Friday, August 23, 2013

Say What? Joe Wenke's Satirical Take on the Bible

As the son of evangelical Christian missionaries, the Bible played a large role in my youth. But the Bible and I have always had a complicated relationship. On Sundays, as I was reading the holy book along with a teacher or a pastor, I was frequently filled not with a peace that passes all understanding, but with an anxious, wrenching feeling. Older and (presumably) smarter people were always telling me this book was truthful, good, the basis of morality and justice, something I should use to guide my decisions.  But when I read the book, the actual words and stories troubled me.

I’ve read the Bible many times, and I still come to the conclusion that the god of the Bible is a jerk. In many cases, he’s the exact opposite of all I consider to be “good.” Despite his ultimate power, he’s petty and desperate for love. The sadistic violence he unleashes upon other tribes makes the film Braveheart look tame. The Old Testament god seems utterly obsessed with violence and slaughter. In book after book, he commands his followers to kill women and children. (When it comes to honoring religious texts, the killing women and children is a deal-breaker for me.) He promotes slavery.  (Another deal-breaker). He inflicts group punishment on innocent people. (I’m going to stop listing the deal-breakers at this point.) Women are treated as spoils of war. In the case of Job, God even turns his back on one of his own followers, as he submits Job to torture and conspires with Satan to kill Job’s family. And that’s just part of the Old Testament. The gospels as a whole are great — the ravings of the Apostle Paul not so much. 
But those Sunday school teachers and pastors from my youth seemd like decent, kind and loving people. I have fond memories of them and, for the most part, I think they were genuinely concerned with doing good in the world. So why on earth did they revere this god? Why did they pray to him asking for advice when his book was full of terrible advice? These questions tore me up for a long time. They still do.

Apparently Dr. Joe Wenke struggled along a similar path. His satirical book of essays, You Got to Be Kidding! The Cultural Arsonist’s Satirical Reading of The Bible, is his way of confronting these same questions. You know what you’re getting into as soon as you look at the cover, and if you’re still not sure what Wenke is after, his dedication page may help clear that up: “For Thomas Paine and Christopher Hitchens.”

In writing this book, Wenke, who grew up Catholic, read the Bible all the way through and wrote humorous snippets about whatever stood out to him. Wenke covers both Old and New Testaments, offering thoughts on the text and posing questions about what he reads. He examines the disturbing sections of the Bible and riffs on them with snappy, satirical language. His critique speaks for itself, but I appreciate how Wenke includes a blatant statement of purpose in his book. I’m sure many Christians would be angered if they read this book and, rightfully, they may ask: Why would this man write a book just to mock the Bible? Good question. Wenke answers it: “I’m very passionate about this. Bigots use the Bible all the time to justify their bigotry against gay and transgender people. They also use it to defend the subordination of women to men.”

Wenke is angered by religious-inspired hatred, the most venomous of which is reserved for LGBT people. To combat this ignorance, he chose to combat one of its main sources: the language of The Word itself. “Bible-believing haters do have a point,” Wenke writes. “The Bible, the inspired word of God, is hateful toward gay and transgender people, but that doesn’t impress me. I say just because God is a bigot doesn’t make it right. We all need to stand up against people who use the Bible and religion to justify their own hatred and bigotry.” I say, preach it, brother.

The cover of the book itself is a slap in the face of transphobia, and I give Wenke serious credit for featuring a transgendered woman on the face of his book. Dressed up in what looks like a Catholic robe, her big beautiful eyes looking skyward, the woman gives off a sense of strength and pride.

Wenke delves into all the most famous Bible stories, from David and Goliath to Samson to Noah to the crucifixion of Jesus. I’ve chosen a few of Wenke’s themes for further discussion.

On the Ten Commandments, Wenke writes: “If you really want to be honest, the first four commandments wreck everything. They’re all about God. He just can’t get over himself.” This perfectly sums up the way I always felt about the commandments. The first commandment is: You shall have no other gods before me. It’s clear from the Old Testament that god does not like it when his followers erect idols to other gods or dabble in other religious traditions. In story after story, god inflicts mass violence on people who dare to sample from the tap of deities. But a system of law that places more importance on the worship of a particular deity than it does on murder doesn’t deserve much time for reflection.

