“You speak continually against your brother
and slander your own mother's son.” Psalm 50:20
Of all the Shakespeare plays I’ve read and studied, none of them—none of the big names, as least—seems so difficult and distant as King Lear. All that filial villainy, the screaming at heaven, the degradation, the spectacle of the old man’s nudity, the blubbering idiocy—it just seems somehow over the edge, or did until Jane Smiley’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, A Thousand Acres, a story of horror in the heartland. That novel helped me understand King Lear.
Right from the get-go, Jane Smiley wants to turn the play’s narrative inside out, to write the story from the point of view of those wretched daughters, who would likely see what happened in a wholly different way. She added incest, at a time in our culture when the whole idea of repressed memory seemed to make incest itself something of a national phenomenon. I don’t think she needed to.
But I loved her fidelity to small-town
life. The givens of that novel are right
on the money, so much so that you might believe Jane Smiley was once kicking
over milk pails in a straw hat and bibs.
She did her homework, created a world in that novel that was so rich you
could smell rural life on every page.
When the book came out, the local library asked me to lead a little study group, so I did. Maybe a dozen people showed up—all women. I told them how much I loved the novel, but that I had these questions, and one was whether kids could fight as horribly as Larry Cook’s children did. Those women—most of them with deeper roots in rural
than I have—looked at each other as if I’d misspoken. They seemed to wonder whether they dared to
tell the truth.
Then one of them did. “When it’s inheritance at stake,” she said, “when it’s land and money, that stuff almost always happens,” she told me, reluctantly, as if it were her own family’s secret. “I’ve seen it again and again.” They all agreed, nodding, albeit apprehensively as if the monster was right there in the basement room of the library with us.
What’s at the heart of King Lear and A Thousand Acres is what God obviously saw in this verse—brothers hating brothers, sisters despising sisters.
When I think of our church fellowship, it’s really hard for me to imagine who God might talk to us the way he talks to some in this verse. Honestly, I don’t think I know people who hate their brothers and sisters. And I’m happy I don’t.
I suppose we can err in two ways with a Psalm like this. We can see the sinners as others—the ones who deserve it, Lear’s daughters and trailer trash.
Or I can troll for guilt in my own soul: do I really hate my sisters? Is there something evil in me I’m not acknowledging, some repressed memory? Maybe “brother” is a metaphor. Who is my brother? That’s a question with far more resonance.
How do we read God almighty’s vituperation in Psalm 50? Is he talking to me or those wretches down the street? Tough question.
We’re all sinful—all of us. We all need a Savior. No two of us are exactly alike, but in the very core of our souls we’ve all been corrupted by sin—not a particular sin, but sin, the virus. All of us. We all lie. We all hate. None of us is perfect.
Maybe the easiest way to say it is the old way: we all need a Savior.