Sr. Bernetta quinn, O.S.F.

Tweno-three ways of looking at the New Testament.- Variations on a Theme

Incamation.- Twenty-three Contemporary Writers on the New Testament, edited by Alfred Corn. Viking Penguin, London, England, 1990.

Significantly, Alfred Corn's gathering of essays on the New Testament is entitled Incarnation, the omission of the definite article turning it away from the Christ Randall Jarrell pictured in "The Old and the New Masters": ". . . everything there is pointed/in Van der Goes' Nativity, toward the naked/shining baby, like the needle of a compass." But any critic evaluating a work should not blame it for what it does not intend to do, in this case the aim being more akin to autobiography and literary criticism than Scriptural exegesis.

The volume is dedicated to a quartet of writers: Flannery O'Connor, in life a devout and intelligent Catholic; W.H. Auden, a poet of distinctly religious motivation in the Anglo-Catholic tradition; Simone Weil, a Jewish philosopher and social activist strongly attracted to Catholicism; Robert Fitzgerald, former editor of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, a Roman Catholic. (Among the contributors is Jonathan Galassi, currently editor-in-chief of that firm, whose thoughts on the letter to Philemon are impersonal, directed rather towards elucidation of his topic.)

Now in his forties, Corn is a poet and novelist who teaches at Connecticut College in New London; he himself has an essay in the anthology. He tells the interviewer for Contemporary Authors:"It seems to me that a poem, story, or novel as part of its nature ought to be (if only inferentially) a kind of working model for the well-lived life" (V. 104, p. 92) - one way of describing the Bible though open to the charge of' litotes. A person whose career is writing may be expected to concentrate his or her treatment (only nine,hers here) on skill of composition rather than interpretation. However, exceptions exist: for instance Larry Woiwode, a Presbyterian from North Dakota, achieves a superior summary of the Acts of the Apostles from the viewpoint of one who considers the Scriptures the word of God.


In choosing his authors, Corn has relied on recommendations (which coincided with his own preferences) in extending invitations, the books assigned intuitively. Like five others represented, he is an Episcopalian, though in his teaching youth an atheist, as he tells us before narrating a life-shaking "vision" in a Connecticut cemetery. Frederick Buechner is a Presbyterian minister. Four of the respondents are former Catholics: Mary Gordon, David Plante, Robert Hass, Marina Warner. Several others might be called searchers, a way of defining agnostics though searching does not always apply. One of the twenty-three, Guy Davenport, recalls how Thomas Merton labeled him a "pagan" in a friendly conversation.

Although each writer tries to focus on the impact that the New Testament book has made on his or her sensibility, there is considerable concern with questions of authorship, some playing private eye" as they study the commentaries about their subjects. Editor Alfred Corn says there are no scholars among those chosen (Xiii), although it seems unfair to deny that title to Reynolds Price of Duke University, who has translated thirty stories from the Bible (The Palpable God) and who in his contribution renders the apostle John in words as near to their Greek origins as he can; or to John Updike, who also turns to the Greek in analyzing John (Updike's polished prose begins Incarnation). This attraction to speculating on who wrote each selection is natural, but at the same time distracting from the autobiography which Updike's readers, for example, would much appreciate.

Among those most helpful in autobiography are three of the four who were once Catholics: Mary Gordon, David Plante, and Robert Hass; in fact Gordon's offering is subtitled "Parts of a journal." Robert Hass, who now teaches English at Berkley, came away from his education by sisters with a memory of the ten Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary and the seven fruits of the Holy Spirit (italics are mine); he writes: "I don't remember exactly when, in what stages, I shed my Catholicism" (p. 324). Ironically, Hass uses Wallace Stevens, that poet who shortly before his death in 1955 at St. Francis Hospital in Hartford, Ct., entered the Catholic Church (cf. my "Wallace Stevens, Poet: 'The Peace of the Last Intelligence,"' inRenascence for the summer of 1990 (pp. 109-204).

Another writer notable for personal recollections in his essay is Robert B. Shaw, a Mt. Holyoke professor who remembers vividly his Presbyterian childhood centered on a minister-grandfather who furnished his first impression of God (p. 268). Two of the cornmentators speak of the pain their jewishness has cost them: Grace Schulman and John Hersey. Schulman's Aunt Helen was a victim of the holocaust; towards the end of her chapter Grace relates her pain to her poetical career in "For me, the benediction that grows out of torment is the essence of art" (p. 345). Hersey, existing in a world nominally Christian, is especially articulate in his reminiscences about the grave reasons why Roman Catholics in general need to implement the Church's official plea for forgiveness from the Jews.

