A Jewish agnostic might not be the most obvious choice as a keynote speaker at a religious conference at a private Christian college named after John Calvin. But Jonathan Safran Foer was one of five “plenary” speakers at Calvin College's Festival on Faith & Writing in Grand Rapids, Mich., along with Pulitzer Prize winner Marilynne Robinson, Orange Prize winner Chimamanda Ngozi Achidie, Newbery Honor winner Gary D. Schmidt, and activist Shane Claiborne.
In two sessions, April 19 and 20, author Jonathan Safran Foer ranged widely over topics from his love of sculptor Joseph Cornell, why he would be an obstetrician today without his mentor, Joyce Carol Oates; the movie adaptation of “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”; and editing the “New American Haggadah.”
Here are a few highlights:
“I'm interested in the kind of religion that makes life harder. I'm not so interested in the comforting kind of religion. I'm interested in a religion that forces me to take stock in myself. To ask the hard questions: 'Who am I really and am I the kind of person I wanted to be?' … Whenever religion is used to have it both ways, that makes me uncomfortable.
"Adam and Eve, Abraham and Isaac – these are the greatest stories ever told – the most important stories in my life. But I do think of them as stories. I don't read Bible literally, or maybe I do: I believe literally in the values spoken. Do I believe Abraham literally took his son Isaac [up on a mountain] to sacrifice him? I don't find that question all that interesting. I do find the undercurrents incredibly interesting and important.”
On the existence of God:
“It's something I continue to think about. I will never come around to idea of an anthropomorphic God.
I'm also uncomfortable with the word God.... I'm agnostic about the answer and I'm agnostic about the question. There's a definition of God that Christopher Hitchens believed in, and a definition of God that the Pope doesn't believe in. If you could put it into words, it wouldn't be God anymore. … I find the process really fulfilling. The endless search and endless wrestling really valuable.”
“I can't imagine praying to God. But I would like to talk about God in a literary way.
What's the best metaphor for God? Is God an author … a character or a reader? Is there a way to think about who God might be?
“It's an ongoing question for me. It's one I think about a lot more now than I used to. I used to dismiss the question. … [But] not in a contemptuous way. That's not how I grew up – I went to Hebrew school twice a week – my family had an immense respect for religion."
On editing the “New American Haggadah,” which came out in March and offers a new translation by Nathan Englander and commentary from Jewish writers including Rebecca Newberger Goldstein and Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket:
“Passover is one of the oldest continually told stories and one of the most widely told stories.... The Haggadah is a user's manual for that night.... There are 7,000 published versions. No book has been revised more than the Haggadah.
[In it, it says that] in every generation, each person has to feel like he himself has to be liberated from Egypt. It's so weird, most people gloss over [the passage]. No other book makes such a strong demand. What kind of book could inspire that really radical leap of empathy?”
“I never wanted to write a novel that was merely read. Or merely liked or appreciated. Ideally, I want the reader to feel complicit in authorship of the book. There's a certain kind of book where reader sits here [points to audience] and the author sits here. I hate those books....”
What he calls the “11th and 12th Commandments” – “Don't ever change,” and “Change”:
“Kids are a great analogy. You want your kids to grow up, and you don't want your kids to grow up. You want your kids to become independent of you, but it's also a parent's worst nightmare: That they won't need you. It's like the real tragedy of parenting.”
“I don't know if I have any interest in preserving silence. I don't know that silence is a very good thing. I think quiet is a very good thing. In my books, silence is not the silence of reflection, serenity, or peace. It's the silence of not being able to communicate. A lot of my writing is about not being able to communicate things in my life.
“When I was young, I thought [writing] was this romantic thing.” Safran Foer went on to say he thought it would be like creating a mountain, by laboring every day to create sentences and “dump off all these sentences into the pile … and everyone would come and see and point to the top of it.
“Instead, I would encounter these holes ... I was [pouring] these sentences into the hole until it was level. Then I would move onto the next hole.
“As I've grown older, I've grown more convinced there's nothing that shouldn't be talked about. If we think we're protecting each other, we're not. … Families pay a huge price by dancing around the subject.”
On having his books turned into movies:
“Would you believe me if I said no?” [When asked if he'd seen the movie versions of his books] “Of course I've seen them! I thought that 'Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close' was a really moving movie. The last third is really powerful. Do I regret that some material got left out? It would be really miserly and inappropriate to go into that. I gave it away. I didn't give it away [chuckles from audience] but I gave away my right to complain. To split hairs is not in the spirit of what was done.”
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.