Toni Morrison’s obvious interaction with the Bible—characters named Shadrach, Pilate, and First Corinthians and works titled Song of Solomon and Paradise—invites an interrogation of the author’s objective in encoding her texts in such a way.
As of yet, no serious work on Morrison’s intertextual use of the Bible has been done on her first novel, The Bluest Eye. However, in “Trial by Fire: The Theodicy of Toni Morrison in Sula,” Beverly Foulks (2006) unpacks the problem of evil as Morrison articulates it in her second novel, Sula. Drawing on the belief of the African American community in the work that the triune God has a fourth face that personifies evil, Foulks maintains that these characters acknowledge God’s omnipotence but not God’s benevolence. Rather than attempting to expel evil from their midst, they accept it as inevitable and identify with the innocence of Christ, believing that their response to suffering, specifically their surviving in spite of it, becomes their act of resistance to it.
Foulks reads the character of Shadrach back through his biblical counterpart, who underwent his trial by fire uncertain of whether God would deliver him, but who remained determined to resist Nebuchadnezzar’s unlawful claim to authority. Morrison’s Shadrach’s baptism by fire occurs during World War I, from which he returns shattered, becoming a John the Baptist–like figure existing on the fringes of the community, choosing to endure his madness rather than committing suicide. By contrast, Eva chooses to sacrifice her son, Plum, to end his suffering, which, Foulks suggests, is overreaching, since what determines one’s righteousness is not the refusal of suffering but the form one’s response takes to the suffering.
Song of Solomon.
Beth Benedrix’s “Song of Solomon and the Journey Home” powerfully juxtaposes Morrison’s third novel not only with the biblical Song of Songs referenced by its title but also with the book of Ruth. Benedrix argues that the central dynamic of Morrison’s novel involves arriving at an understanding of love that encompasses possibility and community. Benedrix maintains that Song of Songs can be read as a model for a kind of love that challenges hegemonic perception of that term. The biblical lovers can find no site that allows their meeting, suggesting that love remains ultimately transgressive and incapable of incorporation into community, resulting, finally, in violence. The character Guitar embraces such an understanding of love; Milkman does not. Disabling the erotic heteronormativity of the biblical text, Morrison grounds her exploration of love in the equally unconsummated love between Guitar and Milkman, the outcome of which remains unresolved.
The book of Ruth is equally subverted by Morrison through the character of Ruth Foster Dead, who stands her ground, refusing exile. She will not leave her father’s home, nor will she allow him to abandon her. Morrison’s Ruth seizes motherhood as a mechanism by which to achieve identity, unlike the biblical Ruth, whose child is claimed by the mother-in-law, who will raise him as her own. Ruth Dead’s decisions may not ultimately be healthy ones, but they are derived from her decision to claim herself, to refuse erasure.
Usually regarded as Morrison’s most significant work, Beloved has elicited more critical response than any of her other works; not surprisingly, then, this text has prompted a valuable body of work on biblical resonances. The earliest of these is Carolyn Mitchell’s “ ‘I Love to Tell the Story’: Biblical Revisions in Beloved,” which highlights Morrison’s reconceptualization of three biblical stories: the carrying of the Cross (the tree of scars on Sethe’s back), the parable of the Good Samaritan (Amy Denver’s risking her own freedom to tend to a beaten Sethe), and the call to preach the gospel (Baby Suggs’s meetings in the Clearing). Developing a contrast between what she calls religion and spirituality, Mitchell claims that Morrison’s text is predicated upon spirituality, “the individual manifestation of God in everyday life and experience” (1991, p. 29). In the context of racism and sexism, Morrison’s treatment of the biblical stories allows the African American community to find a source of liberation that connects the spiritual with the material, which is important because it is in the body that the victims of racism, poverty, and slavery suffer.
