Generous Orthodoxy  

Friday, October 23, 2009

R. Crumb illustrates the book of Genesis

Just as I am finishing up a (small) series of sermons on Genesis, here comes R. Crumb who received an advance of $200,000 from Norton for his just-released illustrated (large) version of that book. Mr. Crumb, famous limner of gross-looking people, has undoubtedly produced a fascinating piece of work, even for those who wonder why such a good draftsman loves to draw ugliness. Even he admits that he has a hard time drawing attractive women.

Some of his comments in an interview for The New York Times are entertaining: the patriarchs “all get pushed around by their wives”; and the picture of the gate of the city of Sodom is quite stunning (so far I have only seen excerpts). His depiction of Abraham’s “deep dark dread” in chapter 15 is certainly compelling; Abraham is having a vision of the Holocaust. The fact that the passage is about something else altogether does not entirely negate the power of the challenge to the whole concept of the covenant.

Mr. Crumb’s version of Genesis is described elsewhere as “humanist.” Indeed, Genesis does show us humanity in its most fundamental condition, more so than any other biblical book, since after all the Creation story is immediately followed by the story of the primordial catastrophe that has caused—as Genesis shows—all subsequent catastrophes among human beings and the rest of the created order. The stories of the patriarchs give us ample illustration of these subsequent catastrophes and failures.

But here’s what Christians who teach, preach, and bear witness need to think about. Genesis is only secondarily about human beings. It is primarily about God, and that’s what a great many people both inside and outside the churches just don’t realize. Genesis just can’t be read as a “humanist” document. Or, rather, it can be read that way, I suppose, just as King Lear can be read as a study of old age, but that would be a pathetically reductive reading. Even if we do not believe in the God of Genesis, it seems to me that we must acknowledge (and teach) that it demands to be interpreted on its own terms, namely, as a story about the God who, Genesis proclaims, is there before human beings can imagine him. This is the God whose Word summons into existence the things that do not exist (Romans 4:17). So no “humanist” version of Genesis can really get at the true purpose of the text. Focusing on Genesis’ reworking of old myths (as Crumb would have it) is roughly analogous to interpreting Shakespeare’s plays as reworkings of old plots.

Here’s what Crumb said to The New York Times (and to NPR, and presumably to everyone else who asks): “The fact that people can persist in the information age to take this as a fundamental word of God, words to live by, rules to live by, that’s really crazy to me.”

My, my. This "information age." What empirical evidence under heaven do we have for this "age" being any less deluded and depraved than any other age? What "information" do we have that gives us "words to live by" that will rescue us from yet more schemes and frauds, drug cartels and billionaire gangsters, environmental degradation, war-criminality, and genocide?

It’s a certainty that R. Crumb will now receive hundreds of hate letters for saying what he did about the Bible, which, alas, which will convince him even more that Bible-believers are crazy.

(A corrective: When we say that the Bible is about God, that's necessary to say first. Only then can we rightly say that the Bible is about God and his people.)