A couple of books


 By Jon Morgan

There were a couple of books I read last year which I found helpful with working through my strict, literalist religious upbringing, and they might be of interest to others here.

The Story of God: A Biblical Comedy about Love (and Hate)

This was probably the book in 2020 that most frequently had me laughing out loud (though that may say more about me than about the book).

I don’t know how many people would actually categorise it as non-fiction, but it is an interpretation of the Bible, which much of my family would be very quick to place in the “non-fiction” category. And in the sections on Genesis and Revelation in particular I’m convinced it’s as true as the Bible is. As it says:

Based on a true story the Bible

Over the years I’ve read the Bible many times. I’m still familiar with it. And it’s that that makes this book both hilarious and healing for me.

Part of what sets it apart is that even the most surprising things in it have chapter and verse against them. Sure, those verses wouldn’t usually be interpreted that way. Perhaps they were taken in an unexpected direction, or perhaps they were taken literally for comic effect. But the verses are there.

The story is the story of a God who could create a massive universe, then fixate on one world:

The universe was massive, filled with stars and galaxies and planets. There was probably life sprinkled through it, God thought, but quickly realized that didn’t matter to him at all. What happened in the rest of the universe was of zero interest to God.

No, he was interested in one world. The earth creatures who know and obey him were the main things - the only things. He was already thinking of them - how they would love him - how he would test them. (They would fail the test, he’d already decided. That was alright; he was excited about the idea of disciplining them for it.)

From the curious tale of creating trees before the rest of the universe to the multiple Jesuses of Revelation, from God’s love of BBQ to the bat-birds of the law, I think it really works. It’s got some of the things we ex-Christians criticise about the Bible, but it’s also got a compelling narrative.

It’s the story of a self-critical God. Of someone who doesn’t always understand the decisions he makes, but who has to be right. Of someone who enjoys smiting people or burning them up, but isn’t quite as all powerful or in control as he thinks.

I also read the sequel, The Trouble with God, which branched out from the Bible into the Koran, the Book of Mormon, and L Ron Hubbard’s writings. It was in the same style and definitely fun, but probably less so for me because I was less clear on the references.

Small Gods

Terry Pratchett's Discworld contains a lot of humour.  However, from a religious perspective Small Gods stands out to me: It’s a great story, and there are just so many wonderful quotes about religion.

It’s the story of the Great God Om in reduced circumstances while the religious hierarchy set up in his name flourishes. Of a true believer seeing how the sausage is made. Of the consequences of dogma. Of words twisted in the hands of people seeking power. Of people finding their place in the world:

No matter what your skills, there was a place for you in the Citadel.

And if your skill lay in asking the wrong kinds of questions or losing the right kinds of wars, the place might just be the furnaces of purity, or the Quisition’s pits of justice.

A place for everyone. And everyone in their place.

It has all of Terry Pratchett’s native wit and brilliance, but like much of his work contains serious messages. There is much here that I wish I could have seen and understood 10 or 15 years ago - not that I would have been ready for it back then, of course…

In particular, there was so much I recognised of how we were taught to accept the Bible - human words from many writers - as the infallible message of an omnipotent God. That we were meant to distrust our own experiences rather than distrust those words:

“He says here he went on a ship that sailed to an island on the edge and he looked over and-

“Lies,” said Vorbis evenly. “And it would make no difference even if they were not lies. Truth lies within, not without. In the words of the Great God Om, as delivered through his chosen prophets. Our eyes may deceive us, but our God never will.”

While dismissing (without even bothering to read them) other religious books, such as the Qu’ran, that made similar claims:

It was the biggest non-magical library in the world. Half the philosophers of Ephebe seemed to live there now, and Omnia was even producing one or two of its own. And even priests were coming to spend some time in it, because of the collection of religious books. There were one thousand, two hundred and eighty-three religious books in there now, each one - according to itself - the only book any man need ever read. It was sort of nice to see them all together. As Didactylos used to say, you had to laugh.

We were taught to believe that every word in the Bible was the literal word of God.  This book both points out the problems with that and how religion can be used to gain power and authority to perform atrocities.

4 comments:

  1. Finished reading the "Diary of Ettie Hillesum," also entitled "An Interrupted Life," about a woman who found faith, love, and hope while in concentration camps in World War Two. The diary narrates Ettie's discussions with God as the Germans are gradually funneling her and other Jews into concentration camps. There are these long, winding, masturbatory discussions with God, with Ettie's faith flagging and reviving and always searching for signs to remain hopeful. What struck me was that she often had her fate and the fate of her loved ones in her own hands, and did not make use of those opportunities, because she felt she had to wait for a rescue from God. She was an administrator at Westerbork Concentration Camp, and was allowed occasional weekend passes to return to her home in Amsterdam, where her friends tried to convince her to go into hiding. She refused to accept their advice. I assume they let some concentration camp inmates leave the camps on occasion, to keep the inmates thinking that things were less dire than they appeared. In any event, the diaries ended when her God let her get picked for gas chamber. What is it they say, sometimes? "No fate, but the one we make."

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  2. It was on a Tuesday, what they called "Spa Day," when the nice Christians running the camp usually only gassed Jehovah's Witnesses and gay people, but in their largesse they held open a spot for little Ettie. She was 29 when they exhibited this "largesse."

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  3. All religious belief is delusion, shrouded in fantasy and wishful thinking. Get up off your ass and struggle to make whatever fate you desire. No one comes to rescue you, including imaginary deities. No one comes to "love" you. No one comes to succor you. If you want it, go get it. If you need it, ask for it or demand it or work to achieve it. If it causes you pain, jettison it. You are the master of your own fate.

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  4. Cowards grovel and whimper and hide in delusions about an invisible God. They cannot live their lives without delusions of protection, and I understand that -- life is difficult. Be brave enough nonetheless to live the life and die the death without blinders. It will be harder, but it is a more genuine way of living. You'll never get back the thousands of days and hours you spent gumming your hymn book. What a massive waste it all was.

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