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Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible
Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible
Robert Alter
Princeton University Press, 2010
208 pp., $19.95

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Mark Noll


The KJV Effect

American prose and the King James Bible.

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For McCarthy's The Road and especially Robinson's Gilead, the ultimate questions are different. At the end of McCarthy's novel, the wandering boy—who has finally lost his father—ends up in the protection of a believing family. The boy, disillusioned by the terrors he has witnessed, cannot respond when he is asked to pray. But the mother of the family reassures him by saying that "the breath of God was his breath" nevertheless. As Alter notes, "here at the very end, the background of biblical language for the first time strikes an affirmative note."

In Gilead this affirmation, however challenged, is constant throughout the whole novel. Alter could have made more of his observation that "in Gilead there is an obvious concordance between style and subject, because the narrator, John Ames, is a preacher steeped in the Bible" who cherishes its picture of a providential deity. Surely the triumph of the novel is that Robinson both used biblical style skillfully (when so many aspiring "biblical novelists" have used it badly) and succeeded in shaping a compelling modern novel (when so few contemporary novelists would dare embrace the biblical values of John Ames).

Alter, thus, might have said more about the dialectic of style and substance in these works. If he chose not to do so, the result is still a treasure of insight and a welcome stimulus to Christian reflection.

1. For more such words and phrases, see Stanley Malles and Jeffrey McQuain, Coined by God: Words and Phrases that First Appear in the English Translations of the Bible (Norton, 2003).

Mark Noll is Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author most recently of The New Shape of World Christianity: How American Experience Reflects Global Faith (InterVarsity Press).

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