Thursday August 24 , 2017
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The Boston Globe Review

Genesis, the soap opera

John Coats reclaims the first book of the Bible for the nonreligious

The book of Genesis forms a cultural cornerstone for a large mass of humanity. Even people who have never opened a Bible know its stories - Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, Noah’s ark, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. It is Genesis that introduces Abraham, the patriarch of Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike. It contains the creation story that fundamentalists use to deny evolution; it also tells the story of Joseph, which became an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical.

For all of its familiarity, and its sacred aura, Genesis is a quirky work of literature, less a well-organized narrative than an outline for an epic that leaves out heaps of important details. Along to fill them in for the 21st century comes John Coats. In his book “Original Sinners,” he unpacks the first book of the Bible, story by story, mining it for very modern psychological insights. We see Noah’s family, post-Flood, slipping into a kind of madness straight out of “Apocalypse Now”; we see Joseph’s bedazzling coat hiding the fact that he was a snot-nosed brat we’d all love to hate. God pops up here and there, an omnipotent Jehovah-in-the-box who twists the plot in some impossible direction while the characters try to wrestle him back down.

Coats, a former Episcopalian priest, is also a management consultant and a motivational speaker. He wrote his book as an argument that Genesis should be read not just a religious text, but as a human allegory relevant to us all, believer or not. He spoke with Ideas by phone from his home in Houston.

IDEAS: Reinterpreting the book of Genesis has a long history - way back in the fourth century, the theologian St. Augustine said those who took the words of Genesis literally were like little children. What’s new about your approach?

COATS: My approach is not a religious approach. I’m trying to get the reader to see that these stories belong to you whether you’re religious or not religious or sort of religious. Because they’re human stories, and also because they’re foundational stories in our civilization.

IDEAS: So for somebody who doesn’t care about religion or God, or thinks they don’t, that these are fundamental stories makes them powerful.

COATS: These stories have shaped you already, and they’re going to continue to shape your life and continue to shape the culture that you’re living in. That means they belong to you as much as they do the most religious people you can find, even the fanatics. This is as much yours as it is theirs. Wouldn’t it be smart to at least become familiar with the content and spend some time with it? These are wonderful, deep, profound human stories. There’s an awful lot of failure and angst and sadness in them, and some joy, but not a lot.

IDEAS: Sarah and Abraham are part of what you call the world’s first soap opera. There’s also a Bonnie-and-Clyde thing going on there.

COATS: The Sarah and Abraham chronicles are outrageous stories. He basically pimps his wife out in order to take down two kings....There’s this amphibian sense about him. They’re carrying her off and he’s counting his money. I don’t find much about Abraham that I like as a man. [Yet] he has this moment where Yahweh had presented himself in human form and was about to go nuke Sodom, and Abraham’s walking up and saying, “what about if there were 10 good men?” Abraham was a guy who was never really going to step out for anybody, and he’s all of sudden really putting himself out in going to appear in front of this deity that can make him disappear with a hard look, and he keeps pushing him, not too hard, but pushing him just enough.

It goes right up against the whole way we perceive each other, in the same way I thought I had my dad figured out when I was 16. He seemed like this old codger even when he was a young man. He was literally the guy who would drive 40 miles an hour in the 70 mile zone....Well, we’d heard stories about him being this pool shark, and he wouldn’t show us anything. And then one of my friends challenged him, and he came down and ran the table. He was a reminder that I don’t know what I think I know, often.

IDEAS: Genesis has some of the most shocking stories in the Bible. We’re trained to think affectionately about Noah and the ark, Joseph and his coat of many colors. But their stories are not generally happy ones, are they?

COATS: We’re so trained to think of them as religious people, somehow good people. We’re supposed to look at Abraham as this admirable man. But if you pull back the religious covers just a little bit, what you’ve got is a man who is ready to eviscerate his son while he’s still living and then burn his body. If you heard it on the news, would you be impressed, or would you think, “Thank god they caught that maniac”?

IDEAS: Half of us would be like Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, reviling religion.

COATS: Part of the problem that we’re running into now, that’s creating this huge divide between fundamentalists and people like Dawkins and Hitchens and [Sam] Harris and so forth [is that] beginning in the 17th century or so, we began to look at the world as a mechanism. Things were or they weren’t. The idea of myth and allegory and metaphor and reading stories, even the Greek myths, as representational of human life, it began to fade away. Where we’ve ended up is when you say the word “God,” people immediately have this idea of the big man in the sky who looks kind of like us, only he floats and you want to keep [on his good side]. You have to believe in what Bill Maher calls the talking snake, the Garden of Eden, that man just popped up out of nowhere - when all of that was always intended by the authors to be taken as representational, not as history.

IDEAS: Does the real meaning of the Bible change over time?

COATS: There is no final interpretation. The ancient rabbis and the medieval rabbis and the current wiser rabbis, like my wife’s family temple in Fort Worth, they’re really clear that they don’t have the answer. Nobody ever will. And the one who says he or she has the final word is somebody you need to run from, as fast as you can get.

IDEAS: I suppose that would include somebody like Hitchens.

COATS: I sometimes wonder about Hitchens. If what he’s up to is being what an old teacher of mine used to call “the wedge,” the guy who just sort of sticks this thing between your teeth and you have to notice it and pay attention to it and deal with it, good for him for having the stones to do it. But if you’re really believing that man would be better off without any form of religion, you’re kidding yourself.

Michael Fitzgerald is a writer based in Millis.

From The Boston Globe

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Original Sinners - John R. Coats

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