Heresy is easy to scrounge up. All one needs is the Bible. I mean just the Bible. And that is exactly how Slate editor David Plotz cooked up a carefree pot of blasphemies in his recent book Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous, and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Word of the Bible.
While bored during his cousin’s bat mitzvah, Plotz—“a proud Jew, but never a very observant one”—unsuspectingly picked up the Bible on the pew in front of him and started reading. Unfortunately (or fortunately), he just happened to open it up to the story of Dinah. He was so shocked by the grim sexual details, and the fact that he had never heard them before, that he decided then and there to read the entire book and blog his responses to it. “Blogging the Bible” then became this book in which Plotz chronicles his interpretations and summaries to nearly every chapter of the Hebrew Bible. His goal was simple: “find out what happens when an ignorant person actually reads the book on which his religion is based.”
Witnessing a sarcastic, biblically illiterate person read the Bible “unmediated by teachers or rabbis or parents,” is quite the experience, akin to watching a frat boy try to make spaghetti for the first time without a recipe. It is at times humorous, unsettling, and enlightening (sometimes it helps to see all the ways something can go wrong before the right way makes sense). But is there lasting value to seeing God’s word through such a sloppy inspection? What do his snappy, irreverent observations—“God is like Norman Mailer on a bad day” (in reference to his treatment of women)—accumulate to?
Plotz hoped that Good Book would give readers a raw version of the Bible: “I didn't want to spend a lot of time trying to contextualize [the Bible], forgive it, and make excuses for it,” he said in an interview with Christianity Today. But, ironically, every comment he makes is seeped in contextualization—of a most untraditional sort. He contextualizes with pop culture, referencing Married with Children, the Lifetime Channel, David Mamet, Entourage, Pulp Fiction, and Jack Nicholson. He contextualizes with politics, comparing David to Bill Clinton, Joseph to Chairman Mao; he picks up on pro-choice language in Exodus, notes that Leviticus has the first separation of Church and state, and draws in some Adam Smith. And Plotz is very transparent about contextualizing with his own personal experiences. In short, his take on the Bible is anything but the uncontaminated version that he was hoping to communicate.
But what it does become is a reminder to Bible-believing readers why Christianity and Judaism are bolstered by centuries of debate and agreement. Plotz’s example underscores the value that preachers, rabbis, and commentators add to one’s understanding of Scripture. One can read the Bible on one’s own and come to understand some of it—even Plotz had several profound eureka moments—but to appreciate the depth, unity, and nuance of a complex God, it helps to have some assistance.
With humorous lucidity, Plotz illustrates our dependence on, yes, context (gasp!). He reveals our desperate need for tradition and authority, sources of context which help us grasp the parts and the whole of Scripture. Context is a keystone of hermeneutics. Without it, we would come to think that God is “scatterbrained” and that Joshua is a “genocidal brute." We would think the moral behind Jacob and Esau is “don’t bother treating loved ones right, since the suckers always forgive you.” We would think Ruth is just about a nice family and that Ezekiel is just a tripped out, hippie prophet. Without the contextual gridlines of tradition, we would all swerve into heresy at every new “begat” and “O Israel.”
In that same CT interview, Plotz said, “I bring a fresh, unjaded eye to the book that Christians love. Anyone who can make you look differently at something you love—that's of great value.” And he’s right. As a result of his reading, I grew increasingly grateful for all the sermons, lessons, liturgies, sacraments, prayers, and hymns that I have at my fingertips which help me process, and ultimately appreciate, God’s bizarre and marvelous Word. And though some of these aids could lead me astray and others may promote heterodoxy, the point is, when it comes to understanding the Bible, collective wisdom is more foolproof than individual intellect.
G.K. Chesterton perhaps explains this best when he notes that tradition is intrinsically democratic: “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.” Plotz may sincerely think that he is doing a democratic service by offering readers an untraditional version of the Bible, but he is in fact disregarding the votes of thousands of years of deliberation. If Plotz wanted to the read the Jewish Bible “as it relates to his religion,” he should have read it through the counsel of his ancestors.
Nevertheless, as he progresses through the text, Plotz inadvertently gains an appreciation for the context he tried so hard to eschew. For example, when he comes to the blessing of Ephraim and Manassah in Genesis, Plotz suddenly and excitedly understands his paternal, Shabbat responsibility to place his hand on the head of his son and bless him. Before, rituals were just meaningless “mumbo jumbo” to him. But after reading Genesis, he wrote, “I understand that I am heir to an ancient tradition, and am responsible for preserving it.” In the last chapter called “Should I Read the Bible?” Plotz claims to be a “full-on Bible thumper.” He thinks everyone should read the Bible, just like everyone has to read Shakespeare or the Constitution or Mark Twain, because it is so educational: “It was as if I lifted a veil off my culture.”
The only trouble is that for him, those rituals didn’t become an aid to faith. He still doesn’t believe Ephraim and Manasseh ever existed. In fact, reading the Bible and appreciating his tradition became a hindrance: “I began reading Genesis as a do-nothing Jew who believed in God. But as I have been reading, I find myself turning into the opposite, practicing my Judaism but doubting in God." Perhaps that was the problem, though. He elevated ritual above his belief in God. His hermeneutical circle got all twisted up.
So reading every single word of the Hebrew Bible didn’t make Plotz a practicing Jew, and I doubt if he had read the New Testament he would have become a Christian. But it did bring him around to tradition. And though tradition isn’t sacred Scripture, it does put one in conversation with God. Even Plotz gets this: “But mostly I’ve ended up in a yearlong argument with my Boss." And arguments, as our ancient councils have shown, are a good way to avoid heresy.
Kristen Scharold works in book publishing and lives in New York City.