- The Da Vinci Code, and: Gilead
I first sidled up against the conjunction (possibly an oxymoron) of religion & lit. when I was a sixth grader in the early 1950s, a period that was, for me, just as innocent as was the decade itself. After school I studied my bar mitzvah lessons because in less than a year I would be taking my place in front of the synagogue and announcing my willingness to obey the Jewish laws as a full adult. But in Patton Elementary School, I was simply one student among the thirty or so in my grade who faced forward and would not have known how to spell "dissent," much less how to practice it. We were, in a word, a passive bunch – myself included.
So, when a permanent substitute named Mrs. Rohrbach took over for Miss Sanders, nobody blinked an eye when she asked us to get out of our seats, get on our knees, and pray for the soul of a character who happened to die in the story we happened to be reading. True enough, we were not required to unleash our prayers "in the name of Jesus Christ"; ours were to be silent ruminations, a way that Mrs. Rohrbach probably believed would make us a more sensitive, caring bunch.
I didn't object (at twelve, how could I?) but I remember feeling vaguely uncomfortable. Why were we praying for a literary character who, I knew even then, didn't have real flesh and blood, much less a soul. At this point I should mention that it was tough enough being the only Jewish kid in my grade school, the one who was a yearly shoo-in for the role of Wise Man in the Christmas pageant. After all, I got good grades and could remember lines that my fellow Wise Men couldn't. Add the fact that I had a nearly bass voice and you can see how I was singled out to sing "four calling birds" in our grade's rendition of "The Twelve Days of Christmas."
My father shrugged his shoulders when he found out about my seasonal singing career and insisted that I hum whenever Jesus was mentioned by name. I understood what he understood – namely, that to live in America, where he was now safe from Russian persecution, meant that his sons would be sons of America, and that that would occasionally mean being part of a public school's Christmas celebrations. I never told him about the impromptu prayers for the literary dead.
Mrs. Rohrbach's sometime lessons in religion & lit were one aspect of [End Page 164] my childhood "religious" instruction; daily readings from the Hebrew Bible and from the New Testament were another. Every morning before classes began, a handful of King James verses were pumped into our classroom. Some of the readers from the main office were quite good, just as some were God-awful, but, over the years, the rhythms of both Bibles managed to course through my veins. Many years later I regard myself as a better teacher of, say, Melville's Moby-Dick or Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! because of this, and I would even concede that I am probably a better person for knowing about how the characters from the Hebrew Bible are sometimes noble, sometimes base, while the protagonist of the Christian Bible is cut from very different cloth.
It wasn't until my college lit courses that I ran into the richer possibilities of "religion & lit." Get the right teacher – in my case the Edwin Moseley, who wrote Pseudonyms of Christ in the Modern Novel: Motifs and Methods (1962) – and one found oneself learning how to identify the Christ figure in works such as Faulkner's Light in August or Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. The "one" I'm talking about is, of course, me. I had the Western bibles at my fingertips; but even the thickest head in our class could figure out that if a character was named Joe Christmas, odds are he is a Christ figure; The Great...