Leslie Cannold The Book of Rachael (Text 2011)
A review by Rodney Eivers.
(Reviewed October 2013)
Note: Although this book is not new it was brought to the minds of people at the national conference of Sea of Faith in Australia at Toowoomba in September 2013. Dr Cannold made a strong impact on those who listened her address on that occasion and participated in her workshop. She continues to catch the attention of the national Australian news media on several public issues.
It is rare for me to read a book of fiction these days. The Book of Rachael is certainly a book of fiction. Leslie Cannold, herself, does not claim the work to be even credited as “historical” fiction.
But this fiction is well related to my main interest in books , those dealing with a ‘progressive’ approach to Christianity often related to interpretation of the Jesus story from the sketchy clues we have from the Bible. Several years ago I had listed as a “project” the idea of writing the Jesus story purely from a secular ‘non-faith’ point of view. The book could be presented to high school students of English literature with no evangelical pretensions. It would simply provide an illustration of the extent to which the Bible has enriched our English language and our world view. Sayings such as “Am I my brother’s keeper?”, “Cast your bread upon the waters,” “For everything there is a season”, come to mind. I did not go ahead with the book as it was beyond my writing talent and those writers I approached about it turned out to be too busy with their own proposals.
So, knowing Leslie Cannold’s ‘faith’ position, I approached this book with curiosity. There have been other writers who have built fictional accounts filling in the large spaces which exist in the historical record of the Jesus of the New Testament narratives. Leslie Cannold does not do fill in the gaps so much but seeks to ‘bring to life a fictional character (in this case the sister of Jesus) by evoking the time and place in which the character’s story is set”.
She does this admirably. One can feel the vitality, the tensions, the struggle for existence in the Galilee and Judaea of that era. The emotional impact can be striking and I found myself a bit weepy right from the first page.
From hearing her speak at the SoFiA conference at Toowoomba in 2013 and from subsequent occasions when she has caught my attention with her reputation as a vigorous feminist polemicist I had every reason to expect that Cannold’s writing would have a strong anti-male thrust. I went into my reading of the book with a conscious decision to counter such defensiveness as might be aroused in me through my male gender.
Thus it came as a great surprise to find that actually the author treats the main male characters relatively gently. Much of her rancour, surprisingly, is directed towards some of the female characters especially the mother of Jesus. This is not to deny her main theme and rationale for writing the book. That is to demonstrate how women have been badly done by throughout history – and by implication are still being badly done by in this current age.
Perhaps she is trying to say that the behaviour of both men and women is conditioned by their environments. Very few of the people in the story are depicted as gentle, compassionate, people with a universal love for human kind. Even Jesus is depicted as a person ruled by the passion of his human relationships rather than developing a conscious life-long resolve to do the right thing. Nobody seems to be happy!
What does seem to be the villain in the piece is legalistic patriarchy with the backing of a universally accepted religious ideology. The author sees little good found in this sort of religion, certainly as experienced in 1st Century Roman-occupied Palestine. Of course, for those of us with “faith” who give him a special place in history this is the very issue which Jesus of Nazareth set out to remedy.
The biblical record tells us, and The Book of Rachel also relates, that this aim turned out to be pretty much a failure, at least during the lifetime of Jesus. Yet one has to suppose that there must have been something very charismatic about this one man who had such a persistent influence on his followers for the several decades after this death. An influence which led ultimately to layers of mythology and adoration being added to the story. Jesus the sage of Nazareth became the universal divine Christ.
Although dismissing any supernatural explanation of events Cannold takes the Jesus story as told in the four gospels at face value. Until the events leading up to the death of Jesus she makes little reference, however, to the chronology and series of events related in the Bible. Writers, typical of the Jesus Seminar, are not listed among her references. From such sources most (but not all) scholars agree that Jesus, the man, probably existed but it is generally accepted that all the biographical details of Jesus, scanty as they are, are perhaps as fictional as Cannold’s Rachael. One interesting link which the author does not actually relate, is the story of the family of Jesus going to look for him to bring him home because he was “out of his mind.”
Little good seems to have come from Rachael’s involvement in sexual and family relationships which seem to be fraught with tension, confusion and betrayal. I might add here that in a matter-of-fact way the author is explicit (without any obvious erotic intention) about the influence of physiological sexual responses leading a woman to choose a partner - so much as she has a choice. His being a good provider, for instance, would not override the biological sensual need. Her heroine is far from being a passive sexual partner.
As prescribed in this book I don’t know that Leslie Cannold provides a satisfying answer to the ultimate place of women in the world. Perhaps my female friends and colleagues can offer their views here. Is it to withdraw from troublesome personal relationships and the world, falling back on their “traditional” role of carers and family supporters? Perhaps it is to fight for the honourable place in society which has for so long been denied to women. Have we in this 21st Century come near to succeeding in this? Can marriage bring happiness? Can women have it all? This leads into the larger question of “What is happiness?” for women or for men. Is structure or convention in intimate relationships good or bad? This, however, is not the place to go into those broader issues.
In a separate personal interview* in responding to the question “What Rachael might be doing now if she'd been born in our time?” Leslie Cannold concludes. "She'd be Prime Minister, or the head of the UN, or head of a Fortune 500 company. She was born for this century, this decade.
Whatever Rachael would be doing, she'd be heading towards the same goals as me, "When you don't have faith, you have to come up with a reason why you're here on the planet. My reason is that I want to feel when I look back on my life that I have left the world a better place than when I came into it."
To your reviewer of this absorbing book, himself a person of ‘faith’, this sounds very much like what Rachael’s brother was talking about when he proclaimed the Kingdom of God.
*Note 1: An overall conclusion is that there is very much of Leslie in Rachael and this may explain some of the strongly drawn description of personal and family relationships displayed in The Book of Rachael. The reader may like to judge this for herself by studying the biographical details of Leslie Cannold. I would recommend that this information be consulted after reading the book and not before it or halfway through it as I did. Note 2: In my opinion The Book of Rachael would provide an excellent study source for a gender-balanced group of men and women. It raises issues which are relevant to peoples of the contrasting sexes seeking to live in harmony. The starkness of description of the characters helps to get a grip on how culture and history have treated one half of the human race.
*Note 1: An overall conclusion is that there is very much of Leslie in Rachael and this may explain some of the strongly drawn description of personal and family relationships displayed in The Book of Rachael. The reader may like to judge this for herself by studying the biographical details of Leslie Cannold.
I would recommend that this information be consulted after reading the book and not before it or halfway through it as I did.
Note 2: In my opinion The Book of Rachael would provide an excellent study source for a gender-balanced group of men and women. It raises issues which are relevant to peoples of the contrasting sexes seeking to live in harmony. The starkness of description of the characters helps to get a grip on how culture and history have treated one half of the human race.