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I was in the library, absorbed in my reading, and evidently laughing too loudly. Someone pulled up alongside me to ask what was so funny. What was so hilarious was Mark Russell’s version of the Bible, God Is Disappointed in You.
Mark Russell, Portland artist and comic writer, is gifted. He boils Bible stories down to 223 pages. His irreverent humor (“God going apeshit”) and clever observations (“Israel is the only country named after a wrestler”) catch the reader by surprise. Russell’s equally talented colleague, Shannon Wheeler, contributes droll cartoons, such as this one in the story of Ruth: One of two women, backs bent in harvesting, complains to the other, “Guess who’s too good to work in the fields (it’s Ruth, of course) now that she’s sleeping with the boss.”
It would be crazy to fault Russell for setting out to make us laugh as we read stories that are usually told in an all-too-hallowed way. However, and surprisingly, we find that Russell intends God Is Disappointed in You to be more. Twice in his preface, he insists that his intention is “to take each of the books of the Bible on its own terms;” in other words, “always to describe the events and their meanings just as they were written in the Bible thousands of years ago.” Russell is convinced that he can understand Bible stories and guide us to their meaning.
That is a big claim. Kudos to Russell for not wanting to substitute his own version of Bible stories for the Hebrew texts. But has he truly confronted each of those stories “on its own terms”? Or has he done a brilliant job of getting us to see humor in the interpretations of those stories that most of us have carried around in our heads ever since Sunday school?
No text means exactly what we think its words say. If meaning were so apparent, we wouldn’t have myths, or poetry, or parables, or parodies, or drama, or, in short, literature. For that reason, to confront each of the biblical stories “on its own terms” demands, first of all, that we try to get at what the stories meant to those who composed them and to those who first heard them. Only then can we discover what those stories could mean to us who live in different times and how they might illumine our lives.
An example. Russell presents the story of Adam and Eve as the narrative of original sin, a church doctrine usually explained as being about an ancient wrongdoing that brought down God’s wrath and human exile from blissful existence. But the composers of the Bible story in Genesis had been gone some 1,500 years before that doctrine of sin and fall came on the scene, and they certainly weren’t claiming to be eyewitnesses of something that took place at the beginning of time. No, the story of Adam and Eve as it was first told and heard is a myth about us, Everyman and Everywoman (approximate translations of Adam and Eve), who are tempted, who vacillate between our ideals and our inability to achieve them.
Another example. Russell skips rather lightly over the story of Joseph. This story was told at a time when all other legendary heroes were finding their glory in slaughter and revenge. Joseph is not, as Russell presents him in a narrative strangely stripped of all dramatic surprise, the big shot who could humiliate his envious and conniving brothers by being magnanimous and forgiving. He says simply, “I am Joseph, your brother.” In the rejoicing all around, Joseph becomes the first hero in world literature to win renown not for slitting the throats of the treacherous, but for true reconciliation. Other biblical characters—Joshuah, Samson, and Elijah, to name a few—were not up to Joseph’s stature, but that simply makes Joseph’s tale, rightly understood, all the more astonishing.
There is a price to be paid for overlooking the original context and believing that biblical stories mean whatever we think they mean. If we don’t know that child sacrifice was found in some cultures surrounding the ancient Israelites, we will miss the meaning of the story of Abraham setting out to kill his son, Isaac. For Russell, the story is either about a test of faith or about a really vicious prank by God. For the ancient Israelites, it was more likely a cry of the heart against any notion of a god who would demand the sacrifice of their children to secure their own dreams. Notice how Russell leaves the despotic god in place: Abraham’s willingness to put God’s need for a midnight snack ahead of the life of his own son was all God needed to decide that Abraham was worthy to be the father of his chosen people. But the surprising God of Genesis has nothing to do with cruelty, no matter how obedient we are to what some think of as religion.
Ironically, Russell’s conviction that biblical stories mean whatever they mean to us leads him occasionally to miss the real humor in the biblical stories themselves. In Russell’s account of the exodus there is none of the prolonged satire of Pharaoh and of Egyptian gods (or, should we say, Egyptian superstitions) that we find in the original story. Nor is there any of the self-mockery that we find in the narrative about the abject helplessness of Israel as Moses and Aaron invent and fail at one clownish scheme of escape after another.
Or consider the parody about that pompous prophet, Jonah. Though he preaches repentance, he really loves being right about other people’s wrongs. He covets a place in the hall of fame for the great prophets who were right even if they weren’t listened to. The story is embellished with Jonah’s childish pouting and the author’s child-like titters when not just pagan Ninevites but also their dogs and cats really listen and put on sackcloth garments as signs of repentance. What a way to deflate the belief that God’s love is for self-righteous Israelites alone!
Because Russell misses so much of what each of the biblical stories is about, it is not surprising that he gives us little guidance as we seek to understand the over-arching meaning of that vast collection we call the Bible.
Do we come away from God Is Disappointed in You with any glimpse of Israelites gradually and painfully learning that God is liberation from all that enslaves us? Do we sense that those who wrestle with God learn, even more slowly and painfully, that God is not all-powerful, but the one who suffers in love? Do we get the point that he favors the vulnerable widow and the youngest child, the outcast leper and the prostitute, the foreigner and the non-believer?
The Acts of the Apostles (8, 25-36) preserves a poignant vignette. A man named Philip fell in with an Ethiopian who was reading the prophet Isaiah as he trudged along the road between Jerusalem and Gaza.
“Do you understand,” Philips asks, “what you are reading?”
“How could I understand,” sighs the Ethiopian, “with no one to guide me?”
Now that we are all Ethiopians, living at a time in which many young people haven’t even heard of Moses and Abraham, we, too, answer Philip’s question with a second one: How can we understand Bible stories without someone to guide us? Unfortunately, that someone isn’t Mark Russell.