October 26, 2009
What Genesis Has Made Us
Of all the books in the Bible, I'd say that Genesis has the most capacity to capture the imagination. Genesis features countless stories that get stuck in little kids' heads--Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Ark, Abraham and Sarah, Lot and Sodom, Abraham and Isaac, Jacob and Esau, Jacob and Laban, Joseph and his brothers, Joseph and Pharaoh. All these stories are on every short list for inclusion in every picture Bible ever approved for publication.
But Genesis has proven that it's not just for kids. It's Genesis that keeps the debate raging over whether we emerged out of a primordial soup or were formed by God from the dust of the earth, and whether our planet is thousands or billions of years old. It's Genesis that keeps literary critics interested in the Bible, as they trace back contemporary gender, ethnic and power dynamics to this constitutional epic. Journalists, comedians, artists, musicians, poets, scientists and politicians alike look to Genesis to stimulate their imagination. We are, in a sense, what Genesis has made us.
Of course, all this appropriation of Genesis doesn't mean that everyone reads it the same way; there are seemingly infinite interpretations and biases that Genesis can support. One of the most recent is Robert Crumb's graphic treatment, The Book of Genesis Illustrated. Crumb, an early innovator in underground comix who made his mark with irreverent humor and bodacious body parts (including the notorious Fritz the Cat), has shown his genius in later works both autobiographical and philosophical. R. Crumb's graphic Genesis is generating buzz from the New Yorker to UCLA's Hammer Museum as a shockingly comprehensive and sophisticated interpretation of the first book of the Scriptures.
Crumb grew up a practicing Catholic but left the faith at age sixteen. His participation in the drug culture of the 1960s and 1970s is a reflection of his broader appropriation of the Zeitgeist; his art from that era was cutely anarchic and hedonistic, displaying a sort of existentialism that is more fully acknowledged in his later illustrated introduction to Franz Kafka. His 1978 marriage to Aline Kominsky led to a more focused exploration of Jewish spirituality and worldview, which comes through in Genesis Illustrated.
Crumb is a man of his time, and his interpretation of Genesis is a reflection of that reality. For him, Genesis's God is an angry old man, committing deicide against polytheistic traditions even as he's portrayed creating the world in six days. Genesis is a chronicle of women nurturing the divine feminine in secret while men rule and wreck the world. Genesis is a statement on the way the world works, and a call to humility that's given expression fully and finally in Joseph's merciful treatment of his brothers at the moment of their reconciliation. For all its declarations of the origin of humankind and its Creator, Crumb's Genesis is a treatise on how to live well after God.
Crumb is entitled to his opinion, of course, and while orthodox Christians may find his work unpalatable, his interpretation will take its place at the table with other serious considerations of what Genesis means. That's a good thing: a book as ambitious as Genesis, with as much capacity to capture and shape our imagination, rewards multiple readings and broad conversation. One might argue that God himself invites us to look beyond the God of Genesis. After all, there's plenty more Bible where that came from, and to live well we would benefit from looking similarly toward the God of the exodus, the exile, the incarnation, the crucifixion, the resurrection, the Pentecost, the kingdom come.