Carolyn Jones, in “Sula and Beloved: Images of Cain in the Novels of Toni Morrison,” parallels Morrison’s reconceptualization of the biblical story of Cain as a means of exploring how the “complete refusal to remember and to mourn,” which Jones maintains is Cain’s most pronounced characteristic, serves to isolate one outside of society. Jones contrasts the characters of Sethe and Sula, revealing that both are physically marked, Sethe by the tree etched into the flesh of her back by the slavemaster’s whip, and Sula by her birthmark, which is alternatingly read as a rose, a tadpole, or a snake, just as Cain is marked by God. In each case, the mark comes to represent that which alienates the bearer of the mark—pride and the inability to imaginatively enter into the consciousness of the “other.” Because of Beloved’s intrusion into her life and Paul D’s refusal to abandon her, Sethe eventually is able to return to community and forgo her status as a figure of Cain. Sula, however, defiantly refuses to compromise and remains an outcast until her death.
Shirley A. Stave’s “Toni Morrison’s Beloved and the Vindication of Lilith” explores a prebiblical myth but also draws attention to Morrison’s extensive use of the book of Genesis as an intertext for her novel. Stave reads Morrison’s Sweet Home plantation, where the slaves are treated humanely, as an Eden overseen by a God/gardener figure named Garner, who claims he “made and called” his slaves men. Like Jahweh, Garner appears asexual; childless, with an aging, ailing wife, Garner appears oblivious to the sexual nature of his “creations,” coinciding with the traditional reading of Adam and Eve as lacking sexual desire until they sin. While Stave’s essay reads the novel as Morrison’s critique of the Jahweh of Genesis, she identifies the tree of knowledge as the keloid scars inscribed on Sethe’s back by the horsewhip of the schoolteacher, the flood that destroys humankind as the torrential rain that allows the men on a chain gang to escape from their white masters who had imposed fellatio on them, and Baby Suggs’s feast for the entire community as a version of Jesus’s miracle of the loaves and fishes. In each instance, Morrison inverts or transforms the original narrative so as to critique a theology that privileges spirit over flesh.
Nancy Berkowitz Bate’s essay “Toni Morrison’s Beloved: Psalm and Sacrament” begins by reading the much-explored house number of Sethe’s home—124—tangentially with Psalm 124, which celebrates the Israelites escaping their enslavement by the Egyptians. By paralleling the bondage of the ancient Israelites with that of African slaves stolen from their homes, Bate maintains that Beloved may be read as a contemporary Passover Haggadot, the collection of stories told during the Seder to remind survivors of the horrors of their ordeal and to enable their healing, just as the reincarnation of Sethe’s murdered child forces her to confront her own enslavement even as it allows her to finally let go of the past. Bate further highlights the correlation of the novel’s titular character with the biblical Song of Songs, citing Morrison’s line, “I am Beloved and she is mine” as evidence of Morrison’s conscious playing with the biblical text. Bate reads the novel as progressing through the theological continuum of birth, suffering, sacrifice, resurrection, Eucharistic remembrance, and redemption; at the end, the exorcism of the ghost-child as a result of a communal ritual enables Sethe to be freed from her guilt and self-hatred. Like the Haggadot stories, this narrative enables the survivor to live by vacillating “between moments of remembering and repressing the past.”
Bula Maddison, in “Liberation Story or Apocalypse? Reading Biblical Allusion and Bakhtin Theory in Toni Morrison’s Beloved,” explores Morrison’s dialogue with the Bible, through which she raises questions about accepted reinterpretations of biblical narratives relative to the lives of African Americans. Maddison points out how the text both uses and discards the parallel between the River Jordan and the Ohio River familiar to slave spirituals; in Beloved, the body of water traversed by the slaves is the Atlantic Ocean, which moves them from a state of freedom into slavery, and in whose depths many of the enslaved rather than the enslavers met their deaths. Maddison reads Denver’s birth in the river, during which her mother is assisted by a white girl, in tangent with the “rebirthing” of Moses into the Red Sea as a result of the cooperation between a slave and a free woman, pointing out how, like Moses, Denver saves her people/family by her willingness to confront a society that terrifies her. Maddison also points out how the exorcism of Beloved occurs at 3:00 p.m. on a Friday, the time of Jesus’s death by crucifixion, speculating that the resurrection of the latter may hint at the resurgence of the former.
