In the beginning, again, with Alter (and Twain)

In the current London Review of Books, James Wood reviews Robert Alter’s The Five Books of Moses, and says the new translation “greatly refreshes, sometimes productively estranges, words that may now be too familiar to those who grew up with the King James Bible.” (Via TEV.) I can’t wait to read it.

I’ve mentioned this before, but in elementary school I could recite long passages from the King James. I was expected to remember them — in history and science — months after being tested in Bible class.

With the exception of John 3:16 (in which the New Testament God sends His “only begotten son” to give the sinners on earth “everlasting life”), no verses received more emphasis at my Christian school than the ones in the first chapter of the first book of the Bible. Genesis opens with a simple declarative sentence that lies at the very center of the Intelligent Design debate: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”

Many of my atheistic friends wouldn’t touch the Bible with a mile-long, pitchforked javelin, but I return to it from time to time, mostly for the language and the stories, but also because I believe denouncing Christianity without bothering to understand it dampens meaningful debate.

I worship Mark Twain’s satire precisely because he doesn’t just stand outside faith hurling contemptuous epithets. He knows his Bible, and he engages with it.

In Letters from the Earth, he unmasks God as a capricious tyrant so bent on tormenting His human playthings that He identifies even death as unwarranted leniency (in that it allows humans to escape “all further persecution in the blessed refuge of the grave”) and contrives to “pursue the dead beyond the tomb” by inventing Hell. And in his version of the Great Flood story, Twain parses out the logistics of carrying two of every living creature aboard an ark for months. Noah’s poor son, in Twain’s telling, is absolutely riddled with parasites. (Well, they had to be stored somewhere, didn’t they, while the rest of the earth drowned?)

H.L. Mencken praised Twain’s The Mysterious Stranger as a powerful rejection of Christianity “based upon a wholesale reductio ad absurbum. The thing is not mere mocking; it is not even irreverent; but the force of it is stupendous.”

(My friend G’s preacher father would agree. G’s dad grew up in the Church of Christ in Texas and devoted his young life to Jesus, becoming a missionary, traveling the globe to evangelize. While questioning his faith, he read Twain’s The Mysterious Stranger and wound up turning his back on the church for two decades.)


You might want to subscribe to my free Substack newsletter, Ancestor Trouble, if the name makes intuitive sense to you.