Dante or Herbert or Melville or Eliot have also come to require—a connection made to allusion and source.

But not all will be lost, for the ancient words of the Bible have an extraordinary ability not only to speak to readers who may not yet have heard them, but also to reach the rest of us who recognize the prophetic injunction but nonetheless stand in need of hearing it again—disarmingly out of context, in a fresh assault, and as if for the first time. “Mend your lives. Turn from power to love. Be kind. Do justice. Walk humbly.”


Portions of this essay appeared in “Lost and Found: the Bible in Contemporary Literature.” Religion and Literature 36, no.1 (Spring 2004): 1–14.

1. Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible, ed. David Rosenberg (New York: Harcourt, 1987).

2. Incarnation: Contemporary Writers on the New Testament, ed. Alfred Corn (New York: Viking Penguin, 1990).

3. Joyful Noise: The New Testament Revisited, ed. Rick Moody and Darcey Steinke (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1997).

4. Killing the Buddha: A Heretic’s Bible, ed. Peter Manseau & Jeff Sharlet (New York: Free Press, 2004). Quote by Daniel Asa Rose, The New York Observer, taken from, visited 4/21/08.

5. David Curzon, ed., Modern Poems on the Bible (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1994), Peggy Rosenthal, The Poets’ Jesus: Representations at the End of the Millennium (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).

6. My citations are taken from the version of the story that appears in In the Garden of the North American Martyrs (New York: Ecco Press, 1981), 123–35. A very slightly revised version appears in Wolff’s Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008).

Since 2000, Peter Hawkins has taught in the Department of Religion at Boston University. In July 2008, he rejoins the Yale faculty, where he had taught previously for 24 years. He will be professor of religion and literature at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and Yale Divinity School. His books include, most recently, Dante: A Brief History (Wiley-Blackwell, 2006) and Scrolls of Love: Ruth and the Song of Songs, co-edited with Lesleigh Cushing Stahlberg (Fordham University Press, 2006).