Slate: David Plotz Discusses 'Good Book' and What He Learned Blogging the Bible
Wednesday, March 4, 2009; 2:00 PM
Slate editor David Plotz took your questions about "Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous, and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Single Word of the Bible."
The transcript follows.
David Plotz is Slate's editor and a participant in the site's weekly Political Gabfest podcast. He is the author of "Good Book" and "The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank."
David Plotz: This is David Plotz. I'm looking forward to talking to you about the Bible and my new book: Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous, and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Single Word of the Bible.
Vancouver, Canada: You found it remarkable that well-educated people are often ignorant of the Bible. Should students in public high school be required to study the Bible? If so, should they also study the Quran, Talmud, vedas, etc. to the same degree?
David Plotz: I do think students in public school (and private) should be required to study the Bible. I recognize that it raises hideously complicated church/state issues, and I recognize that the Supreme Court has already said, essentially, that it can't be taught. But as a matter of pure education, it's shocking that we are not compelled to learn the book, which is the source of our language, our common stories, our political structure, our conflicts.
Prescott, Ariz.: While you were reading the Bible as literature, as a cultural touchstone, how did you feel about it as a moral guide?
David Plotz: I wasn't reading it as literature. I was reading it as literature, and as history, and as a moral guide, and as anthropology and law and culture. I do think that one problem with how we think about the Bible is that people tend to jam it into narrower categories, when in fact it is many things all at once.
But to answer your real question: It was very confusing as a moral guides. The inspiring parts of the Bible--LEviticus Chapter 19, for example--are astounding, far better than anything I expected. And the shocking parts are far more shocking. God is erratic, sometimes vindictive, sometimes merciful. The people I was taught were heroes--Jacob or Moses or David--were ambivalent figures, or worse. (Jacob is a con artist, effectively.) But that messiness was joyful, and challenging. I loved having a Bible that I could argue with.
Richmond, Va.: Why not continue to the New Testament? If you're reading the Bible for literary value, there's certainly plenty of metaphor and idiom there. I, too, am an unobservant and agnostic Jew-by-birth, but I would definitely include the New Testament in a cover-to-cover reading of the Bible.
David Plotz: This is by far the most common question I get, and I sympathize with it. I was giving the Bible a very irreverent, very personal reading. As a Jew, I felt I could do that with my Bible, the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament, more or less). I did not feel I could do it with the New Testament, because I couldn't treat the life of Jesus fairly. I think that Christian readers would have a right to expect a New Testament reading from someone who belonged to the group, not from some outsider chucking spitballs. But maybe I should have kept going: My Christian friends tell me that reading the OT but not the NT is like leaving the play at intermission.
Maryland: After someone reads the Slate article, do they have any reason to buy your book instead of just buying a Bible? What does your book have that a Bible doesn't?
David Plotz: You can leave my book in the bathroom, and not feel guilty about it!
My book is by no means a substitute for the Bible. It's an effort to bring a new, curious, irreverent perspective to a book that has been made inaccessible and difficult by clergy and academics. If there is anything I hope GOOD BOOK does, it is to show readers the exuberant, fascinating messiness of the Bible, and encourage them to read it themselves.
Irondale, Ala.: I love the Bible blog! It's sort of a cliche to say that the Old Testament god is "not a loving god," but I had no idea just what a vain, capricious, bloodthirsty, and rather muddled deity is depicted in these stories. I just finished reading "Miss Lea's Bible Stories" to my daughter -- it's sort of a "Blogging the Bible" for young children (and raises some of the same questions you raise).
I wonder if you have noticed any differences in the reactions of your Jewish readers and your Christian readers.
