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Essay

Learning to be Reformed from a Jewish Novelist

By December 6, 2011 One Comment
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As you’ll note from my recent Perspectives article, “A Peculiar People,” I’ve been thinking a lot about the dynamics of immigration and how that intersects with my own experience of being an immigrant–and being Reformed.  That’s not just because my Reformed community finds its heritage in an immigrant population; rather, there is something inherent to this expression of the Reformed faith that is poised to appreciate the precarious place of the immigrant and the exile.  This is because the people of God inhabit that equally precarious place between common grace and antithesis–between the persistent affirmation that the whole earth is the Lord’s (Psalm 24:1) and the heartbreaking recognition that the whole world lies under the sway of the evil one (1 John 5:19).   We serve the risen, coming King of creation but are constantly aware of the governorship of the enemy in this meanwhile.  And so we are like citizens who return to our homeland only to find it under foreign rule.  We are not so different from Israel, who returned from exile only to find themselves exiles in their homeland now run by the Roman empire.  

At the heart of what I’ve imbibed from Kuyper and Dooyeweerd and Runner and Seerveld is the sense that the covenant people of God will (and should) never quite be “at home” anywhere; the people of God hold citizenship in a far country which should make us uncomfortable but constructive inhabitants of any culture.  We are called to seek the welfare of the city in which we are exiled (Jeremiah 29:4-7) while also learning to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land (Psalm 137:4).   We shouldn’t lock ourselves up in ex-pat enclaves, as it were–forming holy huddles and circling the wagons to protect ourselves from “the world.” But neither should we gleefully assimmilate to majority cultures characterized by disordered love.  Reformed Christians, for example, should never easily be described as “good Americans,” it seems to me.  We should instead by characterized by a kind of immigrant distance, which can also manifest itself as cautious gratitude.

This brings to mind Jhumpa Lahiri’s epigraph to her story collection, Unaccustomed Earth.  She cites a moving passage from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story, “The Custom-House”:

“Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil.  My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.”

This is why my first post looked to Saul Bellow as a resource for those of us in the Reformed tradition.  Bellow’s reflections on being “A Jewish Writer in America” are provocative in this regard because the experience and identity of the Jewish writer in America is one of immigrant otherness overlaid with a religious identity.  

Bellow begins his memoiristic reflections by unfashionably appealing to his “first consciousness,” which he begins as follows:

So, in my first consciousness, I was, among other things, a Jew, the child of Jewish immigrants. At home our parents spoke Russian to each other, we children spoke Yiddish with them, and we spoke English with one another. At the age of four we began to read the Old Testament in Hebrew, we observed Jewish customs, some of them superstitions, and we recited prayers and blessings all day long. Because I had to memorize most of Genesis, my first consciousness was that of a cosmos, and in that cosmos I was a Jew. I suppose it would be proper to apply the word “archaic” to such a representation of the world as I had—archaic, prehistoric. This was my “given” and it would be idle to quarrel with it, to try to revise or efface it.

Of course what complicates all of this is precisely his placement “among other things.”  This “given” in his life is cross-pressured by his location in “America,” “modernity,” “the West,” and more.  Thus Bellow continues:

A millennial belief in a Holy God may have the effect of deepening the soul, but it is also obviously archaic, and modern influences would presently bring me up to date and reveal how antiquated my origins were. To turn away from those origins, however, has always seemed to me an utter impossibility. It would be a treason to my first consciousness to un-Jew myself. One may be tempted to go behind the given and invent something better, to attempt to reenter life at a more advantageous point. In America this is common, we have all seen it done, and done in many instances with great ingenuity. But the thought of such an attempt never entered my mind. Thus I may have been archaic, but I escaped the horrors of an identity crisis.

I wonder if this doesn’t get at something of what it is to be a Reformed Christian in 21st century America.  Of course, of course, there are glaring differences.  I don’t mean for a moment to suggest that Reformed Christians are subject to the sorts of persecution and marginalization that has characterized the Jewish experience of anti-Semitism (which Bellow goes on to recount).  I mean rather the inward tension experienced: of inheriting this centering in a cosmos, in a community, and feeling buffetted by competing identities, but never quite able to relinqish that given either–though it would be so much easier.  Bellow even notes the temptation for respect and acceptance when mainting a heroic otherness becomes tiresome and wearying:

On the other hand one can’t always be heroic, and there were times when shades of Brownsville and Delancey Street surrounded Jewish lovers of American literature and they were unhappily wondering what T.S. Eliot or Edmund Wilson would be thinking of them. Among my Jewish contemporaries, more than one poet flirted with Anglicanism and others came up with different evasions, dodges, ruses, and disguises. I had little patience with that kind of thing. If the WASP aristocrats wanted to think of me as a Jewish poacher on their precious cultural estates then let them.

At what point does the Reformed impetus for cultural engagement morph into the assimmilating desire to be accepted and respected?  

Let me close this little installment of “Lessons from Saul Bellow” with a selection from Bellow’s essay, and leave it for you to ponder the analogies, until we take this up again:

The condition I am looking into is that of a young American who in the late Thirties finds that he is something like a writer and begins to think what to do about it, how to position himself, and how to combine being a Jew with being an American and a writer. Not everyone thinks well of such a project. The young man is challenged from all sides. Representatives of the Protestant majority want to see his credentials. Less overtly hostile because they are more snobbish, the English want to know who he is or what he thinks he is. Later his French publishers will invariably turn his books over to Jewish translators.

The Jews too try to place him. Is he too Jewish? Is he Jewish enough? Is he good or bad for the Jews? Jews in business or politics ask, “Must we forever be reading about his damn Jews?” Jewish critics examine him with a certain sharpness—they have their own axes to grind. As the sons of Jewish immigrants, descendants of the people whose cackling and shrieking set Henry James’s teeth on edge when he visited the East Side, they accuse themselves secretly of presumption when they write of Emerson, Walt Whitman, or Matthew Arnold. My own view is that since Henry James and Henry Adams did not hesitate to express their dislike of Jews there is no reason why Jews, while full of respect for these masters, should not be free to write as they please about them. To let them (the hostile American WASPs) determine once and for all what the American psyche is, not to challenge their views where those views are narrow, or to accept the transmission of European infections and racial poisons would be disloyal and cowardly.

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