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The New Yorker's Weird Double Standard

Updated: May 3

I once wrote a review of a novel. I shouldn’t have, but I did.


I had published several dozen book reviews previously. And that set me up for hubristic failure. All of those books were in my academic fields: theology, history, and philosophy. Precious little of that training prepared me to review Margaret Atwood.

A small journal invited me to do so, however, and I arrogantly picked up The Robber Bride (1993) and set to work.


I thoroughly enjoyed it (it was nominated for Canada’s highest literary honour, the Governor-General’s Award) and said so in the review. (What I didn’t say in the review, but believe to this day, is that Atwood is at least as good in reporting on Toronto’s smart set as she is in her more famous historical and science fiction. She could have been that city’s Jane Austen—or, perhaps, Tom Wolfe. But I digress.)


The review was duly published—as was my first book around the same time. So I excitedly packaged up both and sent them to her—as if she would want to read a review by a literary nobody published in a marginal periodical plus a scholarly history about, of all things, Canadian evangelicals.


Amazingly, Ms. Atwood wrote back a postcard of thanks—crammed, in fact, with comments both kind and witty. When I eventually met her several years later, I badly hoped she had forgotten all about my little parcel. We had only a few minutes together before she was to give a reading, so all was mere pleasantries. But she kept sending a feline smile my way, and I’ll bet she remembered, alas.


My few courses in English and American literature hardly prepared me to write a proper review of a major novelist. Still, those few courses made me vastly more qualified than writers who frequently show up in The New Yorker to review works on religion, and particularly about Christianity.


My case in point is James Wood’s recent review of Marilynne Robinson’s book Reading Genesis. The review is so bad—and, for this long-time New Yorker reader, predictably bad—that it prompts this review of a review to make the point that something strange is going on in the editorial offices of that estimable publication.


At first blush, all seems to be well. James Wood is an accomplished critic who divides his professional life between teaching at Harvard and writing for The New Yorker. Seems like a good gig, and his long career merits it.


The book in question comes from an esteemed contemporary novelist, she of Gilead fame. So we have a critic and a novelist. Dog bites man. Let’s just move along.


What Wood decides to fasten on, however, is not Robinson’s literary art, and only desultorily her ideas. What immediately gets him going and keeps him going is hatred—hatred spawned in his northeastern English childhood toward Marilynne Robinson’s God. And that hatred almost literally crosses Wood’s eyes so that he can’t see what’s in front of him.


His review begins by citing an uninspired and uninspiring hymn from his days at school that includes these lines: “The time will surely be:/When the earth shall be filled with the glory of God/As the waters cover the sea.”


“These words,” Wood writes, “were mystifying to me before they were repellent. How could the waters cover the sea, given that the sea is made of water?”


Now, I am second to none in mocking worship songs for metaphor malfunctions. But is James Wood really making fun of the Book of Isaiah (which, he acknowledges, is the source of the image) as if to suggest that this ancient literary genius, plus several millennia of Jewish and Christian critics, haven’t seen plainly what appeared so obvious to his childish eyes?


Surely a literary critic has heard of idiom?


Turns out, yes, he has: “Once I’d decided that the phrase simply meant a great deal of water”—good for you. But why are you telling us about this elementary mistake of interpretation, as if it redounds to the discredit of the hymn?


Ah. It’s because this image “promised an annihilating but glorious flood,” “a dearly desired apocalypse that sounded highly undesirable to me, because it apparently had no space for human beings. Where would we be when water covered the sea?”


Surely, the fair-minded reader would say, Wood—critic Wood, Professor Wood—isn’t making such an obvious mistake as to miss the simile. What covers the world at the end of the world, according to Isaiah and the hymn, is the glory of God in the manner of a flood: “as the waters cover the sea.” Yet he never demurs from this juvenile mistake.


Indeed, much in the manner of the bored, disaffected Etonian he surely was, the sport continues: “Unless we’d bobbing on it, alongside Noah and his ark.” Such impious wit doubtless elicited shocked laughter from his fellow swells. But what’s it doing in a serious review of a serious book in a serious magazine?


“Victorian hymns are cheap targets,” Wood allows, only then to take cheap shots throughout the rest of this long (four-page!) review.


Herewith, a sampling:


“Nonbelievers may suspect that the Christian notion of Providence is itself whimsical, in its conceit of a Creator who, one day, just fancied us into life.” The superficiality of this remark is breathtaking.


What Christianity actually says is that God Almighty decided to create our world because God loves to create (consider merely the number of species of beetles) and God loves to share love with creatures capable of reciprocation. Thus God made this world and, in particular, humans in his image.


This project of God, the Bible goes on to say, was hardly a caprice. For God foreknew that creating and loving human beings would entail the eventual incarnation, suffering, and death of the Son of God as the climax of a very long story, still going on, of God suffering alongside, on behalf of, and always in the interest of saving those human beings and this marred planet God loves.


So, no, not a whimsical fancy, you silly little snot.


“And, besides, what is intrinsically meaningful about eternal life anyway?” This from a critic who one might suppose would be aware of literature popping up occasionally here and there (which is to say, globally) about quests for fountains of youth, elixirs of eternal life, portals to immortality, transhuman quests to evade death, and so on, and so on.


The pose of insouciance here (“Living forever? What’s the big deal?”) is perfect for a middle-class English male fourteen-year-old who perforce takes his own immortality for granted. But such a remark seems bizarre coming from an adult, let alone an educated person.


John Calvin, Robinson’s own favourite theologian, is the villain of this piece. No, his persecution of Servetus doesn’t show up, surprisingly. But his predestination is front and centre.


