Interviewed by Charlie Sterchi
This interview was conducted over the course of two weeks, via email, during the first 100 days of the presidency of Donald J. Trump.
In order to write “Twelve Bible Stories in Need of Revision,” it seems you’d need a fair understanding of these Bible stories and their context. Do you mind talking a little about your religious background?
Until I was 12 or 13, I went to my grandmother’s Methodist Church. Vaulted ceiling, Christ on the cross behind the altar where the minister spoke of service and personal sacrifice. Before church I went to Sunday School, where we went over the old standards: Adam and Eve, Noah’s Ark, Daniel and the Lion’s Den.
When I was around 12 or 13, my family moved, and I started going to a Southern Baptist church down the street from my house because my friends went there. These sermons took on sin and salvation, how we’d swim in the lake of fire and brimstone. There was an Invitation at the end of every service to come get saved. In Sunday School we read stories of God’s wrath more often than Jesus’ love. For three years I went to church camp, where we ran Bible drills during the day—who can find a certain passage the fastest, or flip first to the Book of Haggai. I also remember the church handing out pamphlets that would help us read the Bible in a year—each day we were to read X number of chapters.
Around 15 I dropped out. I was beginning to recognize metaphor, yet the Church—and I’m using the capitalized Church—believed the Bible was literal: Adam and Eve really existed, and were exiled for eating fruit. Jonah really was swallowed by a great fish. Years later, I would go back to the Bible for the stories. I would attempt to understand how history affected the Bible and the Bible—and religion—had affected history (and literature), but as a teenager I couldn’t understand how anyone could believe all humanity was destroyed by God, except for a relatively small ship with two of every creature on Earth inside.
You’re careful to point out that you’re using the capitalized Church. Your essay is of the same spirit. Even as you critique contemporary Christian culture, you maintain a degree of reverence. I’d argue that maintaining reverence is essential to making the essay work, but to play devil’s advocate (hah), why not release the banshees and go nuclear with this thing?
Because there are good things to come from religion, and I know there are lots of people out there who break the mold I set in my essay. It’s important to remember that, and I hope they continue to fight, convincing others who do approach the world as the culture I outline in my essay does, that those people are reading it wrong, and what’s really there is a better way.
How did you begin writing “Twelve Bible Stories?” Which story did you write first?
If you’ll pardon the awful pun, “In the beginning.” The Garden of Eden seems to be the first story I learned as a child, even before Jesus’ redemption, which makes sense, because you have to make people believe they’ve sinned before you can convince them they need forgiveness. So I started with the stories I heard in Sunday School that teach children not to question God, and to put their faith in Him always since, as I said, I began questioning those stories first, when I realized they were meant as metaphor.
What is it about the Bible stories you’ve chosen that makes them ripe for the kind of environmentalist commentary you’re doing here? Or is it contemporary Christian culture that is ripe for commentary more than the stories themselves?
I think it’s the culture, although of course I want to be careful and not paint with too broad of a cloth. But contemporary Christian culture has been politicized so much that the biblical lessons of love and acceptance have been mostly lost, and what we have been left with, no pun intended, is prosperity gospel preached by men living in forty-million-dollar mansions and flying private jets— which is the opposite of everything Jesus ever said. Prosperity gospel is the religious counterpart to capitalism, and capitalism drives a lot of the environmental destruction in the essay.
I’m interested in what you’ve said about prosperity gospel. Bearing it in mind, your essay serves up more than just environmentalist commentary. In your revision of Samson’s story from the book of Judges, for instance, we see how capitalism and prosperity gospel affect the individual rather than the environment at large—we zoom in. What strikes me most about this revision is not its difference from the original, but its similarity to the original, if we are willing to accept Samson’s hair before it was barbered as a metaphor for nature as God wanted it. According to the Bible, man is inseparable from his environment, and God has charged him to be its steward. Capitalism has driven a wedge, and prosperity gospel seeks to justify the wedge. Is this an accurate reading of your argument? Would you say this is the primary function of prosperity gospel? Am I missing something essential here?
