I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Bible for Non-Believers

As readers of my other blog know, I've been focusing on reading (and sometimes rereading) classic literature this year. As the end of the year approaches, I've decided to close out by reading some books of the Bible.

I've read a fair amount of the Bible thanks to my religious upbringing and continue to use a lot of Biblical learning in my writing. My Bitterwood novels are rife with Biblical allusions, not to mention direct quotes. Coming soon, I've got a short story called "Fall of Babylon" appearing in an anthology of kaiju stories where I draw heavily upon the Book of Revelation for inspiration.

But, at Capclave last month, I was talking about the book of Job on a panel with James Morrow and he basically said I didn't understand the lesson of that story. He's an author who's built a career out of building novels around Biblical concepts, so I'm taking his admonition seriously. It's been over 30 years since I've been to Sunday school and actually had homework assignments to read sections of the Bible. I have trouble remembering books I wrote just a year ago, so it's certainly possible that my memory of some of the Bible isn't as crisp as it needs to be.

Which, of course, invites the question: Why should I even want to know the Bible. I'm an atheist. Have been since my late teens. Why bother slogging through a book that's got almost nothing to do with my life these days?

I've got four answers:

1. The Bible is still the foundation of a vast body of English literature. Last month I read Jane Eyre, and all through the book she makes references to Biblical myths. While certainly our culture today is increasingly secular, and I'm sure you could watch a hundred episodes of "Three and a Half Men" without knowing a single scripture and not miss a thing, I still feel like many great books would be less satisfying if I was unaware of the religious text underpinning the works.

2. The Bible is actually pretty amazing reading... in parts. Look, I won't pretend that the average reader is going to get a damn thing out of trying to slog through Numbers or Leviticus or the cluster or minor prophets at the end of the Old Testament. But Job, Ecclesiastes, and Revelations are definitely worth mining for their poetry and imagery, and there's a lot of Biblical myths that a writer is going to be a hell of a lot poorer for not knowing. David versus Goliath, David and Bathsheba, the creation myth of Genesis, the Flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, the parables of Christ, Jacob wrestling an angle, Moses parting the Red Sea then wandering in the wilderness for forty years, the Ten Commandments.... it's worth knowing these things for the same reason it's worth knowing Greek mythology or Norse mythology.  Only, more so, since no one takes Greek and Norse myths as literal truth, while we live in a nation where there are people... often people in with great political power... who do take these myths seriously.

3. It's important to know what's in the Bible because so many, many people think they know what's in it when they don't. I don't want to start a political discussion in this particular article, but lets just say that the Bible and Jesus get invoked a lot by both the right and left in contexts that bewilder me. I have a hard time figuring out how some people read the Bible and come away knowing Jesus's position of, say, the capital gains tax or EPA regulations. Knowing what's actually in the book so many people reference incorrectly is a useful tool for making yourself disliked in heated dinner conversations, if such is your goal in life.

4. It's important to know myself.  I was taught the Bible starting from the time I actually acquired language. I still remember some of the terror I felt in church being warned about the fires of hell. I remember the awe and wonder I felt thinking about armies of angels swarming down from a sky cracking open on Judgment Day. I remember my confusion about how the hell Noah got so many animals on the ark, and just what the heck any of this had to do with dinosaurs. I got a little cryptozoological thrill by being assured that giants and ghosts and witches and dragons were all real creatures, because the Bible said they were real.

There are still values and assumptions I hold without giving them much thought that no doubt arise from some of those early Sunday school lessons. Digging deeper into the book that gave birth to them might yet open unknown doors in my brain that lead me to discover the terra incognita within me.

So, next up... rereading Job.


Jeffrey Kranz said...

Agreed: Job, Ecclesiastes, and Revelation are the books I tend to find most magnetic.

I'm really interested to hear Morrow's take on the lesson of Job. Does that panel discussion live online anywhere?

I've found myself at odds with a few folks on the lesson of Job. Some say it's all about why bad things happen to good people. Others say it's about trusting in God's plan through hard times.

