The stories and characters of Genesis have already shaped you more than you realize. They are embedded in the foundation of our culture. They are part of us all and belong to us all, the religious and nonreligious alike.
In this vivid new interpretation of Genesis, former Episcopal priest John R. Coats looks at the ancient text and its characters in a new light, as storiesabout people whose day-to-day concerns, triumphs, and failures are not unlike our own. In fact, understanding the people and stories of Genesis can help you understand your own life, family, and colleagues. In the relationships of Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Rachel and Leah, and Joseph and his brothers, for instance, you can see an all too familiar escalation of the toxic sibling or even workplace rivalries that tear at the fabric of contemporary life. And in Abraham's ponderous response to the command to "Go forth," and Noah's unquestioning commitment to build the ark, you can revisit the question of your own life's path -- your calling.
In Original Sinners, these characters take on stunning contemporary relevance as they find themselves confronted with extraordinary situations and circumstances that they'd neither asked for nor had anything to say about. Using stories from his life as well as the lives of people he's known, Coats creates a model that can be used to examine your own life and discover aspects of yourself in the characters whose lives unfold in these primordial stories.
Weaving together biblical scholarship from many traditions with his own reflections on modern life experiences, Coats explores the character strengths and weaknesses of the men and women in Genesis (and of his own character), revealed through their handling of ordinary matters of life and death as well as in their encounters with the divine.
Was Jacob a heartless grifter or simply clever? Was Eve the original sinner or an innocent? Was Joseph a self-absorbed brat or a forward-thinking leader? In Original Sinners, Coats pulls back the wrappings that have hidden the humanity of biblical figures and reveals the vibrant drama of these foundational narratives. "Different clothing, yes, and language, and customs, yet at the human level," he writes, "they were just as greedy and generous as we are, as gullible and crafty, as moronic and brilliant, as cowardly and brave. They are us, their stories, our stories, mirrors in which to see our best and worst selves."
An entertaining narrative voice, personal reflections from the author's life and insightful interpretations combine to produce this accessible and lively new addition to Genesis scholarship. Coats, a former parish priest and management consultant, cogently applies "source theory"--the hypothesis that four separate documents went into the first five books of the Bible--to familiar stories whose "ethical and spiritual DNA" seeps through Western culture. Through his approach, the author makes complex biblical scholarship comprehensible, while challenging the reader to examine the actual text. Asserting that biblical characters are "rather relentless in their mirroring," Coats uses second-person hooks ("Imagine yourself as the first human being") to invite readers to use their own perspective to interpret the text. Cheeky chapter headings entice and inform; "First, about the ark, which is most definitely not a boat" begins his analysis of Noah and the flood. While cultural references from Maimonides to Mae West spice up the narrative, Coats's exploration of how his own history and self-understanding inform his interpretations makes the most compelling reading. His reflections on his own aging and his analysis of the stories of Noah and Abraham prove compelling and thought provoking. (Nov. 17)
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November 16, 2009
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Excerpt from Original Sinners by John R. coats
Read the Bible in your own way, and take the message because it says something special to each reader, based on his or her own experience.
-- Joseph Campbell
When I was a boy, a measure of goodness was the number of gold stars beside one's name on the chart in the Sunday school room in our church in Pasadena, Texas, these stars earned by a successful recitation of the books of the Bible and regular recitations of select verses. Sunday school, Training Union (think Sunday night school), and Royal Ambassadors (a service-evangelism club for school boys), as many as three church services a week, two weeks of vacation Bible school at the beginning of every summer, plus a week of summer church camp with its Bible study and three services per day, and one or more weeklong revivals a year (a few under large, clay-red tents) -- to grow up in the Southern Baptist church of the fifties was to stand beneath a waterfall of words from and about scripture. Central to Baptist doctrine was the insistence that the Bible was true as it was written, and I accepted this, even as I began to notice what appeared to be discrepancies.
