‘You Are My Witnesses’: Walker Percy, Jacques Maritain and the Jews

Julien Smith in Religion & Literature Vol. 45, No. 1 (spring 2013), pp. 55-79. I’m pleased to have come across this paper since I have for several years been muling over Percy’s invocation of the Jews.

From his first novel The Moviegoer to his last novel The Thanatos Syndrome the fiction of Catholic novelist Walker Percy manifests a sustained preoccupation with the significance of the Jews. Stephen R. Haynes has correctly observed that for Percy, Jews are not merely an incidental element in the cultural landscape of the American South but rather possess profound theological significance within the author’s narrative world. However, Haynes misreads Percy when he regards him as an unwitting exemplar of Christian contempt for Jews. Rather, Percy’s portrayal of Jews is better understood as having been influenced by the French philosopher and man of letters Jacques Maritain, who was similarly concerned to understand the theological significance of the Jews from the perspective of the Christian metanarrative. To make this case I will present Haynes’s critique of Percy as an exemplar of what he calls “witness-people” thinking; provide an overview of Maritain’s developing understanding of Jews; and demonstrate that not only does Percy’s fiction betray an indebtedness to the perspective of Maritain but that both men are beholden to the biblical identification of Israel as God’s covenant people rather than to the Christian invention of the witness-people myth.