Author: Lydia Millet
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Publishing Date: February 16, 2021
Pages: 240 (Paperback)
Parables are curious devices in the Gospel, not only because of the ways in which they effectively dramatize hard-to-pin-down themes and ideas, or because of the ways they invite the listener into the weird corners of their world, asking whether we are the Samaritan, the beaten man, or the Pharisee. Parables are curious because of the ways that they repeat, envelop our own world, and explode it from the inside out. Like mustard seeds, they take root in our imagination, and begin to flower in unexpected, disquieting ways.
The theologian Karl Barth once made the case for viewing the world through this lens—as parables of the Kingdom of God, that the church should view these things in order to see God at work as informed by the witness of the Scriptures and the person of Christ. As appealing as this is, it is mostly the parables of the lost coin, or of the shepherd finding the sheep, that I want to be enacted: God breaking through in the world to calm and rescue. But the narratives of the Scripture extend beyond the comforting and into the disquieting and the downright terrifying: beware the Scriptures coming alive, for they just might.
In Lydia Millet’s A Children’s Bible, we enter into a stultifying scene, in which multiple families have taken their children away for the summer to vacation in an unnamed coastal town. From the onset, the setting is already broken: the bourgeoise parents have largely left their kids to their own devices as they indulge in endless sexual escapades, alcohol, and drugs. The narrator, Eve, oldest daughter and sister to her younger brother Jack, helps the reader to see the disconnect between parents and children, such that the children make it an ongoing game of guessing which parents belong to which child.
Everything is only merely debauched, until the storm comes—and not just any storm, but a storm of cataclysmic proportions. The house is devastated, and the parents’ carelessness is on full display as they spend the whole time numbing themselves to the catastrophes while their children go missing. It is at this point, in the wake of the storm, that the children realize they are on their own and head off to fend for themselves in the devastated landscape. Jack, the younger brother, takes with him his children’s bible of unknown origin, which becomes a kind of interpretative key to the unfolding events in nature: a treehouse named “the Ark” which provides refuge, a menagerie of animals that the children save, the ruin of major cities, a guide out of the wilderness found floating on a raft in the river. As the novel continues to unravel, with marauding bands of survivalists all around, the children forge on into this newly upended world.
In interviews, Millet has drawn attention to the overt ecological themes of children keenly aware of the impending disaster while their middle-class stereotyped liberal parents numb themselves in the ruins. On this level, the novel is fairly straightforward, if not a bit too on the nose. But it is the ways in which the children’s Bible forms the ongoing backdrop of the events of the novel, of the Scriptures becoming the terror of the world which is far more interesting. The novel loosely follows the cataclysmic events of Scripture that can be read in at least two ways: a trite plot device, or deep structural logic. Given that her audience is going to be more attuned to the ecological themes than to the biblical narrative, the biblical story seems an odd plot device here, unfamiliar with Moses or Jacob or Cain. But biblical themes, which are at times overt (like the flood and the Ark) and other times much more subtle (like later appearances of the biblical plagues and the Trinity), do their best work here as the deep logic of the novel’s world.
At one point, Jack describes the Bible as a form of mystery, with the characters of the text as unfolding not just a plot of salvation history, but of the world’s mechanisms: God the Father is code for nature, Jesus is the science that explains nature, and the Holy Spirit as the art which prevents science from being explained entirely. Whatever reductionism that Millet might mean by this point—that the Bible is really just the primitive world’s attempt to understand nature—Jack’s vision here of the Bible as a mystery is spot on. The Scriptures depict the mystery of God, such that the stories within are transparent to that mystery, veiling and unveiling the person of God and the mysteries of faith. What Millet might mean as an accusation of the Bible as a pre-Enlightenment view of creation, Origen and the early church would have taken as a compliment: the Bible is the mystery which unveils who God is and what this world means.
It is here, then, that the reductionist explanation of the children begins to work against itself, for if God is really just nature, the events of the novel might move beyond the narrative of Scripture, but the world of the novel never moves beyond the Scripture’s scope or themes. If, as little Jack claims, God is simply code for nature, the novel’s world does not do away with the mystery of either Scripture or the world, but rather makes it more of a puzzle for the characters. As the parents recede from view, the children are left to fend for themselves, repeating the errors of the parents and making their own mistakes. But all of their attempts at survival, their engagements with the world after the flood, and their search for a new home, are lived within a world which cannot be contained, explained, or even fully accounted for. The world continues to be a puzzle unsolved by planning, uncontainable by the best explanation, a parable in which the characters of the novel search to live out.
It is with no small irony, then, the title of A Children’s Bible confronts us: it is through a book, readable by children, that God speaks in ways which cannot be done away with or explained away. If Millet meant the novel as a straightforward call to arms for ecological wisdom, she instead wrote a book of ecological mystery: the world as within the purview of a mysterious God who is seen in indicators, stories, parables, and intimations, but who can never be done away with, despite our best attempts. The parents become the blind leading the blind, and it is only the children who can bear living in a world—and by extension, a God—which must be faced, even if it is not fully understood.