So it was more from curiosity than rebelliousness that I began to ask questions. It seems I asked too many of them -- and of the wrong sort -- as I was expelled and sent home with a note that read, "Johnny can come back to Sunday school when he stops asking so many questions." With orders from my mother to keep my mouth shut, I was allowed back the following Sunday. But I never quite returned. As the years passed, I continued to separate from the idea of the Bible's literal truth until, finally, I put it away.
Now what? If the stories are not to be taken as literal, as the record of the divine presence in human affairs, and of the reasonableness of faith, of what use are they? Certainly, they're valuable as literature, and I did consider them as that, but I couldn't get past the quirk of having regarded Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, et al. as historical figures, people who'd lived as surely as I live. While I could accept that they were not that, I could not consider them as entirely fictional. Then, in time, I was presented with an entirely new way of regarding the Bible, its characters, and their stories.
No, I don't believe there was a Garden of Eden, an Adam and Eve, a Cain and Abel, but I do believe in the metaphor -- I live inside it, and so do you. The story of Adam and Eve rings with perfect pitch because my own life has been a constant cycle of falling from grace (Eden), regaining it, falling, regaining. I've been my brother's and my sister's keeper, yes, but from my own smallness of spirit, my refusal to forgive, all of it justified by old hurts, like Cain I've also been their killer, and, ironically, my own. In Jacob's penchant for sneaky manipulation, I see myself with greater clarity, and in the cluelessness of Joseph's youthful na?vet? and arrogance, I've come to understand the hatred that came my way in the summer of 1967 when, having been disliked from the first day by fellow workers in a shingle manufacturing plant, and for reasons I can only guess at -- "College Boy" was more an epithet than a nickname -- I showed up for work one day in my own "coat of many colors," a canary-yellow '65 Mustang convertible, my father's gift on my twenty-first birthday.
For more than forty years, I've witnessed the same dynamics at play in all sorts of people from all walks of life and from all over the world. Jealousy, greed, stupidity, brilliance, cowardice, bravery, hate, love: so much of the ordinary business of just being alive remains the same, even from one millennium to the next, which is why the Bible works as metaphor. And as metaphor, it loses all purchase as a measure of one's goodness or badness -- loses its tyranny. Instead it shows itself to be a mirror in which to see one's own humanity, one's flaws of character, one's strengths through the lives of the people found in its stories. There is pathos here -- Adam and Eve being tossed from the Garden of Eden, the death of a son, the banishment of another, the flood, the sacrifice of Isaac, Esau's grief and anger. And humor, too, far more than you might imagine. As I hope to show you, the narrative is run through by a river of irony that might bring an amused grin and head shake in one moment, a chuckle in another, and even a time or two of laughing out loud.
And therein lies the unbreakable bond we have with the Bible and its stories: whether or not we can ever establish the historical existence of the characters -- the people -- in the stories of Genesis, we have to admit that we can find the same pathos in their lives, the same humor and irony that we find in our own. While researching his book Abraham, author Bruce Feiler spoke with a ninety-three-year-old scholar-archaeologist in the old city of Jerusalem, who told him, "All we know of Abraham is in the Bible. In the ground there is nothing...If you're looking for history, you'll be disappointed. If you're looking for Abraham, you won't be."1 Nor will you be disappointed if you are looking for Sarah, or Isaac, or Rebekah, Jacob, Rachel, or Joseph. An unexpected surprise may come, however, when, looking closely at them, you begin to see your own reflection.
A great irony in my life is that, despite my Southern Baptist upbringing, my own journey of the spirit had its genesis in my hometown's Roman Catholic church, where, in the fall of 1958, during a nuptial mass, I had what might be called an "ecstatic" experience, a split second in which my imagination went off the rails, or something actually happened. Whatever it was, it left me confused, frightened, fascinated, and curious to know what it meant. I still don't have a clue -- and therein lies the greatest irony of my life because what I've done with my life, the paths I've gone down, the man I've become, can be traced back to that single moment more than fifty years ago.
