If you’re the kind of reader who takes the text of the Bible as the inviolable Word of God, chances are Mark Russell’s God Is Disappointed in You (Top Shelf Productions) will not be your cup of myrrh. If, however, you’re a liberal smart-ass like myself – or just a more open-mindedly spiritual person – then this book will be a hoot. An attempt to condense every book of the Bible into modern language and with jokes, Disappointed provides an entertaining trek through a tome that many readers (myself included) have found a chore to actually wade through.
The project stemmed, Russell explains in an afterword, from a three-paragraph summary of the Book of Job that he’d written for a friend. At the encourage of cartoonist Shannon Wheeler (Too Much Coffee Man), the writer decided to do the same for all the other books of the Bible, though he quickly realized that three paragraphs would not suffice for a majority of the books. As a result, the summaries – each accompanied by a suitably snarky Wheeler cartoon – range from two- to seven-pages long.
Using modern vernacular and witty contemporary metaphors (e.g., describing Adam and Eve’s days in Eden as “a lot like living at a Grateful Dead concert”), Wheeler captures all great and appalling stories from both Old and New Testaments – along with all the tedious exhortations and yowls from Paul and the rest of the Epistle writers – and retells them with a humorist’s eye toward the sometimes dickish (see King David) human behavior that’s described in them. One of my favorite moments comes in a retelling from the Book of Samuel of the prophet Elisha’s confrontation with a group of boys who had made fun of his baldness; in retaliation for this act of childish rudeness, Elijah summoned up a team of wild she-bears who mauled all of the boys to death. “Nobody knows why Elijah didn’t just summon up a whole head of hair,” Russell wryly concludes.
In a few books, Russell gets even more playful with the material: Psalms, for example, is written like a K-Tel commercial for King David’s Greatest Hits; Jeremiah’s Lamentations is written to read like a high school emo kid’s bad poetry (“Ode to a Failed Prophet [Gravel Face]”); Song of Solomon is presented in the voice of a twitterpated teenage girl. When he gets to the New Testament, he describes Jesus as a “notorious shock preacher” to the Pharisees. Summarizing Christ’s take on the afterlife (itself a controversial concept at the time), Russell writes from the Gospel of Matthew, “As Jesus described it, Hell is simply a place where shallow people don’t know what to do with themselves because there isn’t a Pottery Barn.”
Though Russell is attempting to retell the Bible in its own terms, there is no way he can avoid dealing with a work as open to so many interpretations without occasionally falling into interpretation yourself. This can be most fully seen in his take on Revelation, inspired by Elaine Pagel’s Revelations “not as predictions of events thousands of years in the future, but rather, as the prayer of a man who had witnessed the destruction of everything he loved and thought the end of the world was at hand.” Sure messes with my appreciation of that Sleepy Hollow show, though.
Packaged in a faux leather cover with gilded paper and a red ribbon place keeper, God Is Disappointed in You has the look of a more conservative religious work – until you note the Shannon Wheeler cover cartoon of a giant hand reaching down to flick away an unknowing kneeling worshipper. Russell’s publisher calls his approach both irreverent and faithful, and if you believe that both attitudes can co-exist in a consideration of this most influential of works, then you’ll probably laugh at much at it as I did.