Way back in March this year I read an article in the Guardian about the (in)famous American cartoonist Robert Crumb and his recently completed four-year project to illustrate the whole of the Book of Genesis. Described as an ‘acclaimed satirist’ and ‘hero of underground comics’, he worked directly from the King James Bible and Robert Alter’s translation to illustrate the first book of the Bible.
I thought at the time that this would be yet another attempt to upset religious people and pour sneering scorn on their holy books. After all, his publisher Jonathan Cape was heralding the book as a “scandalous satire” which “presents a complex, even subversive, narrative that calls for a significant re-examination of both the Bible’s content and its role in our culture”. The publisher also called it a ‘reinterpretation’ of the Book of Genesis.
Now, I wasn’t going to write or say anything about this book until after the Times had published an article about it. The writer had a copy of the book sent to me so that I could comment on it for the said article. I had a very interesting and intelligent conversation with the journalist over the phone after I had read the book quickly. But I didn’t want to preempt the article by blogging it.
Then today I saw myself quoted by Ben Leach on the Telegraph website saying:
I didn’t think it was satire. He set out to say; ‘this is important, fundamental myth’ and it seems to me he’s done a good job.
Well, I did say that … to the Times journalist. But I have not had any contact from or conversation with Ben Leach from the Telegraph. So, where did this come from? I am interested to know. [Note on 19. October: I have now found the Times article from which my quote was (partially) nicked.] Why? Because the article is headed as follows:
A sexually explicit illustrated Book of Genesis by controversial artist Robert Crumb, which features Bible characters having intercourse, has been condemned by religious groups.
Actually, it hasn’t. Or, at least, it wouldn’t have been condemned if the said journalist hadn’t rung up Mike Judge of the Christian Institute who (from his response) clearly has not seen or read the book. When I got my copy it said on the cover, ‘Adult supervision recommended for minors.’ And ‘The first book of the Bible graphically depicted! Nothing left out!’ When I read it I thought it was excellent and realised that this is simply a case of an inept publisher trying to sell more copies by sensationalising what isn’t sensational.
In other words, what it says on the tin is not what you find within.
I would simply make the following observations:
1. Genesis is a bit racy at times and tells stories of sex, lying, violence, hypocrisy and all the other things that are to be found wherever you find real people. The book is about real people and real things. If you can’t cope with that, don’t read Genesis in the first place.
2. Surprisingly (to me, at least), there is no pornographic representation of sex acts that are graphically described in words in the original. If children need to be protected from drawings of breasts and a man ‘lying with’ a woman, then pity help the children.
3. The text of Genesis has been stuck to faithfully and taken seriously. Isn’t that brilliant?
4. The drawings bring the stories alive and impress upon the reader the ‘flesh and blood’ reality of the people and events described – thus rescuing them from the sort of ‘Holy Scripture’ we gloss over and making the stories powerfully and engagingly real.
5. Crumb faces the problem of how to depict God directly. In an interview he said: ”My problem was, how am I going to draw God? Should I just draw him as a light in the sky that has dialogue balloons coming out from it? Then I had this dream. God came to me in this dream, only for a split second, but I saw very clearly what he looked like. And I thought, OK, there it is, I’ve got God. He has a white beard but he actually ended up looking more like my father. He has a very masculine face like my father.” He had considered, he said, drawing God as a black woman. “But if you actually read the Old Testament he’s just an old, cranky Jewish patriarch.”
Well, I disagree with the last bit, but I take his point.
So, who are the people likely to take offence at this book? I guess it will be the people who (a) haven’t read it or (b) take offence at anything that involves bodies, sex, God or cultural intelligence.
Ignore the sensationalist nonsense. If the publisher thought this was ‘scandalous satire’ and ‘subversive’, he should be sacked for having failed. It is an excellent book and well worth a read.