It’s certainly accurate that we’ve become separated from our environment, and prosperity gospel never mentions that stewardship. I’d say the primary function of prosperity gospel isn’t the wedge itself, however. Prosperity gospel, from what I’ve seen, ignores that stewardship of the environment, or, to say it another way, our “dominion over the earth,” which, in the Bible, implies responsible rule. Or at least prosperity gospel interprets it—and by “it,” I mean, wealth, responsibility, etc.—in a different way. Prosperity gospel uses the subject’s own desire—money—to distance him from his environment. But also from God’s real words—we all know what Jesus said about wealth, even those of us—or especially those of us—who see the Bible as metaphor.
Do you think people who turn away from the Church are mistaking the culture for “The Way?”
I’d say the culture too often becomes “The Way,” for many, and those who turn away see that. But there is, or should be, at the heart of Christianity, Christ. I remember when George W. Bush said Christ was his favorite philosopher, which made me wonder when he, Bush, was going to start following Christ’s philosophies. I’m still waiting for that to happen.
Do you consider yourself a religious writer in, say, the sense that Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy were religious writers? Or are you a secular writer writing about religion? Is it even worth making that distinction?
I write in too many genres, about too many different topics, to say I’m any one thing. I get bored easily, so I move around often in writing.
O’Connor was concerned with—and I’m thinking of The Misfit’s famous quote here—the afterlife, and how we go into it, whether or not we have lived in such a way as to ready us for it.
I’m more concerned, in this essay anyway, with the way religion has been politicized to meet its own means. Opposing, say, same-sex marriage, has nothing to do with one’s own journey into the afterlife, and everything to do with oppressing others based on belief. I suppose the argument could be made they are attempting to save homosexuals from sin, but it was God who said—to use the Bible to combat the argument—“Set thine house in order.”
Is it worth making any distinctions, for that matter? Are categories like “Religious Writer” and “Environmental Writer” and “Secular Writer” simply distractions and a waste of our time?
Certainly many writers have common themes in their work. C. S. Lewis we could classify as a religious writer, I think, and, say, Barry Lopez as an environmental writer. But neither writes exclusively in those fields, and are both ultimately, like all writers, exploring what it means to live and breathe and walk on this planet. If we look at it that way, such distinctions might be helpful in understanding a writer’s work, and our own work, but ultimately we’re all tied together, no matter how we’re labeled.
I’ve been using words like “commentary” and “argument.” Would you say this has anything to do with the reason you classify “Bible Stories” as nonfiction rather than fiction?
I never thought about it, but you’re right—my essay is a fictional response to what I keep saying is fiction, but I never considered it fiction, because it is commentary, and an argument. The idea of the essay was always commentary—the arguments grew out of that, but it was always commentary: “Here’s how I think this story has been misinterpreted; here’s how this one no longer works.” Since the essay is always about the writer, then this was about how I see the world. We could argue fiction can do that too, but I didn’t want to further hide behind the screen of fiction. These are my comments, my arguments, so I called it nonfiction.
I mentioned earlier that I think the similarities are often more interesting than the differences between the original Bible stories and your revisions. The most striking example of similarity to the original is in the final revision, which isn’t a revision at all, but a quotation: “Conquest, War, Famine, and Death, who have come down out of the skies in the end of days, when man has turned against everything God has said.” It’s a bleak conclusion, and yet if we turn on the news…Would you say we’re we living in the end of days?
I have to believe that we aren’t. Part of this darkness and depression—and I feel it too—may be simply because we’re more aware of the news, and doom and gloom rule the news. But there is hope. We’re more aware of the news, but also more aware of ways to resist the negative effects of capitalism. We’re more aware that we need to hold our representatives accountable. We’re more aware of the environmental harm we’re doing to our planet.
I’ve often thought that the final battle actually comes down to education versus ignorance. We can find ways to use renewable, non-harmful resources. We can cut back, and eventually quit, our consumer-driven economy, and still find ways to happiness that don’t involve owning things. And I believe that with education, we can do things not in a tree-hugging, hippie, save-the-whales kind of way, but in a way that benefits everyone while still allowing autonomy of motion and life direction.
But I guess finally, I don’t really believe in the end of days. I don’t just mean Armageddon and the Rapture. There may come an end day for humanity, but life, as they say, goes on. Could be without us, but there’s no end to life.