Anyone out there who’s read the whole Bible from cover to cover, raise your hands. What, no one? Is this any surprise? David Plotz, a self-described lax (if not lapsed) Jew, in a moment of boredom during a rare synagogue visit, picked up the Torah from the rack and flipped it open at random to the story of the rape of Dinah and subsequent revenge slaughter by the Israelites of an entire city. Needless to say, this horrifying hair-raiser rarely if ever gets preached from pulpit or bema, and certainly doesn’t make it into the Sunday school curriculum. Plotz, editor of Slate, then took it upon himself to read the entire “Good Book” and blog about it.
Blogging the Bible became one of the most popular blogs on the net, inspiring a host of imitators including Blogging the Koran, Blogging the Bhagavad-Gita, Blogging the Tao Te Ching, even Blogging the Obama Stimulus Bill. The edited version comes down to us with its notable subtitle.
Plotz does not pretend to be a scholar, but he is a fresh and incisive commentator. His peculiar blend of irreverence and insight make for both worthy instruction and laugh-out-loud entertainment. Zingers ring off every page. Examples: “I love the way God drops in, like a nosy neighbor in a sitcom.” “God is like Norman Mailer on a bad day.” “Real estate is a strangely dominant theme in Abraham’s life.” “ ‘Oh my God, in you I trust.’ Let’s stamp that on some coins.” Along the way, though, he grapples with serious theological questions: does God prefer obedience or good deeds? Intelligence or simple faith? How many commandments do we truly need? Most moving is Plotz’s Job-like struggle with the cruel, capricious character of the Old Testament Lord Himself. Disillusionment comes early. “I came to the Bible with the notion that it was overflowing with righteous heroes,” he writes, “but so far Genesis has been one evil act after another… Isn’t something upside down when God is the villain of holy scripture and man is the hero? To my modern eyes… collective punishment is the great moral conundrum of the Torah (the Flood, the Tower of Babel, Sodom and Gomorrah, the Egyptian Plagues, etc.). And God is always on the wrong side of the question.” Plotz admires the occasional passage that nods toward a universal brotherhood of man—but these oft-quoted “Kumbaya verses” seem aberrations in a tribal world of a “chosen Us” and a “nearly Subhuman them.” In the end, Plotz confesses to being left “brokenhearted” about God, although greatly enriched by the literary and cultural heritage he has encountered.
Some might wonder why Plotz left off at the Old Testament, and didn’t delve into the New. He himself writes that he’s been told (by Christians) it’s like leaving halfway though a movie. “I’m a Jew,” he writes. “I don’t, and can’t, believe that Christ died for my sins. And even if he did, I still don’t think that would wash away God’s epic crimes in the Old Testament.” Very likely Plotz would have found the NT a typical good cop/bad cop routine, with the bad cop winning out in the Book of Revelations. Ultimately—although he doesn’t say as much—his often trenchant wit would lose its self-deprecating warmth and charm if he aimed it at sources beyond his tradition.
Brian Campbell’s second collection is Passenger Flight. It is reviewed here in the Rover.
For further excerpts and commentary on Good Book, see Brian’s blog.