A fan. But that’s okay, because the Bible is mostly fan-fiction. Most of the books of the Bible were written centuries after the events they describe and were written for the purpose of making old stories relevant to the people of their own time. So I don’t feel like I’m out of line. In fact, I feel like I’m working within the framework of a long-established tradition.
Should believers be upset to think of the Bible as fan fiction?
No. If anything, it makes the Bible much more worthwhile. Fundamentalist Christians and strong atheists both see the Bible as a sort of poorly written textbook. A list of facts about the geological age of the Earth, global floods, and the origin of species, which are either the indisputable word of God or complete nonsense. That’s a lot of pressure to put on shepherds. Besides which, this literalist approach to the Bible misses the point. The prophets, scribes, and outcasts who wrote the Bible never imagined themselves to be writing a science textbook, but a prayer for God to add meaning to their lives.
Is that why God seems to change over the course of the Bible?
The way we perceive God depends not only on who’s writing, but on who’s reading. As humans, we create God in our own image, usually as a reflection of our cultural aspirations. To ancient Hebrews struggling to forge a nation, God was a lawgiver. To early Christians living under Roman persecution, God was a savior. To Americans, God is a Wal-Mart. Modern evangelical churches, like the one I grew up in, tend to view God as a repository of wishes and an instrument of consumption. You can pray for whatever you want, and if you’re a valued customer, he’ll make it happen while demanding as little from you as possible. This is basically what all the prosperity doctrine or name-it-and-claim-it theology boils down to.
Are you saying that prayer doesn’t work?
Not in the way that people imagine. Some people think of prayer as God’s cell phone, that he’ll come running to whoever calls. Personally, I don’t buy it. I don’t imagine that God ignores starving North Koreans because he’s busy helping Americans assemble IKEA furniture. But I do think that praying can make you feel connected to God, thus giving you the strength to deal with assembling an IKEA end table.
What will surprise people about your version of the Bible?
How much they didn’t know. Most people, even devout believers, mostly know the popular stories, or maybe a few uplifting verses. But the Bible is much more than that, and most of what is truly profound and meaningful in the Bible is found in the underwater portion of the iceberg— in Hosea’s decision to marry a whore, in the gentlemanly wager God and Satan make over the fate of Job, in Paul’s advice not to worry too much that Christianity doesn’t make sense. (He literally calls us to be “fools for Christ.”) You probably won’t see any of these verses on placemats, but they’re the essence of the Bible, which isn’t a book in the sense that Moby Dick is a book, but a conversation. A collection of imperfect people with imperfect knowledge of God, life, and the world taking a stab at the truth regardless.
For many people, the Bible remains the foundation of their political beliefs and personal morality. Is the Bible still relevant in that sense?
There’s a parable that illustrates the Bible’s political relevance nicely. Imagine a room with five monkeys. There’s a ladder with a banana at the top, but when one of the monkeys climbs up to get the banana, they all get sprayed with a firehose. Totally unpleasant. The next day, one of them is replaced with a new monkey. Naturally, the new monkey sees the banana and starts climbing the ladder only to be slapped down and beaten by the other monkeys, who don’t want to get sprayed again. The following day, yet another monkey is swapped out, and once again, all the monkeys gang up on the newcomer when he goes for the banana. Now, after five days, none of the monkeys left in the room has ever been sprayed with a hose. Yet, they still claw and beat any monkey who goes for that banana without ever understanding why.
By the time a lot of the rules were written down in the Bible, nobody could remember why they followed them in the first place. Moses came up with a lot of these laws while wandering in the desert, and maybe they made sense then. You don’t want to eat shellfish in the desert. You’re just going to get sick and hold everyone up. But does that mean you shouldn’t order the shrimp basket at Sizzler’s? Is there a reason today why women shouldn’t speak in church? Or that gay people shouldn’t get married? In a way, I think that’s what modern social movements are all about— testing the presumptions we’ve inherited from the Bible to find out whether there’s actually a reason for them, or whether they’re just based on, you know, monkey violence.
Mark Russell is a writer and cartoonist living in Portland, Oregon. He has previously published work on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, JAM Magazine, Unshod Quills, and Roses Are Red. His educational credentials are nothing that would impress you.