Long after being vomited up by that great fish, the Jonah character in Mary Rakow’s retelling of the Bible thinks, “I wanted a better God.”
During this season of sanctified shopping and faith-based terrorism, that still sounds like a reasonable request. Theodicy — the problem of evil — is an ongoing challenge for those of us not blessed or cursed with perfect faith. Rakow’s slim novel, “This Is Why I Came,” approaches that ancient conundrum by returning to the source of Judeo-Christian attitudes about the divine. In fewer than 200 pages, she walks across the stormy surface of the Old and New Testaments, recasting a few of the most famous Bible stories as a kind of Revised Testament of Sorrow. With a PhD in theology from Boston College, Rakow could easily entangle us in the knotty provenance and competing theological implications of these sacred tales, but she’s cast off her academic robe for this delicate work of fiction, which is informed by the most basic human desires and disappointments.
Her biblical stories are framed as the work of a lapsed Catholic who comes back to church on Good Friday after an absence of 30 years. We never learn much about her, but as this woman waits to take confession, she holds a little handmade book and “dreams each story again as if it were new.” Although the short chapters that follow presume no particular religious training, many are so elliptical as to require a basic familiarity with the Bible, if only to appreciate what Rakow is omitting, adding and turning.
The novel spends a majority of its length on incidents related to Jesus, but the Old Testament chapters that open the book feel more imaginative, less constrained by fighting against theological dogma. Rakow moves unpredictably from the simple, stark details of the Sunday-school versions we know to her own striking emendations and elaborations. In the opening piece, for instance, Adam is so dazzled by Eve that he considers, for the first time, that he did not make the world himself. That sense of wonder turns tragic in the following story when Cain hovers nervously over his dead brother’s body, expecting his life “to return like the grape and the wheat.”
Several of these chapters are so attenuated that Rakow has room only to prick us with troubling implications before she hurries on. After Abraham’s aborted sacrifice, a single page imagines the dreams that haunt Isaac throughout his life. Another page describes Sarah’s horror at being married to such a man. But brief as these prose poems are, they’re still capable of arresting moments and startling insights, as when Isaac, remembering his father’s mania, realizes that “the hunger for innocence in an adult can be the most dangerous hunger.”
God remains a central character in these stories, as angry and awesome as Jehovah, but Rakow pulls back the veil to show Him in all his dismay, confusion and even moral fatigue. In her version of the flood, God is astonished at his creation. “The more he paced and searched,” she writes, “the more he could not find himself, not in man and not in the mountain or glacier, the forest or the rivers, so that in time he recoiled at the thought of looking, and came to hate what once was magnificent, and to hate himself for making it and espousing himself to it.” You can hear the Genesis story in these elemental details, but Rakow casts a depressive shadow over her God, which grows darker still when Noah sees God scurry back to his gold throne and crouch behind it, ashamed and horrified by his carnage. It falls to Noah and others who follow to urge this Lord of the Universe to forgive Himself and learn mercy from humanity.
Rakow’s version of the Gospels is equally freighted with despair that complicates — among other things — the celebration of Christmas. In this retelling, the Massacre of the Innocents is not just a foreordained step on the way to glory but an indelible horror that contaminates Jesus and his family forever. Tolerant neighbors might forgive a young woman for getting pregnant before she married; they might even overlook the grandiose rumors about her baby; but Rakow asks us to imagine living in a town where every family lost a son because of your child. How hollow the Good News would sound in the vast chamber of such grief. As Rakow describes the erratic trail of Jesus’s life, she never lets him forget that he was born in a pool of other children’s blood. “The villagers call him the crippled boy,” she writes, “who carries his past on his shoulders like a house.”
The novel is weakest when it looks directly at Jesus. Despite his position as the apogee of this story, he remains a surprisingly passive character, whom we see through a glass darkly. Brooding, full of self-hatred, exercising his divine power like a fledgling wizard, this Jesus seems more acted upon than active, more concerned about his past than our future. And the still disruptive import of his Beatitudes and parables feels weirdly absent from these short chapters that quickly push him off stage.
But the novel is tremendously poignant as it follows the life of Joseph, who speaks no words in the Gospels but finds his voice here. Far from the doubtless saint of Christian tradition, Rakow allows him a full range of human emotions. “Joseph looked at his son and wife and hid his thoughts because, again, he was calculating,” she writes. “The logic came to him often. If he hadn’t been a dreamer, if he hadn’t obeyed the voice in his dreams, if he hadn’t married Mary, she would have been dead seven years now, a thought he despised, as well as their son. But all the other boys would still be alive. Hundreds of them.” The Church might be willing to solve that equation for the benefit of humanity’s salvation, but no honest, merciful person can be untroubled by that horrific calculation. For Joseph, as Rakow imagines him, the price is simply too high, and she pursues him far beyond the thin details of the Gospels into his later life, a life that leaves him feeling separated from his family and haunted by God.
Not everyone will take this little book and eat it up. Readers who treat the Scriptures as fragile goblets of orthodoxy may find “This Is Why I Came” upsetting or distasteful. And yet, an unmistakable glimmer of faith radiates from these biblical reimaginings, even though they’re presented as the work of a woman who “can’t believe in God.” What the novel demands is a willingness to enter the lacunae of the familiar Bible stories and wrestle with the angel of Rakow’s poetic vision.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
By Mary Rakow
Counterpoint. 192 pp. $24