Hazel McHaffie

Bible

What’s in a name?

Hmmm. I’ve just read a book that purports to be ‘A Story.’ Not a factual text, not a novel, something in between.

So a few definitions might not come amiss.
Story – an account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment.
Fact – a thing that is known or proved to be true.
Novel – a fictitious prose narrative of book length, typically representing character and action with some degree of realism.

It gave me pause for thought. Because the book – Phoebe by Paula Gooder – is founded in fact, but about a character who is mentioned only once in the New Testament of the Bible (Romans 16 vv1-2):
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae.
I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me.
Lots of room for creativity then. Not a lot of restrictions. Well, except that Biblical texts and events and meanings have been debated for ever! And most practising Christians will have their own take on things. So what is Gooder trying to do?

In a nutshell, bring the back-story of the early church to the forefront. Give it breath and life. As she says on her website: her passion is ‘to ignite people’s enthusiasm for reading the Bible today, by presenting the best of biblical scholarship in an accessible and interesting way.’ For me, though I enjoyed the fleshing out of the character, I wasn’t as excited by the style of writing which attempts to teach … tell … inform … rather too much for my taste. The knowledge glowers through the mesh of the narrative, as someone once wrote of my own early writing! I learned from that criticism, which is partly why I suspect  ‘show don’t tell’ is wired into my DNA!

So why a whole book on an obscure character? Well, Phoebe is thought by scholars to have been given the responsibility for carrying the Epistle to the Romans from its author, the apostle Paul, to Rome in around 56AD (although the Bible doesn’t explicitly say she did). A significant event then, given that that particular letter is arguably the apostle’s theological masterpiece and contains a great deal of instruction and clarification for this new movement – the Christians. The book Phoebe is woven around that premise. And, of course, it’s fleshed out by yards of information that is conveyed in the Bible. The woman Phoebe provides a useful vehicle through which to explore so many questions and suppositions and theories about life in those patriarchal times, the experiences of the early Christians, and the doctrines and principles which underpin Christianity both then and now.

So, a flimsy foundation, you might be thinking; but no. Gooder is one of the country’s foremost New Testament scholars and her knowledge is prodigious, her research meticulous. Which puts a kind of stamp or authority on the writing, but in this case also bogs it down. You feel her desire to impart information. She reserves the real ‘scholarshippy’ facts to 85 pages of notes at the end (the story part is only 216 pages), which I found utterly fascinating and impressive. But throughout the text she feels compelled to spell out what she’s talking about. For me, as a novelist, I found it held up reading. I am hugely in awe and admiring of her as a scholar, but as she knows herself, she isn’t a novel writer – and she generously accepts her limitations in an endnote: ‘I am not a novelist – and to all expert weavers of stories, I offer you my admiration for your skill and my apology for the very many ways in which this story falls short of what it could be.’ You know, it made me wonder why she didn’t consult with a novelist and iron out a few of the more obvious anomalies. A little tweaking could have made a big difference.

She describes the book as ‘an experiment in historical imagination’. Phoebe is given a full back-story which gradually emerges and gives the tale momentum. Slavery, rights, ownership, the role of women, clashes of culture and opinion, all feature. Then there’s the most famous character: the apostle Paul himself, about whom much more is said in the Bible. His appearance and traits are depicted in ways that will startle many a believer. More peripheral players in the early church who are briefly mentioned in the New Testament books – Stachys, Titus, Junia, Andronychus, Patrobas, Gaius, Gallio, Aristobulus – are fleshed out by Gooder’s knowledge of life in those times. Their inclusion helps to give the ring of authenticity on one level, but at the same time raises questions as to the veracity of the whole at another level. Confusing.

As former Archbishop Rowan Williams puts it: ‘Vivid and sympathetic … very few people are as expert as Paula Gooder in communicating biblical scholarship clearly and creatively.‘ It is creative, it just doesn’t quite marry fact and fiction sufficiently seamlessly for my personal taste. But it has reinforced a lot of my resolutions for my own writing – and that’s always part of what reading widely is about.

 

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A Biblical tale retold

Famous historical characters like Thomas Cromwell and the wives of Henry VIII lend themselves to becoming the stars of fiction. We already know so much about them and their place in history; we’re curious about their backstory, fascinated by their peccadilloes. Indeed Hilary Mantell is currently writing the fourth in her series of encyclopaedic tomes about Cromwell – her first and second having both won the Man Booker prize. Who dosn’t know about him from history lessons, games, films, plays? And I’ve lost count of the novelists, the film-makers, the dramatists, who’ve recreated the six famous wives of the Tudor king.

But who’s ever heard of Dinah, daughter of Jacob, patriarch in Israel during Old Testament times? Very few, I suspect. Her more famous brother, Joseph – he of multi-coloured coat fame? – yes. The twelve tribes of Israel? – maybe. But Dinah? Her story fills a mere 31 verses in the first book of the Bible, Genesis 34, so hats off to an author who saw the potential here.

