Second coming

With its hip new edition of the Good Book, Grove Press aims to save the Bible from the fundamentalists.

Published November 29, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

There's this terminally hip bar, I can't remember the name, and I'm drinking too much gin, smoking cigarettes that don't belong to me and -- here's my confession -- reading aloud from the Gospel According to John. Those I'm reading to, they're friends mostly, and friends of friends, and I doubt a single one of them believes any more than I do in God the Almighty, let alone in Jesus Christ and his amazing Technicolor resurrection. A blond girl named Lauren takes the book away from me, but only so she can read for herself. "It's almost Ginsberg," she sighs.

I've been carrying John in my coat pocket all week, ever since it came in the mail from Grove Press, along with the three remaining gospels, Genesis, Exodus and six more installments from the Bible, each individually bound in slick trade paperback. There was a press release, too. "The most radical approach to the Bible since Gutenberg," it said. And in that terminally hip bar, listening to Lauren read John 20:11, I begin to believe the hype.

They're called "Pocket Canons," and they're priced at $2.95 apiece. Each one has a celebrity introduction (by E.L. Doctorow, Charles Frazier, Doris Lessing, Kathleen Norris and Bono, among others), followed by the King James text, from which not a single thy, thou or thine has been omitted. They're slimmer than a Palm Pilot, and not much bigger all around. In England, where nearly a million copies have sold, the fundamentalist Christian set is already screaming bloody sacrilege. One can only imagine how their New World brethren will react as the American edition hits bookstores -- 24 shopping days shy of Christmas -- on Dec. 1, 1999.

Probably it won't make much difference what they say: Even the planned first printing of 600,000 should be enough to put a Canon in the pocket of every post-ironic street cynic from Manhattan to San Francisco. Lauren has me thinking -- now she says she wants to trade me my Gospel for a drink, which she points out is twice as expensive -- that the fundamentalists should be nothing short of terrified. The most radical approach since Gutenberg: If infidels like Lauren start reading the Bible, if this Jesus character catches on the way that, say, Harry Potter has, mankind's greatest work of literature -- the cornerstone of Western culture and of Judeo-Christian morality -- may just be freed from the hands of bigotry before Patrick Buchanan manages to shut the library doors for good.

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The Bible has a serious image problem. In the 28 years I've been alive, its never quite been respectable reading. The Christian right has done its share to give the Bible dirty political connotations, and the Mormons have made it socially suspect, but I think no group has made the Good Book look worse to more people than the otherwise innocuous Gideons.

Because I was raised Jewish, in a secular big city way, the first Bible I ever encountered was in a motel room. My family must have been on some sort of vacation, taking New England by Pontiac. I don't recall any of the sights, not a single battlefield or riverbed, but I do remember one night opening drawers in an artificial woodgrain cabinet by my bed and finding a book -- left behind by some previous motel guest, I assumed, for me. A fat red book, hardcover and packed tight with words. When my mother saw what I was holding, she snatched it from my hands as if it were a roach trap. "That's not for you," she said, or maybe, "That's not for us," and then she proceeded to tell the not-quite-literate me about the kind of things that "we" didn't read.

As a lesson, it stayed with me, but less because of what my mother said than because the distinction she drew so perfectly fit my nascent snobbery. It wasn't a Jewish thing, per se, not reading the Gideon Bible in motel rooms. (I've never met a Catholic, Protestant or atheist, who's condescended to do so either, or at least not one who's willing to admit it.) Rather it was a class thing, a socioeconomic thing, most fundamentally a cultural thing.

Motel rooms, with their rubberized decor and their economy room rates, were some place decent people spent the night only because they had no better option. Otherwise, those motels were the territory of polyester traveling salesmen with pedophilic histories who loved God the way they loved little boys and who would undoubtedly one day be found accidentally dead at the shallow end of someone else's swimming pool.

With their bright vinyl covers and the plain-spoken pages in between, those Gideon Bibles matched the traveling salesman sensibility the way a Prada bag fits a Condi Nast girl. The Gideon Bible gave all Bibles a bad name for me the way one poisoned batch of Tylenol sometime in the early '80s has made me forever wary of acetaminophen.

And had it not been the Gideon Bible, it could have been virtually any other edition in print in the second half of this century. Packaging a Bible to fit the churchgoer sensibility is like preaching to the converted. More crucial, translations into a familiar vernacular make Jesus sound like the idiot savant pseudo-Messiah he almost certainly was and lend God all the apparent moral authority of, say, Rudolph Giuliani. Biblical stories simply don't work when the players are mortal, life-size, familiar. Told in remedial English, the miraculous sounds inane. Consider the astonishing appearance of Jesus, risen from the dead, in the final chapters of John. First, the King James translation:

Simon Peter went up, and drew the net to land full of great fishes, an hundred and fifty and three, and for all there were so many, yet was not the net broken. Jesus saith unto them, 'Come and dine.' And none of the disciples durst ask him, 'Who art thou?' knowing that it was the Lord. Jesus then cometh, and taketh bread, and giveth them, and fish likewise.