David Plotz: Great question. I seem to have three categories of readers. The first is nonbelievers who are glad that I am reading the Bible so they don't have to bother. The second group, which is quite large, is very Biblically literate Jews. And the third, which is also very large, is Christians, most of them evangelical. The evangelical readers and the Jewish readers have generally been very encouraging, because they appreciate someone taking the book they love so seriously, and actually reading it and grappling with it. The Christians think I am making a mistake by not trying the New Testament and meeting Jesus. The Jews tend to think I am making a mistake by reading without support from educated people. After all, there is 2,000 years of scholarship about the book, they say, so it's perverse of me to ignore it.
Arlington, Va.: Even as a Religion major, I got away with reading very little of the Bible, and with remembering even less.
Many high schools do permit the reading of at least parts of the Bible in literature courses. Which one book of the Bible would you choose as required reading? And how do you recommend reading? Starting with "In the beginning" and working your way forward, or maybe with a different book? Did you find yourself reading each book of the Bible more than once, or returning to previous books in order to better understand the book you were concentrating on at the moment?
David Plotz: Which one book would I require? Great question. I suppose Genesis has to top the list. But I might require the Book of Ruth, because it is so incredibly beautiful. And First and Second Samuel, because the story of King David is rich, powerful, and provocative.
If you're reading on your own, I think you should read it straight through, starting from In the Beginning. It will bog down in the middle (I'm talking to you, Jeremiah! And you, to, Micah!) but it makes more sense that reading in any other order.
New York, N.Y.: Did you consult any sources outside the bible itself while reading it such as James Kugel's recently published "How to Read the Bible"?
David Plotz: I consulted no sources while I was reading it. That was intentional. I want to be a completely empty vessel, an average Job. I wanted it to encounter the book as rawly and directly as possible, even if that meant misunderstanding context and making mistakes.
I read Kugel's book after I finished, and was dazzled by it. It's a fascinating dissection of the Bible: A very observant Jew who is also a Bible scholar, Kugel demolishes, chapter by chapter, the idea that the Bible is historically true (No exodus from Egypt, no conquest of the Promised Land, God is an offshoot of Baal, etc). And at the end he explains why this did not damage his faith. It's weird and enthralling.
Abishag, Va.: What were some of your favorite Biblical names?
David Plotz: Dear Abishag,
That is one of my favorite Bible characters! The gorgeous virgin who sleeps with old King David but can't arouse him. A great name! I like Habakkuk a lot. Bathsheba is a wonderful name. Noa, which is what I named my daughter, is lovely.
Belfast, Maine: Isn't it time for a new bible? One without silly creation myths, inaccurate history, outdated morality? One that could be shared by the entire human race?
David Plotz: Good luck with that! You can give it a try. The difficulty you will face is that these stories and morality exert a very powerful hold on many of us, and not for bad reasons.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing I found about the Bible was how flexible it is. Here we have a book written 3,000 years ago, with bizarre stories, peculiar laws, erratic deity, and yet we are able--through argument, selective reading, and desire--to find a powerful framework of laws and moral reasoning that have built a very successful society. So this Bible, for all its oddities and flaws, serves us beautifully after all these years.
Ballston, Va.: Great reflection today, David. Congratulations on reading through the Bible, and on all you've learned.
Can I push a little on the subject of Christianity? You dismissed the New Testament, saying it wouldn't, or couldn't, excuse the capriciousness of certain acts of God in the Hebrew Bible. But you don't really grapple with the person of Jesus, or the way his disciples lives were transformed by him. His disciples were, of course, Jewish.
Did you give Jesus short shrift?
David Plotz: I do give Jesus short shrift, because I wrote about the Hebrew Bible but not the New Testament. That's a fair beef.
Washington, D.C.: Wow, I find your assertion that everyone should read the Bible as smacking of so much relativism, I can't believe it. I have read the beginning of the Bible and I found it so silly and laughable that I stopped. I'd really rather the chatters and your readers get caught up on history, science, literature, etc. instead of a book of fables. Would you also push for the teaching of satanic texts? I'm so tired of people acting so high and mighty about their religious preferences. Write an article on the truly important texts that people have never read (Plato, Aristotle, Copernicus, da Vinci, etc.) and I'll take you seriously.
