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The Bible is a big story made up of little ones, many with no useful messages for humankind other than Be very, very afraid and Never, ever forget to bring a gift. What is the larger story’s message, though? Good vs. Evil? I held this view myself once, back when I knew the book mostly through other people: manic preachers, dubious politicians, and beaming pro athletes. Then my dead mother sent me to the source. What it taught me was that Good and Evil can’t do battle until they’ve been intelligibly defined, which Genesis failed to do for me. It convinced me, in fact, that this feat may be impossible—at least in a culture reared on Genesis, that welter of contradictions, paradoxes, double standards, selective prosecutions, random mercies, tantrums expressed as earthquakes, and solemn contracts slyly overturned by people who benefit in perpetuity. Fundamentalist types bemoan the “moral relativism” that allegedly ails the modern age, but relativism feels like clarity compared with the free-for-all described in Genesis.
It reminds one of those fat old Mafia novels that covered my mother’s nightstand in the seventies. The Godfather. Honor Thy Father. They were all about survival, wealth, betrayal, envy, secrets, sibling rivalry, and sex. They were filled with jealous women, deathbed oaths, and scenes of old men making promises to young ones that stir up trouble for decades afterwards. Their writers stole well from the scriptures. They added felt hats and machine guns but kept the plots.
There is genuine grandeur and mystery in the book, an impression of mad, pre-rational majesty and wild immensities of stone and spirit. Since God banged the gong of creation in the first verse, a great wave of energy has been pushing forward, scattering herds and cities as it moves and seeking out and filling human vessels—resilient conduits of blood and seed—through which to pump its proud and punishing will. The process doesn’t run smoothly. It’s ferocious, proceeding bestially, anarchically, yielding ironies and bitter jokes that are downplayed by Christians who allegorize the story as a prophecy of Jesus Christ. Nor does Genesis behave like a conventional pop-culture myth in the manner of the Star Wars movies, which rely on symmetrically pitted heroes and villains and mystic quests of self-discovery. The book is more realistic than those fictions, more friendly to forces mundane and arbitrary.
The Bible can’t be read quickly, that’s the main thing. You have to slow down for it, step away from life. How long did my mother pick at its huge rock? I can’t be sure, but I’ll bet it took her years. Actually, I can be sure. There’s something I haven’t told you, see—something I didn’t know about myself for four or five months after I found her Bible.
She owned a second copy. Also annotated. The ink was much lighter and older, the pages crinklier. It was in the same box as the first one, at the bottom, and the reason I didn’t see it was that I stopped looking after I came across the first one. I was crying too hard. I was thinking I’d barely known her.
Preview more of Walter Kirn’s My Mother’s Bible.