In the Beginning

One of the pleasures of my life as a mom has been to share books with my kids. I read to the Eldest even when I was pregnant with her. I probably heard that it was a good idea somewhere, but I’ve also always loved reading aloud. In fact, that was why I wanted to act, because basically that’s what you’re doing (and there are those who would argue that that was all I ever did when I acted, hence my career as a writer). I love escaping into narrative, I love the power and force of language, and I love good stories. Since my parents were both great storytellers and had a knack for language themselves, it all fits.

I still read to the Youngest, nightly. We just finished a book called Bud, Not Buddy, about a kid growing up in Depression-era Flint, looking for his dad who, he’s convinced, is a great blues musician. It’s the best novel we’ve read in a while, after a spate of fair-to-middling. I try to do a fair amount of classics, but there’s an awful lot of good kid lit out there, esp. the Newberry winners (this is one).  And of course, the kid gets to pick some books as well. We’ve both unearthed some real dogs; the most recent was a bloviated prequel to Peter Pan that Dave Barry added a bunch of jokes to and that desperately wanted to compete with Harry Potter and…..ugh. Typing is not writing.

Whatever novel we’re reading, we always read from the Bible as well, something we’ve done for as long as either of us can remember. We’ve been through two illustrated kids’ Bibles twice each, and I figured it was time to start on the real thing this time through. I like the anchor of one book and one tradition, and since we talk a lot as we go through the stories – that a lot of people don’t feel the same way, that this particularly story is in lots of other places, etc. – it’s a pretty active reading. I’ve been so grateful over the years that my parents did this with me; aside from it’s being the cornerstone of the church of my choice, the Bible is threaded through all of western art, and a good working knowledge has really helped me in any cultural studies. It’s also very nice to be extremely familiar with the often-misquoted book to counter the myriad wackos. And, just as opera contains some of the world’s most gorgeous music, the Bible has some pretty amazing prose and poetry. So you can decide you’ll never go near either one, but you’re missing out. I’m just sayin’….

It’s interesting to read anything with a kid because you do see it through completely different eyes. Genesis is a very strange book, quite honestly. I first learned about the four writers theory in college, and I dunno if I quite go there, but there are at least 3 very distinctive voices at work. I noticed this time that the way the creation story unfolds is quite different between chapters 1 and 2. That actually makes a lot of sense. Whether or not Moses wrote the whole thing down as God breathed the words into his stylus (this is the party line from a lot of Christians), the stories were being kept alive orally long before the Genesis writer ever unrolled a papyrus. It makes perfect sense that people would have different versions of the same story.

What’s fascinating to me about the Genesis creation is the personality of God, especially when you compare him to all the other gods of the time. We don’t have a ton of Egyptian literature, but the gods definitely seem 2D, like Egyptian art: towering figures that, if they even register humanity, don’t think much more of it than they would a bug under their majestic feet. The Greek gods are ultimately cruel and petty; they contain both the greatness and absolute worst of human nature on a monumental scale, without a whole lot of subtlety (at least until you get to Euripides).

O.T. God – and God is the main character of the old testament, no question – is complex, and it’s shown beautifully in those first few chapters of Genesis. The chaper one narrative, with its gorgeous prose (the King James translation rules here) is rich, exuberant. God is tickled with his creation, like an artist who gets so immersed in the work that it takes over every waking thought. It’s like God makes one set of things on one day, then the next he realizes something else that will make it even better. He enjoys his work immensely, improvising like a bebop artist. In the other creation narratives that I’m familiar with, there doesn’t seem to be the same kind of innocent joy at the sheer process of making stuff. The Greek gods build their subsequent races of men like bored, spoiled kids, doing a half-assed job because they know they’ll probably toss most of what they make anyway. There are gorgeous American Indian stories, but for the most part animals do the heavy lifting, and you don’t get quite as invested as you do in a person. O.T. God is having a blast. In my making God in my own image (come on, we all do this), I imagine him looking at something in a little disbelief and saying, “Wow. That’s really good. Not sure where that came from….” That, at least, is my interpretation of the frequent line throughout chapter 1, “And God saw that it was good.”

Chapter 2 is interesting because the tone is so different, less grand, more practical. There’s also a time disconnect with chapter 1. God decides to make the man earlier: “no shrub of the field had yet appeared.” It’s only after the man appears that God makes him a home, the garden of Eden, and after he puts the man in the garden he adds some trees. And not until then does he add the woman, because “it is not good for the man to be alone.” See, he actually likes us – a radical shift from all the other gods. He cares about us enough that he doesn’t think it’s good if we’re lonely. This God, at least according to this writer, gets us, and more importantly, bothers to get us.

I think one of the images I have always loved more than any other in the Bible is that after the fury following the forbidden fruit episode, God sews clothes for Adam and Eve. The thought of this homey, comforting, loving act following the anger and amidst agonizing sadness – God weeping must be a terrible thing indeed – touches me every time. They can’t stay in the garden: they haven’t yet eaten from the tree of life, and to live forever with the dreadful knowledge of good and evil is too harsh a punishment. That’s why vampires are so miserable. So God sends them away, not because he doesn’t love them, but because he does.

 The Youngest has lots of questions. Where are the dinosaurs? Since the first people came from Africa, how come the garden of Eden boundaries are in Iraq? How does evolution fit into all of this? So we work our way through it together, the best we can, and sometimes I have to throw up my hands and say, “You know, kid, I don’t get it either.” What I think is important is that the kid feels safe and right questioning the weighty tome.

Religion/spirituality is a decision, not an edict. You can’t make someone believe something. But life is so much richer with the possibility of magic, miracles, and story, which maybe in a way are all the same thing.

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