Although Morrison’s Paradise would seem to invite theological speculation, given its title, very little work has seriously addressed the author’s use of the Bible as a source for this work. One exception is Shirley A. Stave’s “The Master’s Tools: Morrison’s Paradise and the Problem of Christianity,” which maintains that Morrison effectively “signifies” on the Bible, using its familiar tropes in such a way as to challenge their accepted theological interpretation. The wandering in the wilderness of a group of former slaves, led by a devout man, recalls the exodus of the Children of Israel from Egypt. Big Papa is led not by a cloud of fire but by an invisible (to most) man with thundering footsteps, who appears after the party is turned away by an all-black town who considers them unfit candidates for residence there. The hostility engendered by their “disallowing” haunts the descendants of the original wanderers, hardening their hearts and focusing them inward on each other until they become a virtually incestuous community whose bloodlines are diminishing.
Morrison contrasts the town to the “Convent,” a former school for Indian children run by Roman Catholic nuns, serving now as a home for brutalized, homeless women. Although the town prides itself on its rigid adherence to an ascetic code of conduct, the town fathers have, for all practical purposes, enslaved their wives and daughters within a patriarchal matrix that has left them desperate and lonely. At the Convent, Consolata (aptly named), having encountered another mystery man who appears to be her male counterpart, leads the desolate women who have arrived on her doorstep in a ritual that is part magic, part psychological good sense, enabling them to find a wholeness within that enables them to transcend the moment of their physical deaths, when they are slaughtered by a posse of the virtuous from the neighboring town. Although Morrison’s novels consistently have played with the concept of magic realism, which is, certainly, mainstream to Catholicism (transubstantiation, the Assumption of Mary into heaven, etc.), never before is she as overt in its use as in the novel’s ending, when the dead women all arrive on an island, where they are greeted by Consolata, in the arms of the Mother Goddess Piedade, to be renewed before their return, presumably in the cycle of Samsara, to continue their work on earth. In resisting the concept of Paradise as a site only for the saved, and in locating it on earth rather than in a celestial other-place, Morrison challenges two of the major tenets of Christianity as it has evolved, opening up her sense of the spiritual to encompass a more Eastern understanding of a continuance and a renewal, until one achieves Nirvana, as presumably Consolata has, when a bullet pierces her forehead and opens her third eye.
Arriving at the third work in Morrison’s trilogy, Love, Stave in “In a Mirror Dimly: The Limitations of Love in Toni Morrison’s Love,” maintains that Morrison here challenges St. Paul’s articulation of love as it is stated in 1 Corinthians 13. The choice of the biblical text is not random. The occasional first-person narrator, L, reveals that she is named after the subject of that chapter, hence she can be seen as personifying Pauline love. L’s narrative, Stave claims, is suspect, diverting and shaping reader response so as to read the stories of the two embittered women, Heed and Christine, as the sources of the destruction made manifest in the novel, all the while refusing to lay blame at the feet of the pedophile Bill Cosey, to whom L was in thrall. The novel contrasts Cosey’s father, a hated, loveless man, with his son, who is, in many ways, benevolent and compassionate; the contrast between a judgmental Jahweh and a redemptive Jesus is clearly evident. L’s understanding of love is personal, focusing on familial relations, wifely obedience, and childlike innocence; she celebrates a love that is patient, kind, always forgiving. However, Morrison complicates such an understanding of love by raising the specter of the political—specifically in the form of racism and the civil rights movement. Stave argues that love as L and Paul understand it allows no room for political resistance, for substituting action for patience. Furthermore, a love that embraces only kindness cannot undo sexism but will merely perpetuate the same system, pitting women against each other for the love of the father/husband/lover they believe can save them, when, Morrison argues, that salvation lies in the bonds the women share with each other.
