The full title of David Plotz’s 2009 book is: Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous, and Inspiring Things I Learned when I Read Every Single Word of the Bible. Now anyone who regularly reads my blog knows I’m an atheist, so you must be asking, why the hell is Jim reading a book about the Bible? Well, for the last few years I’ve taken a little time now and then to either read the Bible or read about it, and it’s very rewarding, but just not in a religious way. You might even say it adds to my spiritual development, and I do feel like I have a spiritual side, it’s just atheistic.
However, to be more down to Earth, I have to say unequivocally: to understand western history and literature requires studying the Bible. Not only that, to understand the psychology of the modern religious person requires a thorough knowledge of the Bible. Moreover, I think knowledge of the Bible shines a light on contemporary politics.
The Good Book by David Plotz is a quick, informal, but skeptical overview of the Old Testament. Plotz is Jewish, but not a religious man, but I think he still wants to believe in God, and has some religious affinities, at least far more than I do. Plotz just wanted to read the Bible to understand his cultural heritage and ended up blogging about it over at Slate in a series called Blogging the Bible. Read some of his posts to get a feel for his style, or even read the entire series online if you don’t feel like buying the book. The blog isn’t the book, and I recommend the book if you’re willing to buy it. I listened to an audio book edition read by Plotz. Think of the Good Book as a hip Cliff Notes summary of the Bible from a Jewish guy that has a light, if not humorous touch.
Most people have never read the Bible from start to finish. It’s long, and has lots of boring bits, and despite what fundamentalists believe, is full of inconsistencies, contradictions and surprising unspiritual stories. Plotz gives a Reader’s Digest overview that’s surprisingly entertaining. And like most people who try to read the Bible from cover to cover, Plotz is shocked by what he finds. Not to give away the ending, but Plotz concludes that value of the Bible is in coming to grips with its messy parts, of which there are many.
Plotz’s Good Book is an entertaining flyover of the Bible that doesn’t take sides. He doesn’t go very deep, but just summarizes what he’s read and gives his personal reactions. I was hoping to learn more about Judaism but Plotz doesn’t digress too deep into that territory either. He’s familiar enough with Christianity and the New Testament to point out passages that foreshadow things to come but he doesn’t really explore how the Bible is different for the two religions. This is not a deep book, but a case for Bible literacy.
Everyone who reads the Bible has their own interpretations, but I like studying the Bible as history, and Bart D. Ehrman is my main guru for this approach. Religious people like to read the Bible for messages, but I like to read it as a historical and literary puzzle. Now that’s a black hole as big as trying to understand Shakespeare, but it’s still fun. For example, here’s a textual problem. There are two accounts of creation in the Book of Genesis, and they don’t match up. Plotz points that out but doesn’t question it too deeply, but I want to know why.
Wanting to know why makes you want to read more, and that’s why I like Ehrman. I wished that Ehrman wrote books about the Old Testament too, because his series of books on the New Testament goes deeper and deeper. Ehrman grew up as an Evangelical and attended the Moody Bible Institute seeking more knowledge. He kept seeking and got his Ph.D. at Princeton Theological Seminary. He’s a guy that’s on a quest to know the truth. What he’s ended up researching is who wrote the various books of the New Testament and why. And reading David Plotz’s book makes me want to know the same about the Old Testament.
For example here’s my untrained guess about the two descriptions of creations in Genesis. Long ago stories weren’t written down but memorized and spoken. Eventually some people took up writing, and the creation tales were written down at different times by different people, and by then the stories had diverge. For some reason when the editors of the Bible found both they included them both. The really should have edited the two into one story though, but they probably hated throwing anything away.
The thing about the Old Testament is it’s a collection of short stories, mixed in with some history, genealogy, directions for building a temple, dietary rules and commandments from God. It’s a real hodgepodge of ancient documents thrown together that could have used a lot of editing. The best parts of the Bible are the stories, and as Plotz points out, they aren’t exactly political correct stories either. There is very little in the Old Testament about being spiritually good, and often the good guys are rather bad. So what do we make of all this?
I tend to think the Old Testament wasn’t really about God all that much, but about building the first Jewish nation, so instead of Paul Bunyan we have David and instead of Sacagawea we have Esther. And the reason why there are so many inconsistencies in the Bible is because it was written over centuries by who knows how many different authors. The Old Testament doesn’t promise everlasting life, salvation, or heaven. Your soul isn’t on the line like it is in the New Testament. God doesn’t ask much other than obedience and doesn’t promise much other than safety from being blasted by his wrath.
One thing Plotz points out time and again is how often the stories have been sanitized for retelling to children in Bible schools. And many of the stories have an ax to grind, like the spin Fox News puts on its stories. Many stories are political stories trying to make a point, and often they are rather heavy handed. If you don’t feel like reading the whole Bible, I recommend reading this book, or one like it. The Bible is not as mysterious as it seems. It’s less about up there and a whole lot more about down here.
JWH – 3/29/11