‘Speaker for the God’: Historical fiction about Jeremiah illuminates enduring social issues
Detail from Michelangelo's 'Jeremiah' on the ceiling of the Cistine Chapel.

Henry (Hank) Millstein is a long-time peace, interfaith, and labor activist living in Northern California. He’s a fiction writer and journalist whose work often appears in People’s World, and he’s a longtime member of the National Writers Union. Staff writer Eric A. Gordon sat Hank down for a friendly chat about his newest book.

People’s World: The biblical world opens a ripe and rich field for writers to extrapolate for their own readers and their own time many of the social issues that concern them. I’m thinking of Thaïs by Anatole France, and of course the Jules Massenet opera based on it. There’s also the East German writer Stefan Heym’s novel The King David Report and Sholem Asch’s trilogy of novels, The Nazarene, The Apostle, and Mary. Of course, there are many more, maybe thousands. Tell us a little about your book.

‘Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem,’ c. 1630, by Rembrandt.

Henry Millstein: Speaker for the God is a historical novel about the biblical prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah was active in the kingdom of Judah around the late 7th and early 6th centuries BCE, at a time when the small kingdom was threatened both by growing economic inequality within and by the new empire of Babylon without. Jeremiah, like other biblical prophets, was a spokesperson for the poor and powerless. He also warned the ruling class of his day to take the Babylonian threat seriously and make efforts to conciliate Babylon rather than engage in hopeless attempts at revolt. Both those stances, naturally enough, got Jeremiah repeatedly imprisoned and threatened with death. Speaker for the God tells that story. But it also delves into Jeremiah’s inner life. What first drew me to Jeremiah, apart of course from his stance for social justice, was a curious fact that sets him apart from the society of his time: he never married.

PW: Is that really so unusual? There are lots of cultures in which people choose to be celibate for religious reasons—and maybe other reasons too. Jesus himself could have married, but didn’t, preferring the company of his apostles and the life of the wandering prophet.

HM: Yes, but ancient Judah was definitely not one of those cultures. Staying celibate—or at least deliberately not marrying—was unheard of. Not until much later in the history of that region do you hear of people refraining from marriage for religious or any other reasons—Jesus, for example. So I started to imagine what in Jeremiah’s life and psyche could have driven him in that direction. Like other people of his time and culture, he probably would have conceptualized his inner life in terms of his relationship to deities, to gods and goddesses. So I imagine Jeremiah struggling with a jealous goddess who dooms every woman he becomes involved with, which in turn goes back to a childhood experience that I won’t give away here. So Jeremiah’s story, in my telling, deals with the interplay between sexuality and spirituality and with feminine images of God, concerns that are very much a part of contemporary religious culture.

PW: Wow, you’re touching a lot of bases with this story. But I’m wondering: As someone so vitally involved in all the struggles going on today, why did you choose to write about such a remote epoch of history? Couldn’t you have transposed your themes into something more contemporary that might be more accessible for readers, especially progressive readers, to relate to?

HM: Good question. Of course, as a writer, often you don’t choose your subject so much as your subject chooses you. And that’s the way it seemed to work for me, as soon as Jeremiah’s story started taking root in my head. But I do think there are some good reasons for progressive writers to concern themselves with remote times and cultures. First of all, there’s the line from the ancient Roman playwright Terence that Marx took as a motto: “Nothing human is alien to me.” And don’t forget, as his university thesis in philosophy Marx wrote “The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature.” Pretty obscure, right?

But more specifically, I think that biblical stories continue to have relevance. Those narratives are still formative elements in our culture. Just think of their importance in African-American culture, for instance. So, even apart from any religious significance we may or may not find in them, the biblical world is still very much on people’s minds. And that world, as I’ve said, was full of social conflict. The chief figures in that world whom we admire to this day, as depicted in both Jewish and Christian scriptures, more often than not spoke for the lower classes, for the oppressed, as did Jeremiah and most of the other prophets, and of course Jesus.