It happened again, or seemed to, in the spring of 1968, my senior year in university, this time in an Episcopal church, during the nuptial mass for my college roommate. Then, two weeks later, a car crash left me with two fractured vertebrae, a broken jaw, pulverized gums, and broken teeth. Ten days in the hospital were followed by more than two months in a rented hospital bed in the den of my parents' home. I had little else to do but watch the limited fare of daytime television, read, and think. With graduation impending and the military draft a certainty, my life plan in the near term had been boot camp, advanced infantry training, and Vietnam. If anything followed that, it would be graduate school, or joining my dad in the family business, or something else. But that was then, before the accident. Now, given that it would be at least six months before I could even rise to a sitting position without first strapping on a metal back brace, and that I faced more reconstructive oral surgery, my fitness for military service was in serious doubt. With room to consider the future, and still reeling from that second "experience," I convinced myself that my future was in the church. Within a year and a half, I'd joined the Episcopal Church, married my college sweetheart, moved to Virginia, and had begun my first term at the Episcopal seminary in Alexandria, just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C.
The idyllic existence of a graduate student had little in common with the lives of the clergymen with whom we worked on weekends, the life for which we were preparing ourselves. Toward the end of my second academic year, with just one more to go before graduation, ordination, and a life I was not at all sure I wanted, I requested and received permission to leave academics for a full-time internship in a local parish, St. Mark's, on Capitol Hill in the Episcopal Diocese of Washington. While I assumed the year would be important, I didn't suspect that my assumptions about almost everything were about to be blown sky-high during what would prove to be, to that point, the ride of my life.
By the mid-1950s, the phenomenon known as "white flight" had eroded St. Mark's membership to the point that the diocesan authorities considered closing its doors. Then, with new leadership calling on "Interested Pagans, Bored Christians, and Others," and offering lectures and discussions on topics such as "Christianity and the Intellectual" and "Christianity and the Bored Citizen," the parish began a remarkable evolution, in time gaining a national reputation for its innovative uses of the arts in liturgy, for its revolutionary approach to Christian education, for its policy of "Whatever you believe, whatever you do not believe, you are welcome at this table," and for the commitment, caliber, and enviable talent of its laity. All were welcome to attend services and classes, but membership in the parish was another matter. The first requirement was participation in the the "St. Mark's Confirmation Class" (including Episcopalians previously confirmed), a sixteen-week course that included two mandatory weekend retreats. The next step was to assume one's share of responsibility for the overall well-being of the parish. This included a financial commitment but also a pledge of at least twenty hours of service each month, these spent in groundskeeping, choir, altar guild, teaching (children or adults), or one of the various committees or special projects.
While the rectors of St. Mark's were strong leaders, the organizing principle of the community didn't allow the sort of overwhelming personality found at the center of most successful churches. Instead that center was to be found in the community itself, and in the biblical principle of accountability -- learning to live by the power of one's word, that is, learning to be faithful, without which servanthood is impossible. I learned that one of the undergirdings of faithfulness is vulnerability, stretching oneself, with support, toward living the sort of unhidden humanness that Jesus had lived. This called for a reading of scripture that I'd never before imagined -- to read it not as admonishments about right and wrong, good and bad, but as a vast, reflective surface in which to see our own lives, individually and collectively. Making that switch, shifting my perspective on stories and characters I'd known since before I could read -- regarding it all as metaphor -- proved to be its own task.
Among my duties that year would be to deliver the Sunday morning sermon, not once but several times, and to what I considered the most intimidating gathering of human beings I'd ever faced. The congregation at St. Mark's neither expected nor wanted pat answers and theological dazzlements from the preacher, but rather his insight into the human issue at the heart of the scriptural passages for that day, and plain talk, human being to human beings, about how that issue had presented itself in his life, and how it had been resolved, or how it continued to have ramifications. In fact, talking about some issue that remained unresolved could be far more useful because it was human, after all, to have ongoing struggles, such as character issues, self-doubts, damaged relationships with family and friends. My mentor that year, the rector of St. Mark's, said that if I was honest in telling them about my own struggles, the congregation would love me for it. If I tried to impress them with my education, or manipulate them with sentimentality, it was a near certainty that someone from the congregation would stand and ask me to stop and sit down. If they didn't, he said, he would.