In “Contextualizing Toni Morrison’s Ninth Novel: What Mercy, Why Now?” Justine Tally explores Morrison’s use of biblical names and the concept of mercy in A Mercy. Maintaining that the novel is an allegory, Tally particularly focuses on the characters of Jacob and Rebekka, major figures in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, and Morrison’s reinterpretation of them for her own purposes. Tally reads the biblical texts as justifying the private ownership of property, both in the form of land and of people, as well as legitimizing the “right of dominion by the descendants of the original patriarchs” (2011, p. 70), both concepts undergirding the fundamentalists who came to the Americas to found their “City on the Hill,” essentially rationalizing their destruction of the original inhabitants of the land and the enslavement of those whom they considered “other.” Tally also employs the biblical book of Ruth, which she maintains lays the foundation for the protection of women who are strangers in a strange land. Morrison, by contrast, insists on the “illegality” of the existence of single women in the colonies and reveals the church to be the source of their anxieties. Jane understands she is being hounded as a witch because the church wants to claim her mother’s pasture, while Rebekka understands that unless she marries the unscrupulous deacon of the neighboring congregation, she will never be able to survive after the death of her husband.
While Morrison’s use of the Bible as an intertext is obvious, the multiple ways she chooses to “write back” reveal the intricacy of her understanding of the relationship between the human and the divine.
- Bate, Nancy Berkowitz. “Toni Morrison’s Beloved: Psalm and Sacrament.” In Toni Morrison and the Bible: Contested Intertextualities, edited by Shirley A. Stave, pp. 26–70. New York: Peter Lang, 2006.
- Benedrix, Beth. “Intimate Fatality: Song of Solomon and the Journey Home.” In Toni Morrison and the Bible: Contested Intertextualities, edited by Shirley A. Stave, pp. 94–115. New York: Peter Lang, 2006.
- Foulks, Beverly. “Trial by Fire: The Theodicy of Toni Morrison in Sula.” In Toni Morrison and the Bible: Contested Intertextualities, edited by Shirley A. Stave, pp. 8–25. New York: Peter Lang, 2006.
- Jones, Carolyn M. “Sula and Beloved: Images of Cain in the Novels of Toni Morrison.” In Understanding Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Sula, edited by Solomon O. Iyasere and Marla W. Iyasere, pp. 338–356. Troy, N.Y.: Whitston, 2000.
- Maddison, Bula. “Liberation Story or Apocalypse?: Reading Biblical Allusion and Bakhtin Theory in Toni Morrison’s Beloved.” The Bible and Critical Theory 3, no. 2 (June 2007): 21.1–21.13.
- Mitchell, Carolyn A. “ ‘I Love to Tell the Story’: Biblical Revisions in Beloved.” Religion and Literature 23, no. 3 (Autumn 1991): 27–42.
- Stave, Shirley A. “Toni Morrison’s Beloved and the Vindication of Lilith.” South Atlantic Review 58, no. 1 (January 1993): 49–66.
- Stave, Shirley A. “The Master’s Tools: Toni Morrison’s Paradise and the Problem of Christianity.” In Toni Morrison and the Bible: Contested Intertextualities, edited by Shirley A. Stave, pp. 215–231. New York: Peter Lang, 2006.
- Stave, Shirley A. “In a Mirror Dimly: The Limitations of Love in Toni Morrison’s Love.” In Reading Texts, Reading Lives: Essays in the Tradition of Humanistic Cultural Criticism in Honor of Daniel R. Schwarz, edited by Helen Maxson and Daniel Morris, pp. 183–199. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2012.
- Tally, Justine. “Contextualizing Toni Morrison’s Ninth Novel: What Mercy? Why Now?” In Toni Morrison’s A Mercy: Critical Approaches, edited by Shirley A. Stave and Justine Tally, pp. 63–84. Newcastle upon Tyne, U.K.: Cambridge Scholars, 2011.
Shirley A. Stave