Look again at how African Americans clothed—and continue to clothe—their liberation struggles in biblical terms. So I think there’s ample reason for progressive writers to concern themselves with the biblical world—and, I think, with the ancient classical world of Greece and Rome as well. In fact, the decline of traditional religious observance today can actually encourage that concern, since readers, including many who still profess traditional religious beliefs, are now much more open than they were in the past to considering biblical stories from a new angle and to see them through the lens of contemporary historical scholarship. That’s what I endeavor to do in Speaker for the God.

PW: Obviously people today don’t approach religious tradition in the same way their parents or grandparents might have. What aspects of contemporary scholarship are reflected in Speaker?

HM: Some readers may be startled to find that, as depicted in my novel, the thought world of Jeremiah’s time is not strictly monotheistic—there’s plenty of room in people’s minds and action for a whole raft of gods and goddesses, even for those who want to assert the supremacy of Judah’s national god Yahweh. I mean, think about it: The First Commandment, as recorded in Exodus 20:3, says, “You shall have no other gods before Me.” It says put Yahweh first, but there were other gods!

This is in line with contemporary scholarship that has shown, on the basis of both textual and archeological evidence, that the road to the later more hegemonic notion of monotheism—of there being only one God that really existed—was much longer than later tradition assumed and that it was far from being completed by Jeremiah’s time. In fact, what we now know as standard monotheism didn’t emerge until about a century or more after Jeremiah.

PW: So what would you like readers to get out of this book, especially readers who may not have any religious belief about the Bible?

HM: First of all I’d like to say that Speaker for the God neither proposes nor advocates any sort of religious belief about the Bible or anything else; it should be accessible to readers of any faith or none. It does, of course, deal with characters who have what we would call religious faith, but that was part and parcel of the pre-modern world.

But to answer your question, one thing I’d like readers to get out of this story is a greater determination to persevere in the struggle for a better world no matter what the obstacles and seeming lack of immediate progress. After all, Jeremiah’s partisanship for the oppressed doesn’t really bear much visible fruit until nearly two millennia later, with the rise first of bourgeois democracy and then of socialism. Not that I think we have to wait two millennia for progress! But there is a need for what I might call revolutionary patience, especially in the face of temptation toward what I would call “ultraleft” posturing. Then again, the role of goddesses, of feminine images for divinity, in this novel, should point up, even for those with no belief in divinities of any sort, the need to confront the deep roots of sexism and male supremacy in our culture—roots that go back millennia, as Engels pointed out in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. These misogynistic views are still quite prevalent in virtually every right-wing movement.

The other thing that I’d like readers to get from this story is that struggles for justice, for a more humane social order, are nothing new in human history. We have a very long and very rich heritage of struggle to inspire and guide us.

PW: So now that Speaker for the God is out there, are you taking a break or working on anything else?

HM: I actually have two projects I’m pursuing. One is a nearly final draft of a science-fiction novel about a young Jewish girl caught up in the first major strike by women in U.S. history, the garment workers’ strike on New York’s Lower East Side in 1909. The other is another biblical tale, a revisionist telling of the life of Judas Iscariot, who sees and seeks to act on the revolutionary implications of Jesus’s words and actions.

PW: Wow, I’m impressed! I always kind of secretly wondered if maybe Judas Iscariot got a bad rap. You’ve got a lot going on. I’ll be looking forward to seeing those books. In the meantime—64-dollar question—how can we get a copy of Speaker for the God?

HM: So glad you asked! You can go to this website to order the book in any ebook format you choose. As a special to People’s World readers, until the end of the year, I will send to anyone who emails me at henry@hmillstein.com a code that will allow you to get the book for free from the Smashwords site. Speaker for the God is also available from Amazon as either an ebook or paperback.


CONTRIBUTOR

Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski. He received the Better Lemons "Up Late" Critic Award for 2019, awarded to the most prolific critic. His latest project is translating the fiction of Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese. The first book, Five Days, Five Nights, is available from International Publishers NY.

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