Indeed, Wood says that Calvin himself “makes the doctrine central.” But that’s what you’d expect a clever teen to say. Actual scholars (such as my best teacher of Calvin, B. A. Gerrish at The University of Chicago) mildly point out that one has to look hard for predestination deep inside Book III of Calvin’s Institutes.


It’s a strong doctrine Calvin propagates, that’s for certain. (Calvin himself called it the decretum horribile.) But he certainly doesn’t make it central.


What is central for Calvin is what even Wood recognizes is central in Robinson, too: Providence, the sovereignty of God. But Wood can’t see what Providence means here—a doctrine she seems to link with a loving and caring God—and, tellingly, he gives little space for Robinson’s telling of it.


What we get instead is Wood railing against the unfairness of election (not a new idea; Calvin saw it, also) and even more the way God’s great sovereignty must, in a zero-sum conceptualization of the matter, mean the diminishing of human agency to the vanishing point. “If the story could never have been otherwise, it is not quite a story.”


A little theology, however, would go a long way here to assuage Wood’s worries. Theologians for quite some time (back to, say, at least Isaiah) have seen human freedom and responsibility as gifts of this same sovereign God. God chooses to grant space and time in which we humans can make choices that matter.


Yes, some Christians (although not most) do hold to a strong doctrine of (ultimate) election to salvation or damnation. But even Calvinists believe in some version of free will. They have to, since the entire moral economy of the Bible depends on it.


Indeed, Wood himself sees that to be the case as, a few hundred words after indicting Robinson’s God as a kind of puppetmaster, he then chides God for being a Mafia capo who offers his covenant to Abraham as “his particular protection racket.”


Well, that’s one way to look at the Old Testament. And, consistent with that way, Wood goes on to damn God with “divine caprice and favouritism” on behalf of his chosen people and murderously against their rivals.


He thus utterly misses the lesson that courses through the covenantal language of the Tanakh from Abram’s initial arrangement to the Chronicles at the end of it—namely, that Israel is to be “a light to the nations,” an object lesson and a beacon to which the nations of the earth will eventually come to be likewise saved and welcomed into that self-same covenant.


Wood’s hatred for this God keeps blurring his vision. “I have spent much of my life hating the God who replies to Job, the God who bullies and blusters out of the whirlwind.” Indeed, for “the God of the Hebrew Bible comes up short, morally," since he is, as Jack Miles (don't get me started on Jack Miles) is quoted as saying, “maximally powerful and minimally kind.”


This, despite the testimony of, well, pretty much everyone who addresses God in the Bible. Their uniform verdict is that God is actually extraordinarily kind toward people who keep flouting his instructions, betraying his trust, and breaking his heart.


Wood seems to imply that Robinson would be better off, as would we all, if she just paid attention to those critics who see the Bible for what he believes it is: a collection of ancient books of religious reflection, nothing more. Thus “the God of the Hebrew Bible is not God himself but a collection of human approximations and reckonings and inspired fictions,” a view that goes back through Feuerbach to unbelievers in the ancient world.


“Calm rationality”—I do love it when such people congratulate themselves so ingenuously—“should remind me that this God speaks words written by a human or group of humans. From a literary point of view, it makes no more sense to hate this God than to hate King Lear.”


Still, as much as Wood professes to believe in “pinching ourselves from time to time with good, strong secular fingers” (how wonderful to be so ruggedly enlightened!), he can’t help hating. And he hates on the basis of a view of the Bible, Christian theology, and hermeneutics apparently innocent of actual education in any of those fields.


From someone with a single university degree, and in English, one might not hope for much more. What other than cheap shots can be expected from someone whose education and sensibilities about Christianity both seem to have been arrested somewhere in early adolescence?


The New Yorker, however, keeps letting literary critics embarrass themselves in writing about religion. The late Christopher Hitchens kept doing so, ultimately disgracing himself with his God Is Not Great, an extended rant that made Richard Dawkins’s porous The God Delusion look like Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. And Adam Gopnik, delightful on other subjects, indulges himself in the same querulous nonsense today.


Look, there are serious questions to be raised about Christianity. They have been raised, answered, and yet they recur. Let the conversation continue.


Wood himself rightly seems to sense some of them. But he lacks the categories and terms even to put the questions properly, let alone wrestle with the answers offered by Robinson, or Calvin, or the Bible. That’s the mark of someone out of his depth. As one wag put it, many of his remarks are so inappropriate they aren’t even wrong.  


These critics settle for the idle lobbing of silly non-problems or trading in elementary misconstruals that might have stumped an earnest Sunday School teacher but hardly trouble actual scholars. Wood, Hitchens, et al. keep giving themselves away: they aren’t even trying to be fair, since fairness starts with being adequately informed, and they patently are not.


The larger issue is, indeed, The New Yorker’s commissioning such essays, or tolerating them from staff writers, no matter how distinguished. Even a Harvard professorship does not imply omnicompetence. (As a Chicago grad myself, I would add, especially not a Harvard professorship.)


The same thing happens over at The Atlantic and at lesser periodicals. It’s a weird double standard that is applied only to Christianity. (Imagine the heat they would take if someone bumbled his way through the Qur’an like this, or made similar fun of the Buddha.)


Maybe I should start writing literary criticism for them?


God forbid.

UPDATE: Those clever folks at The Atlantic made a liar out of me in publishing Judith Shulevitz's very fair and very fine review of Robinson's book here. Shulevitz would have her own (Jewish) quarrels with Robinson's (Christian) God, but she properly leaves them out of this review.


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