David Plotz: This seems to me a peculiar criticism. You live in a society that is shaped in every possible way by the Bible. The language you use, the laws you obey (and disobey), the founding principles of your nation, the disputes about abortion, homosexuality, adultery--these and so much else in your world are rooted in the Bible. You don't have to read it for its truth value. You should read it to understand how your world got the way it is, the way you would read the constitution or Shakespeare.
Tucson, Ariz.: Martin Luther was one of the first theologians to suggest that people read AND interpret the Bible for themselves. What do you think is the major reason most people haven't read the bible. I read "IT" by Stephen King, but I haven't read the Bible.
David Plotz: Several reasons. 1. Clergy have mostly discouraged us from reading the Bible, insisting that we should only do it under their tutelage.
2. The Bible is forbidding when you start to read it. The language is odd. The stories start and stop herkily-jerkily. The characters behave in inexplicable ways. It takes a little bit of time to get into the rhythm of the book. I found reading the first 15 chapters of Genesis very very difficult. Once I got past there, I loved reading, and found it very easy. When you get used to the Bible, it becomes thrilling to read (like any great book--I just had exactly the same experience with the Odyssey).
Falls Church, Va.: What did you think about the column in "On Faith" a few days (weeks?) ago about how a lay person shouldn't read sacred texts without the assistance of his or her official religious person (rabbi, priest, pastor, what have you)?
Also, what is the tone of your book? Informational, conversational, sarcastic, sincere?
David Plotz: Second question first: The tone of GOOD BOOK is irreverent curiosity. The book is funny (or it's supposed to be), but it also tries to grapple with the Bible's most fundamental questions.
I really enjoyed the On Faith discussion. Not surprisingly, the clergy involved generally discouraged the idea of reading without guidance. I get where they are coming from, but I think that's a narrow view. Look, either a sacred text stands or it falls. If it takes a professional with a graduate degree to explain the book to you, or to tell you that it doesn't mean what it appears to mean, then perhaps the sacred text isn't cutting it. I know I would have learned a huge amount had I read the bible with my rabbi. But I also would have missed a huge amount, and I would have been guided down the narrow paths where the rabbi led me, not the paths that I chose for myself.
Portland, Ore.: If I were crazy enough to try it, which two or three versions or edits of the Bible are most readable/comprehensible?
David Plotz: Not so crazy!
The King James, though the most famous, is not great for a modern reader.
If I were doing it, I would read Robert Alter's translation of the first five books of the Bible. He ends there. If Jewish, I would read the Jewish Publication Society translation, which is marvelous. If Christian, I would read the New Revised Standard Version, which is also great. All of these use the King James as a kind of foundation, but are written in more accessible language.
Traverse City, Mich.: Are there any novels you want to re-read for a different perspective after having undergone your Bible project?
David Plotz: Fascinating question.
I do think the Book of Ruth is very much like a Jane Austen novel, so I will think about that next time I read Austen. There are some 19th and early 20th century American novels that might be worth a second read--Scarlet Letter, Damnation of Theron Ware.
Oh, and Moby Dick. I never knew who Ahab was when i read Moby Dick in college. Now that I know, I expect the book will make a lot more sense.
Bloomington, Ind.: How do the assumptions you bring to your reading of the Biblical text differ from those of a practicing Jewish or Christian believer? How important are those different assumptions to the conclusions you come to?
Another way of asking this question: Presumably you see yourself addressing religious believers with your book. What do you want these believing readers to come away with? What's the payoff for them?
David Plotz: The payoff for religious readers is this: It's always wonderful to learn something new about something you love, whether it's a person or a place or a book. GOOD BOOK, I hope, will remind religious readers of the exuberance and joy and excitement of the Bible. When you have spent too much time with something, you may lose sight of what's marvelous about it. I hope the curious eagerness of GOOD BOOK is a tonic for those religious readers.
David Plotz: Thank you for a great discussion!
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