Over the coming weeks, I observed that he used a biblical story almost as a morality play, the characters as archetypally human, dramatic elements in the narrative. Without it seeming forced, contrived, sappy, or inappropriately revealing, he would use one or more of the characters as a device for reflecting on some personal experience or some element in his own character. Afterward, whether it was immediate, hours later, or the next day, I might find that something in me had stirred, as if he'd been speaking about me, or on my behalf. Once, for instance, after he'd talked about his own struggles with authority (the scriptural passage may have been from David's conflict with Absalom, his son), I had a better sense of my part in the ongoing conflicts with my bishop and my father. Following the service, people talked about the sermon, how they'd seen themselves reflected in the character(s) in the story. These responses were possible -- and here was the key to the method -- because the stories are our stories, and the people in them are all of us. That reflective use of scripture in teaching is the only model that makes sense to me. Because it does not require a religious point of view, it makes the Bible available to everyone.
Graduating in 1973, I served parishes in Texas and California. In 1981, I joined a startup training organization, The Life Training (now More To Life), which, by 1990, had opened training centers in the United States; London and Cambridge, England; and Johannesburg and Durban, South Africa. We taught people to change the negative stories they told about themselves that led to repeated failures; it was a psychological but also a spiritual process, the beginning of an exodus from bondage of spirit to freedom, a personal journey to be taken in the company of others on the same path.
By the time I left the organization, in 1995, I had led or co?'led more than three hundred two-day trainings, plus evening workshops and lectures, logging more than ten thousand contact hours with groups as diverse as Wyoming cowboys, British nobility, federal prison inmates, white and black South Africans involved in the anti-apartheid struggles, plumbers, housewives, M.D.s, househusbands, electricians, psychologists, psychiatrists, mechanics, CEOs, and high-court judges. I also went into management training and consulting in corporate culture, as well coaching and crisis intervention.
After eight years in the church, having served a wealthy parish, a fabulously wealthy parish, and a blue-collar parish, I can say that the human issues in each bore a striking similarity. Yet there and in the groups I've worked with as a trainer, the powerful, the powerless, and those in between virtually always expressed surprise at discovering that they stood on the same human ground. Few of the stories I heard in the course of those twenty-plus years -- and none of the stories I lived -- would fail to find their parallel among myriad human tales in the Bible.
Above I slipped it in that you, too, live inside the metaphor. I invite you to consider that possibility, to ponder whether these ancient stories resonate with your own. As you will see from my own musings, you need not be religious for this. In fact, if you're alive and breathing and reading this, these stories and their characters have already shaped you, and in greater measure than you might think, as they have shaped us all, religious and nonreligious alike. Their moral, ethical, and spiritual DNA are embedded in the foundations of our civilization, in our awareness of who we are as a people and as individuals, our best and worst selves.
Because I'll be referring to it from time to time, a brief overview of what biblical scholars call the "Source Theory" of the Bible is in order. The first five books of the Bible, known to Jews as Torah, to Christians as the Pentateuch, are composed of an interweaving of four primary strands of source material, known to biblical scholars as "J" (Jahwist, or Yahwist), "E" (Elohist), "D" (Deuteronomist), and "P" (Priestly), each of separate authorship, at times telling different versions of the same story (for example, one creation story is told by P in Genesis 1:1-2:3, another by J in Genesis 2:4-4:24), and, except for J and E, written in different historical periods. Their work was put into its final form by R (Redactors), editors of such genius that some modern scholars regard their work to be a fifth source.
Finally, since this book follows the book of Genesis, I suggest that you also read the biblical text itself, and that you use a modern translation. While I have relied on the translations of Robert Alter, Richard Elliott Friedman, Everett Fox, and others, unless otherwise noted all biblical quotations are from the Jewish Publication Society Tanakh, 1999.