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Is This the First “Honest” Bible?

As Penn Jillette said right here on BigThink.com, “Reading the Bible (or the Koran, or the Torah) will make you an atheist.” Of course, just reading the Bible itself—all 66 canonical books (more in some versions)—is something few even attempt. Growing up Catholic, I went with the flow and took it mainly on faith, accepting the portions of revelation portioned out at mass or in school. For those who do take on the challenge of reading the Bible straight through, however, the result can be confusingly mystifying or, as Jillette argues, troublingly demystifying. Written by Mark Russell with illustrated by New Yorker cartoonist Shannon Wheeler, God Is Disappointed in You cuts to the heart of the matter, and sometimes down to the funny bone, to translate the Bible into terms that allow a modern reader to understand the wild, weird, and wonderful “essence” of the Good Book. “It is not my intention to mock the Bible with this book,” Russell writes in his introduction, “nor to endorse it, but merely to present it on its own terms in a way that is accessible and which relays the same sense of fascination I had when I truly discovered the Bible.” Russell and Wheeler create—you decide. In a world full of religious dialogue, is it possible that two comics have finally come up with the first “honest” Bible?

I chuckled at God Is Disappointed in You before I even cracked it open. It looks like a real Bible—faux black leather cover, silver-edged pages, a red ribbon bookmark. Look inside and you find text in black and red, ornate oversized letters to start each chapter, and even the words of Jesus Christ in red to stand out from the rest. But once you hit one of Wheeler’s comics, you realize that this isn’t any Bible you’ve ever encountered before. (The cover image of the massive Hand of God descending to flick an unsuspecting human from behind is a giveaway, too.) For The Book of Job, Wheeler sits God and Satan in a bar. “Care for a little bet to make things interesting?” Satan says as leans over to the Big Guy. Wheeler’s picture perfectly captures the senseless arbitrariness and barroom bravado of that enigmatic Biblical story. The Three Wise Men using GPS, Daniel cozying up to a box of “lion repellent” down in the den, Samson asking Delilah for “just a trim”—Wheeler skewers each revered figure irreverently and shares the humor of the incomprehensibility of much of the Old Testament.

Russell matches and raises Wheeler in the irreverence game. “If I had a religion,” Russell confesses, “I suppose I would call it Irreverence. I feel that the sacred exists only at the expense of the truth.” The text is full of great one liners. As “extra punishment” for Adam and Eve, God “ordered them to become parents.” (Watch this trailer for Russell and Wheeler’s extended take on the Garden of Eden and Original Sin.) “Much like a Kenny Rogers album, [The Book of Proverbs is] mostly advice about life, money and how to treat a woman.”  The Minor Prophets sound troublingly “like the Bible’s AM radio dial… constantly railing against the government and complaining about how the nation had lost its moral compass.” When Russell calls The Holy Spirit “the George Harrison of the Holy Trinity,” no further explanation is necessary.

But God Is Disappointed in You is much more than one liners. Russell reimagines several of the books of the Bible for modern life. Moses here delivers the Ten Commandments as a memo titled “Re: A Few New Rules.” The Psalms of David become an infomercial’s greatest hits collection. The Letter to the Hebrews becomes a FAQ page. It took Russell three years to cut the Bible down to a little more than 200 pages while still not cutting corners. More than just a crib sheet, Russell’s text truly gives you all the “need to know” bits without any of the confusing, unnecessary apocryphal-ler.

I grew to really love Russell comedic, no nonsense voice. “The whole ancient world was a bag of dicks,” Russell writes in The First Book of Samuel. “Even God was a bit of a dick.” Russell’s frustration with the violence and madness of the Old Testament and its hard-to-love God gives way, however, to a warmer tone in the New Testament. “God isn’t interested in your laws,” Russell’s Jesus tells the temple priests in The Gospel of Mark. “He doesn’t care about your sales figures. The only things God wants from you are the very things you lack: love and understanding.” Russell’s take on Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians may lack the King James Version poetry that makes it a wedding ceremony favorite, but it lacks none of the punch of sharply telling you what life and love are really all about. Reading some of these sections made me think back of Thomas Jefferson’s attempt to cut up (literally) the Bible into just the parts that sounded true to Jesus Christ. I’d like to think that Jefferson would not be disappointed in God Is Disappointed in You.

In his afterword, Russell recounts his amazement at the acceptance of early samples of God Is Disappointed in You by Christians, including priests and nuns. “They seemed to get that the book’s blunt, and often profane, sense of humor was an attempt at honesty rather than assassination,” Russell believes. Sometimes you just have to laugh, especially when it comes down to the too-often deadly serious issues of faith and belief.  God Is Disappointed in You doesn’t try to kill Christianity; instead, it tries to resurrect it. “Christ was easy,” Russell writes in his preface to The Acts and Letters of Paul. “Christianity was a pain in the ass.” By honestly pointing out the ridiculousness as well as the sublimity of the Good Book, God Is Disappointed in You makes Christianity less of a pain in the ass and more of a presence in your heart.

[Image: Shannon Wheeler. From The Book of Job. “Care for a little bet to make things interesting?”]

[Many thanks to Top Shelf Productions for providing me with the image above and a review copy of God Is Disappointed in You.]

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