Essentially, Dinah is the only daughter of Jacob and his first wife Leah. She has twelve brothers, three stepmothers. They are a rough shepherd tribe living in close proximity in tents, but Jacob has flourished since branching out on his own away from a difficult father-in-law.

One day Dinah goes visiting some Canaanite women, and catches the eye of a chieftain’s son, Shechem, a Hivite. He desires her, takes her and rapes her. But his lust turns to love and he demands that his father gets Dinah for him as his wife.

The chief himself goes to plead his son’s cause, offering extravagant rewards and dowries if Jacob consents to the marriage. Jacob, however, is shocked to hear his virgin daughter has been defiled, and discusses the situation at length with his sons, her brothers. What should they do? The younger men are enraged at this insult and dream up a cunning plot. OK, they will consent to the liaison, they say, but it would be a disgrace and a grave dishonour for their sister to marry an uncircumcised man. The bride-price must also include the circumcision of every male in the groom’s family.

The young man is so besotted, and his father so bent on this marriage, that they waste no time in having the deed done, along with every male citizen of their city. Three days later when every man jack of them is still sore and feeling fragile, (and remember, this wasn’t delicate surgery under anaesthetic with four hourly pain relief thereafter!) two of Dinah’s brothers steal into the city and slaughter all the men, loot and plunder their goods, and take all the women and children (including Dinah), everything of value, away. When he hears of their murderous revenge, Jacob is horrified – now he’ll be hated by everyone around him, but the killers insist they absolutely could not allow their sister to be treated like a common prostitute.

In the hands of Anita Diamant, this ‘oldest love story never told‘ comes to vivid life. The title, The Red Tent, is derived from the name given to the exclusively female place where the women go to menstruate and recover from childbirth. Diamant, a Jewish journalist-cum-novelist, has subtly altered certain aspects of the story, and colourfully embellished it, but the result is a beautifully told tale of love and betrayal, of grief and family honour. It challenges the reader to consider the role of women at that time, the meaning of loyalty, the belief systems and complexities for a tribe worshipping a faceless, invisible God of Israel, alongside those who are steeped in the traditions and beliefs that surround gods they can see and touch and stroke and involve in their ceremonies and major life events.

A gripping and full-bodied tale revolving around the community and continuity of women, woven from an almost-throwaway incident in the age-old story of the beginnings of the nation of Israel. Or as one reviewer put it: A remarkable combination of historical research, biblical story, and sheer talent. Indeed. A fantastic read.

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Words words words

Cartoonists, journalists, feminists, politicians, the world and his wife, are pitching in to the incident on the tennis courts this week, where Serena Williams took exception to her treatment by the umpire in the women’s final of the US Open Tennis tournament. She smashed an expensive racket in public in her frustration, and accused the umpire of being a thief. She was heavily penalised. The rights and wrongs of her tirade, the whole issue of gender equality, are not the topics I want to home in on here; what has got me thinking in all the fallout from this, though, is the power of words and the baggage that comes with them. Serena clearly read much more about discrimination into what happened than I saw.

Also this week the media spotlight has also been on death by one’s own hand: National Suicide Prevention Week 2018. The importance of taking care with the words used has been highlighted – not saying ‘commit’ suicide, for example; not ignoring subtle cries for help. Such deaths are a tragedy whichever way you look at them, but understood with much more sympathy today than they were in the past. When I was growing up, we were told to ignore taunts and bullying. ‘Sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me‘ was the response to childish angst. But of course, we now know this is patently not true. Words DO hurt. Far more deeply that a swift slap or punch. They can seriously, sometimes irrevocably, damage your health. Mental stress can be every bit as debilitating as physical ailments, perhaps even more so. Certainly my own scars from psychological onslaught are much deeper and recurrently painful than those from any bodily trauma.

So words are powerful beasts. As the Biblical writer James says in a poetic description on control and careful speech: ‘… no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison,’ and he concedes, no one has completely mastered his own tongue. And that adage IS still true. Who hasn’t regretted something they’ve said; and felt the burden of not being able to recall or erase those words? Salutary lessons all.

Which brings me to the written word. Authors do at least know the importance of the right word in the right place. I have a row of lexicons on my desk, as well as everything the internet has to offer, to help me choose wisely. Like Oscar Wilde and his famous busy day taking out and putting back a comma, I can sometimes agonise for ages about a word or phrase, take it out, put it back, tweak it, change it, before I can move on. But who can factor in the inferences and prejudices of the reader for whom those very same words can be laden with meanings and accusations and slurs and judgements unseen by me? To minimise the danger of being inadvertently (sometimes it’s deliberate, of course!) misunderstood or causing offence, I draft in a range of experts and readers to examine the text for inaccuracies or infelicities which have escaped me. Invaluable allies.

But hey, I must get back to my serious editing – I’m working to a tight deadline this week. Third draft and a further 13,000 words to lose, so a way to go yet. I find a specific target helps to concentrate the mind, making me focus on every word to see if it’s pulling its weight; actually hunting for as many as possible that are just coming along for the ride. Which again highlights the issue I started with. Words count.

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