Considered as revelations of interior landscapes, some passages in the book offer marvelous epiphanies, such as Corn's account of a New Haven cemetery episode on a sunny day, referred to above (it occurred in the early 1970s). Sitting on a flat tombstone, he put a Bach piano selection on his tape-recorder:

A four-voiced fugue began playing 
brilliant strains of harpsichord 
counterpoint interweaving into a 
golden sonic tapestry superimposed 
over the grass and trees and sunlight 
I was seeing ... I felt the sun and 
earth revolve around each other, the 
irresistible tug of grass and tree and 
creature toward light and heat, the 
interweaving of earth, breezes, sky, 
and something else in perfected 
counterpoint, and myself at the heart 
of things, simply allowing these sensations
and intimations to play through me ... The 
sun sent brilliant iridescent shards of light
through my eyelashes as I squinted and 
squinted.... This was an 'in the body' 
experience, but it was also a period of 
ekatasis, or ecstasy, which I cannot - I 
speak as a fool - convey completely 
(pp. 142-143).

Other such moments have followed in Corn's life, but he continues to resist them, feeling that "they interfere with getting the task done" (p. 143).

Simone Weil (1903-1943) provides a pattern for such an unusual happening as the one which turned Alfred Corn's life around (he is now an American Episcopalian). She had her first mystical experience in a Portuguese cathedral listening to a Gregorian chant: "I felt, without being in any way prepared for it (for I had never read the mystical writers) a presence more personal, more certain, more real than that of a human being, though inaccessible to the senses and the imagination" (First Supplement to Twentieth-Centuty Authors, p. 1054). Such "sudden manifestations" or epiphanies, asjoycean criticism calls them, link Weil not only to Alfred Corn but to the well-known American lecturer and poet, Amy Clampitt, who records an incident, similar in mood to Eliot's Burnt Norton rose garden, where the lotus rises slowly on water made out of sunlight:

Of the immediate particulars, I recall 
mainly that on a Sunday afternoon 
I had wandered into the museum familiarly 
known as the Cloisters, where in the midst 
of listening to a piped-in motet, for an 
unasked-for moment aft habitual concerns 
gave way to a lapse of consciousness - or 
perhaps it is clinically more accurate to 
speak of a lapse so complete that it amounted 
to perfect serenity (p. 222).

Only later did Clampitt realize that the word for what she had known was Grace. But this radiance did not transform her life as it did Corn's.

Through Incarnation, the character of Saint Paul goes through several metamorphoses. Randall Jarrell, fascinated by him from childhood ("The Lost World"), would probably have raged at the distortions of the apostle from Tarsus in some of the portraits, perhaps partly the result of taking a book of the New Testament in isolation: e.g., Guy Davenport's "We cannot blame Paul; we can only say that with the best will in the world he unwittingly returned our spiritual life to the bonds from whichjesus freed us" (p. 241), or David Plante's diatribe, though he to some degree redeems it on p. 119 with his sublimation of the enormous statue of Paul above the Commons, lifted against the night sky and looking at Christ's body, traced in the stars, with greater love than Plante "would ever have for anyone in his life" (Ibid.).

Rita Dove, on the contrary, is quite good on Paul, subject of a poem written high above the blue waters of Lake Como, "On the Road to Damascus." No doubt Jarrell would have viewed some of her essay favorably, though not her calling him "a founder, if not the sole inventor of Christianity" (p. 222), even though the Greensboro poet too had a tendency to overvalue Paul's role in the establishment of the Church. His many lyrics on Christmas (such as "The Old and the New Masters," quoted above),give a better insight into how he regarded Jesus.

But best of all Pauline characterizations is the Reverend Frederick Buechner's, with its stress on agape.- the most precious thing he [Paul] ever received, "the most precious thing he ever had to give," the ending of his piece on the first epistle to the Corinthians (p. 129).

To return to the title of the anthology, incarnation derives from the Latin incarnari, "to be made flesh," and can mean "the giving of actual form to or making real. " Such is the sense behind Wallace Stevens' "Peter Quince at the Clavier," the last stanza of which begins: "Beauty is momentary in the mind,/But in the flesh it is immortal"; Susannah's loveliness, it declares indirectly, would have perished were it not for art (be it poetry, painting, or music), capable of rendering it permanent.

Robert Penn Warren, in his Yale creative writing classes, was in the habit of saying, "Read your Bibles!" Readers of Incamation can well exclaim "Deo gratias! " that these twenty-three artists have done so. From each examination, a unique facet of the New Testament emerges, separate as one of Stevens' thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird, variations on the theme ofjesus Christ taking on the human condition out of compassion for us all.