I think those can be takeaways, but the central tension of Job seems to concern Job's faith more than anything else. The whole book poses and answers the question: when Job loses everything he loves, will his faith remain or will he curse God?

I recently wrote an article on what the book of Job is all about--you might enjoy it if you're looking into different takes on the book. Heads-up: I'm a believer, so it's not the most critical of overviews. =)

James Maxey said...

I was conflating Job's wife's response with Job's comforters' responses. I remembered one of the three "comforters" advising Job to "curse God and die." Instead, that was Job's wife who says the words. Morrow remembered it correctly, I didn't. (To my knowledge, the panel wasn't recorded.)

Your take on Job is definitely much more positive than mine! God may have placed a few arbitrary protections on Job, but he certainly didn't seem to care anything about Job's original family, who get snuffed without a hint of remorse. The book seems to equate Job's children with Job's cattle, just property that can be lost and restored and it's no big deal. Job might be showered with fabulous prizes at the end of the book, but his family is still pushing daisies.

God's response as to whether Job deserves his suffering isn't so much "Take comfort, it's all part of my master plan" as "screw you, I'm God, and I'm so big and powerful and above your understanding that you'll take what I give you, and you'll like it, Buster."

And... for what? All because Satan got under God's skin with the same kind of doubts that plague high school romances? "He only pretends to like you because you're always giving him stuff."

It makes God look a little insecure, in my take.

However, I do think there's still an interesting lesson in God's monologue about his power and majesty. The lesson boils down to, "This isn't about you. All this creation? The stars, the oceans, the mountains, all the creatures within them? I'm a busy God, dude. What makes you think I sit around all day thinking about you're problems?" Suffering isn't about God trying to teach us a lesson or improve us, in other words. Sometimes, our suffering is just suffering, and we need to just get over it.

montsamu said...

Also, after you re-read more, you will be more able to enjoy Stant Litore's "Zombie Bible" series, which re-casts Biblical stories (such as the prophet Jeremiah during the siege of Jerusalem) in a vivid and frankly amazing way.

James Maxey said...

I'll try to check those out, Sam. I finished Job last week and Ecclesiastes yesterday. Having reread them, I see why I'd forgotten the bulk of them. Ecclesiastes is beautiful in short doses, but whiny and conflicted when you slog through the whole thing in a short time frame. "Everything is ceaselessly weary," indeed. But, still, there's a reason why quotes from it have appeared in my writing. It's the most existential section of the Bible, pretty much making the argument that all of life is pointless, but doing so in a way that leaves you in awe of the grand beauty of the world.

Job was still as moving as I remembered... in the opening, and near the end, once God shows up and starts trash talking about what a great fisherman he is. But I'd forgotten the 30 chapters in the middle where the comforters of Job show up and make the same argument again and again and again and again, that Job is somehow to blame for his woes, since God wouldn't let bad things happen to a good person.

Finally, God shows up and says, "Shut up, fools! I can let bad things happen to whoever I want! I'm God! I don't have to explain myself!" Then he explains himself, and in the end rewards Job with fabulous cash prizes and a new car for his troubles. Or something like that. I might have been dozing off near the end. (Which is dangerous, since I was listening to it while driving!)

I still think that Job is worth reading if you've never read it. Even today, I think a lot of people have a simplified concept of God in their minds that boils down to the notion that God punishes bad people with troubles in life and rewards good people with blessings. We heard it famously from TV preachers Roberson and Falwell, who argued that God was punishing wicked people by sending hurricanes against New Orleans. We want to believe that tragedy is all part of God's plan, that everything happens for a reason. But, despite Job winding up with a whole of sheep and cattle in the end, his whole family and a heap of servants perished for really no reason at all other than God wanting to win an argument with Satan. We want to believe that God has a just cause for letting people suffer. Job, however, is an argument that the lets people suffer just 'cause he can if he wants to, and who are we to complain?