Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The Source - James Michener

One of the most ambitious and epic novels I’ve had the pleasure of reading (three times). Just imagine the scope – the entire history of Judaism as experienced through various generations of a family. Irrespective of the usual concerns a novelist faces, Michener had to conduct an immense amount of research, sifting through thousands of years of conflict, mythology, hearsay and speculation to finally distill his novel into a readable format that is both instructive and artistic. From a writer’s point of view, it’s breathtaking.

The major events of Judaism are explored by using a fictitious city as a microcosm. It is a city that is both the victim and instigator of history, a city that suffers the consequences of and initiates changes in Judaism. King David, the Babylonian exile, the Hellenistic influence, Roman rule, the Diaspora, Christian encroachment and eventual domination, Islamic development, the Crusaders, and finally the founding of Israel as a sovereign state are all lived and experienced through the characters. As a guide to Judaism it is almost encyclopedic – as a survey of history, it is heroic.

There are several original devices that Michener employs in this novel. Some undoubtedly were used to further the plot and sustain the reader’s interest while I suspect others are a means to blend fact and fiction together for Michener’s own purpose. The short-story format, the fictitious city, the vagaries in narration and tone, the switch between modern times and the various eras, the genealogical tree that extends throughout the novel – all are tools contrived by the author to condense Judaism as a religion and expound it as a philosophy.

Michener begins the novel with an archaeological dig in 1964 Israel. For anyone familiar with their history, this is significant. It’s a few years (can’t remember exactly) before the 6-day war, a conflict where Israel pre-emptively attacks Egypt and defeats them, along with Syria and Jordan. The 6-day war dramatically changes Israel’s global profile from a bumbling, religious state to a powerful international player. In 1964 the Jews were a downtrodden, sympathetic, beleaguered people at the mercy of larger political actors. After 1967, they were warriors.

So, it’s 1964 and there’s an archaeological dig at a fictitious site thought to be the biblical city of Makor. The archeologists consist of an American, two Israelis and an Arab (the symbolism of using these types is so obvious as to be congenial). They begin to unearth artifacts from various eras, finding agricultural tools, Judeo-Christian and pagan holy relics, coins, weapons and oh, a Crusader castle. During these finds, the divergent and often introspective attitudes of the characters are revealed through dialogue and self-revelation. Topics ranging from philosophy to women’s rights are explored, both within the modern context and stemming from the roots of Judaism.

After 75 pages or so the novel switches to a short-story format. Each chapter opens with a description of a particular artifact discovered at Tel Makor, with the subsequent story centered around this artifact. The first story, for example, begins with an archaeological account of a farming tool first used in 9800 BC – the story then follows the advent of agriculture in and around Makor, leading to the construction of the first human dwellings in the Galilee and the founding of a civilized society.

In this fashion, Michener explores the evolution of Judaism from a primitive farmer’s desire to understand the mind of his God to a final set of principled laws and collected wisdom. Michener’s themes are ever-present in each episode; as he dramatically and painstakingly guides us through the evolution of monotheism, we see parallel development in the principles of community, the individual, law and authority. The Jews have been portrayed in modern times as an eternally struggling people who have finally won their own nation after unparraleled strife. Michener’s protagonists explore the roots of this perception, being first the creators of the establishment and later to be persecuted by it.

As grand as The Source is, it is not without faults. One of the concepts Jews have used to explain their persecution by the Egyptians, Babylonians, Romans, and even the Holocaust is a “punishment” for breaking their covenant with God. Michener touches upon this lightly, but curiously without any depth. Similarly, there is mention of but no examination of Moses and the exodus, the Bible progressing from a collection of wisdom and history to a codified text, the Maccabean revolt, or the evolution of various rituals and traditions. These are all central to the Jewish spirit and to not have them appear in the novel is a loss.

Regardless of this lack, The Source stands as an amazing body of work. The relationship between religion and society and its larger influence on morality and law is examined thoroughly, without restraint or prejudice. This is not an account of men and women caught in experiences larger than themselves – history is revealed as the confluence of events that are both controlled and are being controlled by people.

In this chronicle of the divine, nothing is so sacred as man.


Anonymous said...

Another flaw I perceive in The Source is a fundamental one: An Evolutionist who does not believe in God,Our Father, who sent His Son to redeem a fallen mankind, cannot describe the history of faith to me. It is like a blind man trying to describe the stars or the sunset or a rainbow.
I greatly appreciated your summary of the book, which I found while searching for a Christian version of Michener's book, The Source.
Yes, it is a laudable work, but I seek a better view. Michener's is a clouded one.
Thank you for your excellant blog!

Anonymous said...

A Christian version of "The Source"? Are you kidding?

I love reading about how man created religion to answer his own questions about nature, specifically cause and effect.

Imagine being born into the world with no religion. One day as a young boy lightening strikes and kills your dad. Without science to explain it,or religion to help you through what would you make up to help you understand. Religion, mans coping mechanism.