Saturday, March 5, 2011

Confessing Influence: Toni Morrison

Blogging for me so far this month has consisted mainly of confessing how I've been influenced by various people in reading the Bible.  So in the post, I wanted to say how Toni Morrison has been an influence.

But in my blogging, in the past, Morrison has been a difficult person to name as an influence.  Early on, one of my blogger friends confessed this in an short comment following one of my posts:

"My wife can't stand Toni Morrison."

That was it.  No more explanation, no context given. 

So I quipped:

"That's okay.  Jesus loves her anyway." 

And our conversation stopped.

There are lots of Toni-Morrison ironies to unpack here now for me.  First, the writer Toni Morrison has profoundly influenced how I read the Bible precisely because she helps me see how language (yes especially biblical language) opens up meanings, unfolds conversations, helps make liberating connections.  Second, that the guy who made the comment is a trained Bible translator, white man, Christian and that I also a white male throwing around Jesus's name and his "love" in an ambigous way with words are facts that Toni Morrisons fiction would critique and does deconstruct in very powerful ways. 

Her influence on me, on my Bible blogger friend and on his wife who can't stand Toni Morrison, is, in other words, not her influence on, say, Cheryl A. Kirk or Shirley A. (Holly) Stave or Donald Miller or Barack Hussein Obama.  Toni Morrison's influence on my Bible blogger friend, or at least on his wife who can't stand her, is probably more like the interviewed writer's influence on blogger Mike Duran, whom I don't know.  (Kirk finds Toni Morrison's writing giving her a "Projective, transformative perspective" on the Bible.  Stave finds a number of scholars seeing the intertextuality of the Bible in Toni Morrison's works.  Donald Miller in his searching for God knows what finds how Toni Morrison's confession of the positive influences of her father a very motivational thing for himself since Miller had no real father figure and wants positive motivation in his own writing.  Obama, a black man, finds for himself in Song of Solomon as he finds much in the Bible that way too.)  But my blogger friend, or his wife whom he says can't stand Toni Morrison, stay away from her works presumably.  And Duran is influenced by what he gets in pieces of an interview, as he pieces that together, to presume - likely misreading or strangely overhearing - that Morrison misreads the Bible.

Ironically, then, I hope you'll see here, I'm confessing something new.  I think I've blogged much already on Toni Morrison's incredible and profound influence on how I view language and how I read the language of the Bible.  What I'm confessing is that my quip was not something Morrison influenced.  I was trying to shut down my blogger friend, to shut him up.  "Shut!"  This is not very Toni-Morrison-y.  It is not, I'll add, very biblical either, not as I read the Bible through Toni Morrison's perspectives anyway. 

What are her perspectives some who haven't heard her or don't read her might ask.  Well, here are some.  And if you do decide to read her novels or her literary theory or her views on language, then please know that it comes in the forms of much of the Bible.  My very favorite, perhaps, is a parable of hers (something Jesusy if you'll pardon an Anne-Lamott-ism); I'm talking again about her Nobel Prize lecture.  I wonder if Morrison is telling someone else's parable, perhaps her father's parable, one of his many that she heard from him growning up.  How does one hear with ears to hear?  So she's not only telling but she's also listening.  With you.  With me.  It's a conversation.  Not shut.  Not dead.  But always vulnerable to being shut down, shut up, squeezed to death.  And she says this:

"Speculation on what (other than its own frail body) that bird-in-the-hand might signify has always been attractive to me, but especially so now thinking, as I have been, about the work I do that has brought me to this company. So I choose to read the bird as language and the woman as a practiced writer. She is worried about how the language she dreams in, given to her at birth, is handled, put into service, even withheld from her for certain nefarious purposes. Being a writer she thinks of language partly as a system, partly as a living thing over which one has control, but mostly as agency - as an act with consequences."

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