Now the same story, as told in the "Good News New Testament" (text copyright 1966 by the American Bible Society):

Simon Peter went aboard and dragged the net ashore full of big fish, a hundred and fifty-three in all; even though there were so many, still the net did not tear. Jesus said to them, "Come and eat." None of the disciples dared ask him, "Who are you?" because they knew it was the Lord. So Jesus went over, took the bread, and gave it to them; he did the same with the fish.

"Come and eat," Jesus tells his disciples in "a translation that is at the same time faithful to the original text as well as clear and natural to the reader." This guy is the Messiah? He sounds more like my mother.

Partially it's a matter of my "Masterpiece Theater" complex: Like all too many Americans, I've been conditioned to believe that something old and European is culturally superior to something new and American, regardless of its actual quality. Certainly it's true that the language of the King James Bible would have been more commonplace to a reader in 1611 (the year the King James translation was completed) than it is to somebody today. But the miraculous, too, has grown foreign to our ear. More important is the simple truth that no translation before or since 1611 has given the Bible the authority of perfection. Here is the voice of God; if King James's translators had themselves been omniscient and omnipotent, they could have done no better.

Put another way, later translations, while more secular in their language, are less so in an essential respect: In 1611, the Church may have been fractured but religion enjoyed a universality it has never seen since. To translate the Bible in the 20th century is to set it against the prevailing culture, to wage a holy war on behalf of Christianity generally, and one particular sect of Christianity specifically. The translation found in, for example, the Gideon Bible, carries a missionary burden. Of course the King James translation did, too, but it was written free of the propagandistic demands placed on later translations; the King James translation had the luxury to serve literature and art as faithfully as it served the church. In the Gideon Bible, belief is a necessary condition; in the King James Bible, as in Ovid's "Metamorphoses" or Gibson's "Neuromancer," suspension of disbelief is sufficient.

I'll admit there's something disconcerting about these Pocket Canons. They're the approximate format of the City Lights Beat Poets series. The cover photos, done in the merciless black-and-white of downtown art photography -- a deserted country road opens Exodus, while a huddled man lost in shadow hovers over Job -- and the glossy stock on which they're printed has about as much in common with the embossed leather preferred in Gutenberg's day as the God of Abraham has with the God of Jesus. That Psalms is introduced by U2's Bono, or even that Mark is prefaced by Barry Hannah, sounds like the opening of a none-too-promising "Saturday Night Live" skit. There's a high-speed cultural collision happening here. The question is whether it's a case of fusion -- or fission.

I know fission when I see it. A couple years ago, Verso sent me its new edition of "The Communist Manifesto" (which has, now that Marx has followed God to the grave, an awful lot in common with the Bible, at least from a marketing standpoint). Verso is unrepentantly leftist: Reprinting "The Communist Manifesto" could not have been intended as either an act of archeology or one of absurdism.

Yet the book's svelte design -- publisher Colin Robinson called it slim enough to fit in the pocket of a Donna Karan dress "without ruining the line" -- and Verso's aggressive distribution program -- plans called for the book to be sold at Prada boutiques -- suggested a political identity crisis bigger than any comrade Gorbechev ever faced. But the coup de grbce was the cover illustration: A simple red flag painted by post-communist pranksters Komar and Melamid. (Before the Soviet government expelled them, the two famously executed official portraits of themselves as Lenin and Stalin). It was as if only under the protective cloak of irony could Marx's most famous book save itself from looking ridiculous.

The Bible, too, has been variously cloaked over the centuries. The 1977 paperback edition of the Good News New Testament -- the translation that has Jesus telling his disciples to "Come and eat" -- is one of the most inexplicable in design. The words "GOOD NEWS" are emblazoned atop a photo-montage of picture-postcard Hollywood, as if to lend the screen magic of Roy Rodgers -- whose Hollywood Boulevard star is pictured alongside the Palladium and the Wax Museum -- to the life of Jesus Christ. Why? Because with the Son of Man dubbed to sound like you and me, something is needed to rescue the gospels from the banality of our early-to-bed lives. And in 1977, flea-bitten Hollywood was the closest thing we had to the mysterium tremendum.

I've seen these Good News Bibles around for as long as I can remember. Usually I find them in cardboard boxes at garage sales, not so incongruously grouped with the thrillers and bodice-rippers. "Ten for a dollar," I'm told. Inevitably, the person making the offer, male or female, is fat and ugly.

