Saturday, August 02, 2008

In the beginning: Genesis on my mind

Genesis has been on my mind a lot recently.

First, there are at least two excellent discussions of Genesis going on on right now in Quaker-related blogs.

Peter Bishop at Quaker Pagan Reflections has just concluded a 5-part (pt 1, pt 2, pt 3, pt 4, pt 5) series of very thoughtful posts (plus one post-script) on his recent reading of Genesis and has generated many equally thoughtful (and provocative) responses. I especially appreciated Peter's approach, which is, in his words:

I’m not reading the Bible for poetry. I want to know what it says. I think I’m a pretty unusual reader of the Bible in that I find myself reading it as a writer, and what I want most to understand in the Bible is the mindset and the experiences of its writers. I’m not reading it to understand G*d, I’m reading it to understand the writers’ experiences of G*d. That distinction is important, because so many readers of the Bible bring to it a crushing burden of pious preconceptions. Modern Christian (and Jewish) understandings of G*d grew out of traditions that changed and developed over time, and these traditions left Biblical texts like breadcrumbs along the path. But those texts have been interpreted and reinterpreted since, so thoroughly and so often, that it’s very hard for a modern reader even to hear the writers’ original words over the heckling of later critics from St. Paul through Thomas Aquinas and right on up through Jerry Falwell and his ilk.

As a writer, my prejudice is: Let the writers say what they meant to say. Agree with it or disagree, but don’t try to warp it or twist it or rewrite it to your own liking, because that, let me tell you, is the most violent, the most discouraging thing you can do to a writer.

And I’ve got to say, reading Genesis on its own terms, it’s a freaky little book.
Yes it is. (This isn't the only approach, of course. I read Genesis and the rest of the Bible precisely for the purpose of understanding God, or more precisely to understand what God wants to understand about Himself. But Peter's approach is also an honest and productive one, as long as one is willing to be open to the possibility that the Living God does, in fact, speak through the Scriptures, as well as in other ways, and you don't cheat the game by refusing to accept the possibility that you will be changed.)

A less active, but equally interesting, discussion of Genesis is happening over at Kwaker Skripture Study, a group blog with, alas, only two active participants at the moment. (Actually, the Genesis discussion has only begun; I base my evaluation of the quality of the discussion on their previous trips through other books, most recently Revelation.) They've been looking for more Friends to participate more actively on the blog, and I encourage you to do so. I've been impressed with their past discussions in how well they reflect the Quaker way of approaching Scripture.

Though not a Quaker, David Plotz's series Blogging the Bible at should be of interest to anyone interested in a fresh and positive look at the Good Book. He blogged the entire Old Testament over the course of a year or so, but his initial eight posts on Genesis can be found here. Among his many virtues, Plotz's posts are as funny as they are informative. (Plotz is also the new editor of

Then, by serendipity, I read Madeline l'Engle's Genesis Trilogy a few months ago. It is an anthology of her three shorter works: And it was good, A stone for a pillow, and Sold into Egypt. Her work is notable in how she relates her meditations on the texts to her own personal life. Her husband, Hugh, died during the writing of the latter book, and the way in which she works out her grief and finds sympathy in some of the characters in Genesis is beautifully done. I also enjoyed her ability to consider the various fascinating characters in Genesis, especially the women, as full-bodied human beings, imagining their feelings, motives, and conversations as if they were characters in a novel. (I also was surprised [but shouldn't have been] to find the Walter Wink acknowledged Madeline as an inspiration for his book, The Powers that Be.)

And then I myself read Genesis again after my workshop at FGC Gathering ("User's Guide to the Bible"). That re-reading has in turn led me to buy a used copy of the Anchor Bible translation and commentary on e-bay.

I have no idea whether this means anything, but I am aware of the convergence of Genesis in my life recently. I think it's part of a renewed determination to more systematically study the Bible that I've wanted and intended to do for years but never felt I had the proper framework within which to carry it out. I think I now have enough from my workshop, Michael Birkel's Engaging Scripture, Paul Buckley & Stephen Angell's (ed.) The Quaker Bible Reader, and Walter Wink's Transforming Bible Study to get me started more productively.

I'm reminded of an image from Nikos Kazantzakis's masterpiece, The Last Temptation of Christ. In it, he has Jesus at one point express exasperation while reading the Scripture as if the letters on the page were bars on a window keeping the Truth from shining through. That's a power image and one that I know well.

But I also have often felt as if the words on the page of the Bible were the windows through which I could see into another world, windows through which I could slip through if only I kept at it diligently and with the right attitude.

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