When I think about why I am enjoying Geraldine Brooks’ ‘The Secret Chord’ I sense that it is because it is an honest attempt to understand a story that is powerful in Jewish and Christian traditions. Much o it resonates with me.
I have decided to write this response whilst only a third of the way through the book. Reading is a responsive activity: I find that I am both alert to a text’s narrative and ideas at the same time as I am evaluating it, synthesizing it into my understanding of reality or leaving it aside. And even the things I ‘leave aside’ impact me. Thus, the process of responding whilst I read is critical in the formation of how the book affects me. I find it to be an iterative process.
‘The Secret Chord’ appears to try to capture both the visceral and the exalted nature of David and his People – and to ask the reader to consider the violence, the hubris and the humility of this community. I enjoy it also because of the respect for elements of faith: the inability of the believer to utter God’s name, the notion of fidelity to God and People, and the credibility she gives early in the book to ‘Natan’ as a prophet. The narrative of Goliath and David carries both the notions that God is so exalted as to be beyond the power of humans, as well as that humans are fragile and flawed. And it appears an act of honesty to see in print the troubling aspects of the story: for example, the brutal suppression of weaker village populations, and the self-deceit of David when it involves lust for power over women. Is God’s will done when violence or lust are in attendance?
It is interesting for me to ask myself as a Christian which are the aspects of the story that I don’t want to confront. I enjoy the challenge she gives me. It is good for my soul. It is a re-editing of scripture – something that is not required. And yet, the revisions have a point. I abhor, for example, the idea that God would in any form sanction brutal killing, especially of ‘innocents’- and Brooks seems to share what I understand to be the Christian (and Jewish – perhaps for her it is in some unstated form universal) value of human life. Both the notion that every human is made in God’s image, and the opposing idea that humans reference a god as their own powerful totem to justify their actions, appear in the text. She seems to foster faith and doubt simultaneously. This is central to my understanding of the book’s power.
I hear also the feminine voices being amplified in a manner that is not obvious in the Chronicles. These are voices I think many of us long to here.
There is a line in another book I read this Summer, John Ortberg’s book ‘Soul Keeping’, that has had me thinking deeply. He writes about the way that he has found it regretfully easy over the course of his marriage to hurt his wife: “My face and the tone of my voice could create the effect on her that I ‘wanted’ without ever being totally open about the deeper recesses of my mind and will.” He writes that his actions could be therefore feasible as acts against her but still ‘deniable’.
I think Ortberg works hard in his book to be honest about himself. And this particular sentence highlights how he has the capacity to deceive himself with his acts of hurt. I think he makes a powerful point – I want to present myself as noble but sometimes I am acting quite ignobly as I pretend to be righteous.
As in private, so in public. Even in he writing of great literature one can use guile – and perhaps not even be aware of it. Brooks’ David, indeed the biblical David, deceives himself. Ortberg notes that even in marriage we can conceal ourselves from the ones we love the most. Are writers immune? Is the editing process a fire that burns away pretense?
Brooks appears to be pursuing an honest approach to the synthesis of her faith and her politics. Her writing is reflective and non-polemical. Why do I then remain suspicious when I read ‘The Secret Chord’? Does she have a dogma that guides the text? Is it not so much an exploration as a beautiful apology?
So I look for signs of doubt – places where she challenges all of her readers. In this case the secular as well as the religious.
I can see many places where she might unsettle the religious reader.
The book in this way does my faith a great service.
I am yet to find in the text an exploration of ideas that might make her secular readership uncomfortable. Where does she make uncomfortable the person who regards themselves as an ‘enlightened’ reader?
It is likewise powerful in the same style of story-casting that she can provide a homoerotic theme between David and Jonathan. I don’t know if the etymology of the Hebrew variation of ‘love’ in the Old Testament verse ‘Jonathon loved David’ gives enough surety that it means friendship, not ‘amour’. I note though that this is a theme that has been undertaken by others. It is a good example of an area that I would have liked her to challenge not only the religious reader but other presuppositions. It easy for her to play to a strong current theme in literature. The story of Jonathan and David is one of a limited number of well-attested tales in history that could also be read as a close and abiding friendship between brutal men. This also deserves exploration – perhaps she will pick up on the theme of friendship between brutal men later in the book.
At present it appears that she is following a predictable plot – that aspects of David’s life are best understood not because of his faith, but because of his love for Jonathon.
If I am allowed to ask anything of a leading author it would be this. I accept the challenging questions you ask of me. Can you write a book also in which you challenge not only your religious but also your secular self? Can you disrupt not only the presuppositions of religious thinkers but the readers who wish to reimagine faith stories only as having material or social causes? If you can you will convince me that your story is a genuine inquiry and not just a beautifully crafted carrier of the themes of your age.
I hope to comment again when I have finished reading the whole book.
Is she a prophet like Natan?