I'm being shallow here, but marketing is a shallow subject. I have never stooped to buy a Good News Bible at a garage sale, even for 10 cents, certainly because it's a "Today's English" translation, and also because my peers would respect me a whole lot less if they ever caught me reading it. But the former explanation is unfair (if I'm awed by Don DeLillo in today's English, why should I assume that the Bible can't be brilliantly rendered in my own tongue?) and the latter is circular (nobody I commonly associate with reads the Good News Bible because nobody else I commonly associate with does so). And while both nonetheless certainly have their place, I suspect the primary reason for my aversion to the Good News Bible is a sort of false causality every bit as idiotic as it is potent: If I read the Good News Bible, I will grow fat and ugly.

Which at last brings us back to the Pocket Canons. If the Bible is to be read by the urban sophisticate demographic -- if it's to be taken back from the fundamentalist Christians -- it has to enhance that demographic's image: People like Lauren have to be convinced that reading the Bible, like drinking Diet Coke, will make them thin and beautiful. Just as the Good News Bible played on the Hollywood dreams of middle America, the Pocket Canons have to reveal more urban sophistication than Lauren has seen in her lifetime.

In truth, though, the King James Bible is shockingly modern, unlike "The Communist Manifesto." It's a measure of the power of biblical stories that they don't age, that they said as much to the medieval mind as to the ancient, that they've exerted an influence over works as dissimilar as Martin Scorsese's "Last Temptation of Christ" and Michelangelo's "Pieta." The greatest artists of any era -- I use artist in the broadest sense -- eventually turn to the Bible for their stories, not because they've run out of creative energy, but rather because they've recognized that the Bible is the "Arabian Nights" of our civilization: that it contains every possible story. Andy Warhol's "Last Supper," Norman Mailer's "Gospel According to the Son," these aren't the heavenly insurance policies of aging men. They are the work of artists who spent a whole lifetime developing the craft needed to confront such material on their own terms.

But I also mean there's a way in which the Bible seems peculiarly millennial -- or perhaps the millennium seems peculiarly biblical -- in aesthetic sensibility. Here are narratives every bit as unreliable as the most postmodern dada doggerel and as melodramatic as the most indulgent prime time TV, stories that recklessly cross high culture with low in the interest of moral absolutes that may or may not lend meaning to life. We're crashing a New Year's ball at which David Foster Wallace, David Lynch and Jacques Derrida are the guests of honor. Is it any wonder that Bono's at the back of the room reading Psalms?

I meet Grove/Atlantic editor-in-chief Morgan Entrekin at his downtown Manhattan office. What with his unshorn blond hair, Entrekin could be a figure from the Bible, an old testament prophet perhaps, albeit one in new testament jeans. In addition to the Pocket Canons, this season Grove will publish books by William S. Burroughs, Dennis Cooper and Darcey Steinke -- hardly Pat Robertson's bed-time reading -- and it seems almost obligatory to ask him what Matthew, Mark and Luke are doing in such company.

"I try to publish quality books," he says. "This is probably the best book of all time." I ask him how it fits Grove's market. "The market for the Bible is everybody," he tells me. And the Pocket Canons? Are they targeted, as most books are, at a specific subset of everybody? Entrekin tells me a story about sitting on a airplane next to two nuns. He says he was minding his own business, reading a Pocket Canon. The nuns got interested. They wanted to see. They wanted to know where they could get some Canons of their own.

What Entrekin says is true: Everybody is smitten by these books. (He's no exception. When, at the Frankfurt Book Fair a couple years ago, the editor of Canongate -- the British publisher of the Pocket Canons -- showed him the first rough mock-ups, he bought American rights on the spot.) But nuns are not Grove's core audience. Nor are bookstores in places like Nashville. But the orders keep coming. It was Entrekin who first called the Pocket Canons "the most radical approach to the Bible since Gutenberg." As I've said already, a single night at a terminally hip bar convinced me that he was right. But only after talking to him about their genesis -- and their exodus from the U.K. to America -- can I fully appreciate why.

"The moment I finished reading Charles Johnson's introduction to Proverbs in manuscript," Morgan confides, "I had someone run to the bookstore to buy me a copy. I'd never read Proverbs before. I always thought it was so old-fashioned." Proverbs was a book of the Bible I'd never taken the time to read either. Certain proverbs are as familiar to the Western ear as classic Madonna ("As you sow so shall you reap."). But 31 chapters of advice more sensible than your great aunt's shoes? Anyone who can find the poetry in that deserves a National Book Award.