“One of the good things about reading the Bible is that you can skip some of it,” Wenke writes of the Old Testament. “Life is short, so if you’re busy or old or just have better things to do like day trading or organizing your closet, you can definitely skip parts of the Bible and not miss much.”

I’ve always found the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy to be eminently skippable. Actually, I find them laughable and ridiculous, but I’ve never taken the time to hash out all my objections in the form of an essay. Luckily enough, Wenke does just that. Commenting on the litany of quirky laws in these books, Wenke writes: “If you beat a pregnant woman to such an extent that she miscarries and dies, then you must die too, but if she delivers prematurely, lives and the child survives, you just pay a fine to the household. I don’t know what the rule is in this case if the husband gave the beating.” 

“If you’re fighting with another man and your wife tries to help you by coming up and grabbing him by the balls, she gets her hand cut off.” This last law never made any sense to me. First of all, if I’m in a fight with another guy, the last thing on earth I would want is my wife jumping in. That said, if my wife decides to throw herself into the fight anyway, the best thing she could possibly do is wail the guy in the dick. Assuming the woman has less physical strength than the man, hitting the guy in the balls is a completely reasonable way to fight. I also find it odd that this no nut-punching rule doesn’t apply to men.

One of the most repugnant Bible stories that Wenke takes on is that of “Jepthah’s Tragic Vow.” If you don’t know the story, here’s a brief overview: Jepthah makes a deal with God that allows Jepthath the power to massacre all the worthless Ammonites. But God’s deal comes with a catch: when Jepthath returns from the massacre, he must sacrifice the first person he sees. Jepthath goes out and does his slaughtering, and when he gets home and the first person he sees is his young virgin daughter. (I don’t know why Jepthath hadn’t thought of this possibility when he was making his deal with god.) God agrees to allow this young woman to leave home and mourn for her virginity for two months how nice of him, right? When she’s done mourning for her virginity (whatever that means) Jepthah destroys her in human sacrifice. End of story. I think this tale would be easier to read if the word “God” was changed to “Satan.”

Perhaps, like me, you’re wondering: Why didn’t Jepthath just break his promise to god and let his daughter live? Well, that probably wouldn’t have gone well either. See, later in the OT, god instructs Saul to slaughter the Amalekites, every man, woman and child, and all the livestock. (The OT god was apparently not a fan of livestock, as they’re always getting killed en masse.) Saul isn’t perfect at genocide, and he doesn’t kill every last living thing, which pisses God off something fierce. Soon Saul is being hunted down by god’s next pick, David. 

I don’t want to give the impression that Wenke objects to everything he reads in the Bible. Indeed, he likes a lot about it. Wenke, like me, is quite a fan of this Jesus character. One of the chapters on the New Testament is titled “Jesus is Cool.” And, when you boil it all down, he really is. Causing trouble, calling out hypocrites, healing the sick and wounded, caring for the poor, Jesus does it all. I love that guy.

That said, some of the stories about Jesus strike Wenke as odd, such as the temptation of Jesus by Satan. Wenke sets the scene: “Now suddenly Jesus and the devil are standing on top of a high mountain they really do get around and the devil shows Jesus ‘all the kingdoms of the world,’ and he says, ‘All of these I will give you if you fall down and worship me.’ I’m sorry but this is the stupidest fucking temptation of all. This would be like somebody standing with me in front of my house and saying, I’ll let you live here if you kiss my ass. I already do live here, shit for brains. Now get the fuck out of my face.”

Have you ever read the four resurrection stories side by side? It’s an interesting (and confusing) experience. Wenke describes it like this: “It’s really weird that the resurrection of Jesus is without question the single most important event in the entire Bible and it gets a single paragraph of coverage in each of the four gospels — that’s it — and none of the gospels agrees on who came to the tomb and discovered that the body of Jesus was no longer there or frankly any of the details of the scene.”

Wenke can come off a bit cocky and cheeky at times, but for the most part his critiques are poignant and hilarious. If you’re an atheist or agnostic, you’ll find a lot of ammo in this book. If you’re a Christian, I encourage you to read it. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll question some of your assumptions about the best-selling book of all time. Or maybe you won’t give a shit.

If this book accomplishes one thing, I hope it pushes prejudiced people toward acceptance of LGBT people just as they are. Because if you disapprove of human sexuality, and you base that disapproval on the Bible, you’ve got some serious explaining to do.


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