Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Worst Story in the Bible

When I was in nursery school (what they used to call preschool, back in the olden days), my favorite toy was a plastic Noah's ark, complete with plastic Noah, plastic Emzarah (Noah's wife), and two each plastic giraffes, plastic elephants, plastic lions, plastic tigers, plastic et cetera. When my own children were of preschool age (because that's what we called it in the not so olden days), they had their own plastic Noah's playset, though this one was bigger and cuter, probably made by Fisher Price or Playschool. I spent many a happy hour with mine, and my kids did with theirs, walking the animals up the ramp and onto the boat, floating it off in the air, perhaps even in the bathtub, never stopping to think about this:
The artist's name is Flora Tucinovic, the title is "Accurate Noah's Ark," and it depicts quite well the part of the story that we don't tell our children, because it really is a horrible, ghastly, abominable tale of global genocide committed by God. If you think human-induced global warming is doing bad things to the planet, you should really be bothered by God-induced global flooding.

Think about it for the amount of time it takes to summarize the story: because people suck, God kills everything except what one family can fit on a large boat. And that's it, the whole damn story, which for centuries has been held up as a child-friendly entry point to the Bible. It's a zoo on a boat! What's not to like?

The Disney version of the story--yes, there actually is one, starring Donald Duck, and it's the finale to Fantasia 2000--amps up the comedy. The one acknowledgment to the slaughter is a brief scene of unicorns and (I think--I haven't seen it in awhile) dragons laughing at the silly people loading the ark. That's how we tend to rationalize the massacre: all those stupid people who didn't listen, getting what they deserved when they were locked out of the ark and got drowned. Ha ha! Stupid nay-sayers. Enjoy your swim, suckers!

Of course, if death was a fair and frequent price for ignoring warnings, there'd be very few of us left. I, for one, have been smarter than many friends and relatives when it came to choosing romantic partners, training for marathons, purchasing cars, choosing careers, and yeah, I could die a thousand deaths and still have more coming to me. We all do it: we're all too smart for our own good, and except for those of us who ignored the warning to NOT GO THERE and wound up plummeting to our deaths when the snow bank collapsed or the creaky rail gave way or the trail really was too icy, we're still around, God's only punishment for us being stress fractures, broken hearts, and ruined credit ratings.

But back to the flood and the ark: whole generations of creationists have clung to this story as explanation for why there are so many dinosaur bones in the ground, and no corresponding Jurassic Parks for eco-tourists to visit. And oh yes, for why they can insist that evolution is "just a theory." Many a preacher has referenced its message of hope (Look to the rainbow!), has waxed poetic about how God redeemed Noah from the flood, conveniently forgetting that God caused the flood in the first place. And for those who didn't forget this, there's the convenient bit at the end where God (putting the rainbow in the clouds as a reminder) says, "Oh, that was far uglier than I planned. Next time I clean house, I'll be a bit less catastrophic." Which leads to awkward attempts to divorce "Old Testament God" from "New Testament God" who also, if you've read the whole book, either does or promises to do some pretty nasty, violent things.

For me, this whimsical but horrible picture, which showed up on the timeline of a Facebook friend this morning, summarizes every problem I have come to have with God. Being honest with myself, I know it goes back much farther than my struggles with the United Methodist Church: even as a child, I wondered "What about the other animals?"

I love telling stories. Stories reveal profound truths in ways that pure philosophy or theology cannot. They're also dangerous: people cannot always tell the difference between symbols and cold hard facts, and stories are often interpreted as history.

The best and the worst thing about the Bible is that it reveals its truths through stories. Some of those stories are keepers that tell us poignant, beautiful, tragic, powerful things about grace and redemption and everything else that makes up human existence. Others are cautionary tales locked into prehistoric understandings of cosmology, and while they still have things to tell us about ourselves, we're better off not accepting what they say about God.

But we're not given that choice. The Bible is an in-for-a-penny, in-for-a-pound document. Picking and choosing, as Thomas Jefferson did, leaves us with a pile of scraps. Which is why I think we're best treating it like Moby-Dick, a sprawling, messy, spectacular piece of literature that is both magical and flawed, that tells us all manner of things about ourselves, but ought not be taken too seriously.

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