Given that the Bible is the ur-text of Western literature if not 20th-century civilization, why not have a bevy of acclaimed modern writers write introductions to a box set of pamphlets intent on making the good book bite-size and palatable to lay readers? This is the theory behind the Books of the Bible series, and for once the theory doesn’t impress more than the execution. Moody and foreboding black-and-white photos adorn each of the books—the overall package being as graphically posh and grim as a contemporary ECM album sleeve. The instructions from on high must have been to keep the Bible scary, but up the cool-eye-candy quotient. So far so good.
The chosen books and their writers are John (Darcey Steinke), Job (Charles Frazier), Matthew (Francisco Goldman), Luke (Thomas Cahill), Genesis (E.L. Doctorow), Revelations (Kathleen Norris), Mark (Barry Hannah), Exodus (David Grossman), Proverbs (Charles Johnson), Ecclesiastes (Doris Lessing), Corinthians (Fay Weldon), Psalms (Bono). The tone of these essays ranges from the bizarrely anecdotal to the academically rhapsodic to the phoned-in to the genuinely profound. Of the latter, Frazier’s reckoning with Job earns high marks for combining a sure reading of the text with thoughts on Blake, Twain, Black Elk, Robert Johnson, and a trip into the Amazon where he found his own faith in the universe put to the test. Like many of the writers here, Frazier hadn’t read from the assigned literature since he was a kid, but what he rediscovered there proved resonant and inspirational. Recounting the experience of losing his way in the Amazon and relying on faith to see him through, Frazier points out how Job underscores that fear, incomprehension, and wonder are appropriate responses to a silent God.
In her first paragraph, Norris connects Revelations to the act of writing, bolstering a sense that the book is as modern as we are: “I love this unlovable book for many reasons. It’s a pretty good description of the writing process—crazed angels directing you to write, and not write, and to eat words that taste sweet in the mouth but soon turn to gall . . . also because it was Emily Dickinson’s favorite book of the Bible, and because it takes a stand in favor of singing.” Norris details Dickinson’s favorite passages out of Revelations, quotes Mary Gaitskill on how the book reads as a terrible abstract of how we “violate ourselves . . . on earth,” then references Kosovo, before turning to her ultimate point about how Revelations is less a vision of the end than a promise from God that there is more to life on earth than injustice and suffering. This is the introduction that revels the most in delivering the Christian message, as opposed to the Christian mysteries that can make the big book appear so formidable to lay readers.
Goldman’s explication of the Gospel of Saint Matthew does a fine job of pointing out where Christianity intersects with liberation theology. After recalling the Cuban Indian who declared that if heaven was where the Spaniards went then he wanted to go to hell, the writer asks the question you’d hope a Latin American thinker would ask—”Then why is Latin America so devoutly and often inspiringly and movingly Christian?”—finding a part of the answer in Matthew’s message of deliverance for the community of the suffering.
The Psalms are approached by Bono in an ecstatic and puckish (not to mention self-reverential mode) that manages to be thoughtful, comical, and not too annoying: “David was a star, the Elvis of the bible, if we can believe the chiselling of Michelangelo (check the face—but I still can’t figure out this most famous Jew’s foreskin). And unusually for such a ‘rock star,’ with his lust for power, lust for women, lust for life, he had the humility of one who knew his gift worked harder than he ever would.” Bono’s clearly talking about himself here, but his generous loan of star power in support of the movement against third world debt shows he’s one fan of the Jesus Christ Superstar idea who’s not just whistling Dixie.
The strangest, pluckiest, and most feverish offering comes from Steinke, who uses John to dredge up a story from her childhood about her minister father’s encounter with a sociopathic and suicidal German immigrant. Her notions of John as the trippiest of the Gospels, since that’s where Jesus turns water to wine and raises Lazarus from the dead, are well founded even though you get the feeling she’s just getting warmed up for a future novel project.
For intimacy with the texts, nothing beats Weldon’s Richard Pryor?esque “reading” of Paul as if he were that trifling, two-faced, hustling-ass dude from the ‘hood who’d found God and then tried to beat everybody else over the head with his new religion. Genre revisionist andrevisionist-history addict that he is, Doctorow compels us to read Genesis as a mystery novel, with the mystery in question being the origin of the Jews and the nature of their maker, God. Doctorow’s essay finds Genesis to be a fount of information on both topics and the sourcepoint for all discussions of religion and morality.
The preponderance of Jewish, Southern white, and Irish writers on this project makes sense given that these are, as many of them point out, modern folk who were raised in households where the Bible was a living thing. The absence of other African American voices besides professed Buddhist Charles Johnson, and the absence of Hispanic American contributors, is odd to say the least—not just for p.c. reasons but because of the sway institutionalized Christianity continues to hold over those New World cultures. This oversight aside, the series succeeds in bringing the literature of the Bible back into the grasp of that secular spiritualist known as the modern reader, who may only need groovy graphics, pocket-size formatting, and the disarming voice of a passionate fellow traveler to find the Bible user-friendly. That all the writers involved managed not to sacrifice the Book’s humanitarian concerns in performing their cosmopolitan appreciations is even more miraculous. The strange thing is that while they have made the poetry of the Bible more accessible I question whether they have made the work as a whole less forbidding since the book remains a metonym for institutionalized Christianity and all its excesses, edicts, false prophets, and absurdities. But then how much deliverance can one ask of a good paperback, now really?