Workshopping the Bible

Speaking of the Bible (I’m smelling a theme here) I’ve recently decided to try and read it straight through. Why, you ask? I’m not sure, really, just a vague feeling that it’s something worth doing. Plus, I’m a grad student and I probably have too much free time on my hands.

Of course I’ve read bits and pieces of the Bible before. I grew up in a pretty churchy family, and so I had the Bible read to me each Sunday, and I had to study the Gospels a bit before I was confirmed. But I want to read the thing from beginning to end this time, like a novel, because I’ve gotta be honest – this book is getting all kinds of crazy press. A Must-Read for Every Man, Woman and Child? The Greatest Story Ever Told? You don’t hear shit like that even about Faulkner.

So this week I started with Genesis. For those of you unfamiliar with the Bible, Chapter One opens as “God,” who seems to be the book’s protagonist, creates everything in heaven and earth in seven days. It’s a compelling opening, kind of like the wide-angle pan at the beginning of a movie: let’s set the scene, look at all the different kinds of birds and fish and the fowl, and of course God’s most personal project, the humans. And here we arrive at the story’s first conflict. These humans, from what I can figure, were supposed to be like the sea people in God’s little terrarium project. Only they’re moody and maladjusted and keep causing problems until finally God has to kick them out of their special little garden and release them into the wider world (margin note: Already there seems to be a certain meta-fictional quality; God as author dealing with his characters? Shades of Pirandello?)

Eventually God gets so angry with how his humans are conducting themselves that he sends in a flood and wipes out everything, except for this one guy, Noah, and some animals. (margin note: Good drama, but does it have to be a flood? Natural disasters seem a little played-out.)

Then the storyline starts to meander. Noah has kids, and those kids have kids, and their kids have kids, and then, eventually, there’s this guy Abram, who God seems to like a lot, so much so that he changes his name to Abraham. (margin note: confusing!) And then Abraham gets really old, and then he has some kids. And those kids have kids, and their kids have kids, and the kids move to different hard-to-pronounce places. (margin note: could we cut some of this? Do all these people really need to be named? Where are we going?)

Finally we get some more action when we meet Jacob, who’s like the great-great-great-grandson of Abraham (I have to be honest, I skimmed a little). Jacob does all sorts of cool leading man kinda stuff like hanging with some Philistines and dreaming up ladders and wrestling angels and getting it on with two sisters. (margin note: this guy’s great – maybe he should be the main character. More Jacob!) Then the God character steps in and changes Jacob’s name to Israel (margin note: perhaps God isn’t so much a traditional character as a sort of metafictional device, a stand-in for the author? Develop this?) Then, just as the story seems to be gaining some narrative traction, here comes another long string of unpronounceable names begetting one another. (margin note: Sigh.)

So, basically, this thing is all over the place. I’m going to keep reading, in the hopes that all this foregrounding will have some really worthwhile payoff. Perhaps the late Frank Conroy’s “backpack” metaphor is appropriate here: the reader is a backpacker trekking up a mountain, and every time the author gives him a piece of information, he puts it into his backpack, so the author had better make sure he’s giving him useful things, so he doesn’t get to the top and find out he’s been carrying, say, a 1972 Buick the whole time for no good reason. (margin note: If I get to Revelations and find out I’ve still got forty generations of Israelites wrestling around in my backpack, I’m gonna be pissed.)

1 comment:

aaron said...

Make sure you read the Apocrypha, which are included in Catholic versions and excluded in Protestant versions. That's where the good stuff is: Esther the harlot with the heart of gold and an unerring sense of harsh but fair justice; Judith the femme fatale; the rebellion of the Macabbees, which has more explicit, graphic violence than most action movies (esp. the chapter wherein a mother and 7 sons are tortured to death).