Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Why Jewish, but Not Christian, Writers?

9/3/2013—This past Sunday, the New York Times book review section asked in a column at the end of the book review, why Jewish writers commonly raise issues of faith, but Christian writers do not today. As Dara Horn put it in the column, "whither the Flannery O'Connor's of yesteryear? Marilyn Robinson can't do this all by herself!"

Horn gives a number of examples of Jewish writers making references to Jewish motifs, such as the Passover holiday. These Jewish writers by and large are not particularly observant, but the memories of childhood observances remain strong. Some of these Jewish writers seem to practice a kind of postmodern irony, but not all. It is striking that none of the writers Horn mentions are struggling directly with God. This strongly marks a differentiation between this new generation of Jewish writers and older writers such as E.L. Doctorow.

This attribute of Jewish writers may explain to some extent the predominance of Jewish references to religion over Christian ones. For one thing, it is much harder for Christians to struggle in any sense with Christianity without struggling with God. Even Jesus is not as compelling a figure absent the issue of his divine nature. Second, Christian writers who are not observant are less likely to remain within Christianity than are Jews, for whom leaving the religion is a much more fraught issue.

In other words, the subtitle of the column may be mistaken. That subtitle states "a number of contemporary Jewish writers are engaging with religious belief in their works." But this is precisely what is not apparent in any of the examples that the column actually engages. Instead, the issue really for these writers is the power of past remembrance. These remembrances are largely secular in their content, even if the metaphors and motifs of Judaism are present.

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