Charles Johnson won the National Book Award in 1990, we're told in an author bio printed opposite the first page of his introduction. We also learn that he's a "widely published literary critic, philosopher, cartoonist, screenwriter, essayist and lecturer," and that he's "one of twelve African-American authors honored in an international series of stamps celebrating great writers of the twentieth century." Already Proverbs assumes a certain appeal: Johnson's name on the cover serves as a sort of testimonial, a thumbs-up from the world of literature and philosophy (and cartooning). Charles Johnson is respectable because he appeared on a postage stamp; Proverbs is respectable because a man of postage stamp stature likes it.

But the sales pitch is more nuanced than that. From Johnson's essay, we learn that he's a Buddhist, and, even more compelling, one who converted from African Methodist Episcopalianism. Alone among religions, Buddhism has achieved a sort of diplomatic immunity in our culture, or, rather, Buddhism is the Switzerland of religions. Buddhists are respectable in both the religious and secular worlds. We suspect practicing Episcopalians of zealotry, whereas we esteem practicing Buddhists for their enlightenment. And a practicing Episcopalian turned Buddhist? Thy will be done.

Yet Charles Johnson hasn't forsaken Proverbs. In fact, he finds that it complements his new faith:

In the world's religious traditions, eastern and western, the Way of understanding and wisdom begins by sumptuously feeding the
spirit and starving the illusory sense of the ego into extinction ... and is realized through a worldly practice that gives priority to the experience of our elders (our global inheritance) over ephemerae in a life that
embodies humility, service, and a culture's loftiest ideals

If this Buddhist, this man who our society can admire for his faith without condemning him for his religion, sees our global inheritance in that old testament verse, who are we to dismiss it as old-fashioned? Or, as Proverbs says, "Doth not wisdom cry?"

Johnson's religious affiliation and his literary reputation lend Proverbs just the sort of respectability it needs in the wake in the Good News Bible, the Gideons and the fundamentalists, but in all this smug consideration of packaging, it's easy to lose sight of the most pressing point: What he says is right. Proverbs does feed the spirit, and sumptuously. Of course we already know the lessons. We know that good is good and bad is bad. But, like any clichi, it's so commonplace that the truth of it loses friction. Proverbs revivifies the obvious by rejecting its everyday clothing in favor of its Sunday best:

My son, if sinners entice thee, consent thou not.

If they say, 'Come with us, let us lay wait for blood,

let us lurk privily for the innocent without cause':

Let us swallow them up alive as the grave;

and whole, as those that go down into the pit:

We shall find all precious substance,

we shall fill our houses with spoil.

Cast in thy lot among us;

let us all have one purse;

My son, walk not thou in the way with them;

refrain thy foot from their path:

For their feet run to evil,

and make haste to shed blood.

Good is good and bad is bad: that's the gist of those 13 lines, of Proverbs, of the whole fat Bible -- but to leave it there makes about as much sense as reducing the whole of Shakespeare to a one-line executive summary.

To call the Bible great literature is not merely to speak of its superior sentence structure. Proverbs is part of a much larger project. Somehow we forget: The Bible is our moral heritage. Its moral authority grows out of its literary merit, and its literary merit grows out of its moral authority. These two sides are as inseparable as the front and back of the same page.

Perhaps we don't need to read the Bible to accept that good is good and bad is bad, but unlike the Christian right's knee-jerk ploys, the Bible demands of us more than acceptance. Jesus spoke in parables not because they made it easier to understand his message, but because they made it more difficult. Beyond mere acceptance, the parables demanded engagement by his disciples.

Just so, the Bible, with its myriad contradictory stories, its archaic and often temperamental phrasing, its anachronistic opinions on slavery and women, its half-truths and outright lies, requires of us something quite apart from belief in any specific religious system. To read the Bible is not, as the fundamentalists would claim, to learn how many years ago the Earth was created, or even necessarily to accept the existence of God, but to fight for clarity in confusion, for light in darkness. In film, theater, painting and literature, we find truth in falsehood through the alchemy of art. We earn truth. We achieve wisdom.

The real importance of the Pocket Canons lies in their own lie, the act of cultural subversion that has Lauren chasing after John. Of course the Bible is no better because a Buddhist postage-stamp model with a National Book Award approves of Proverbs or because Revelations bears a Reni Burri image of a mushroom cloud on its cover. But a deluge of 600,000 clever, jaunty Pocket Canons with their trumped-up hipper-than-thou posturing may just break the spell cast on the Bible by the fundamentalist right. If so, it won't just be Genesis and Exodus, Job and Proverbs, Luke and John, we'll rescue from the land of the dead, but -- freed of its own dirty, inbred, small-minded, vinyl-covered, polyester-suited reputation -- morality itself.

Let us pray.

By Jonathon Keats

Jonathon Keats is an artist and writer. His collection of fables, "The Book of the Unknown: Tales of the Thirty-Six," was published this year.

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