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Author John R. Coats on “Original Sinners: A New Interpretation of Genesis“

FSB Associates: What inspired you to write a book based on the book of Genesis?

FSB Associates: What inspired you to write a book based on the book of Genesis?

John R. Coats: I wanted to do something different, to write a commentary on Genesis that took the conversation above the tiresomeness of the, “Is too,” “Is not,” squabble over whether the Bible is history. And I wanted to speak to both sides of that debate. The method I chose, learned some forty years ago, is not the usual extraction of a religious-cum-doctrinal lesson from the text, but that of mining the text for the human issues at its center, asking questions such as: “How are they like me, like us?” “If I dig around in their stories, will I see my own, something I need to see, however painful or pleasant?” Might I understand more about me, about us, about being human?” I have a hunch that the book had been writing itself for decades, waiting for me to notice. It was Phillip Lopate, my teacher during my last semester at the Bennington Writing Seminars, who suggested that I draw from my biblical-theological background. When I’d written two essays, parts of which are in the book, he encouraged me to write a book. Three and a half years later, “Original Sinners” was published.

The book of Genesis is core to the values held by many throughout the world. What kind of relationship does your book have with an audience engrained with preconceived notions about how the original stories fit into life?

An interesting relationship for sure. It’s hard, isn’t it, to take a fresh look at something familiar, to see it with “new eyes”? The more you love it or hate it, the more difficult the task of seeing around the mind-set to the thing itself. But that’s exactly what I ask readers to do – not throw away their notions about Genesis, mind you, but set them aside and consider Genesis as a narrative with human characters who do this, do that, do something else and along the way find themselves confronted by life-altering situations they neither asked for nor had anything to say about. Throughout the book, my focus is on the individuals in the stories, their behavior, character, whether they mature with time and experience, or stay the same. The inherent promise in this method of biblical interpretation is the possibility of seeing in the lives of the biblical characters not only a reflection of one’s own life, but discovering some clarifying truth. To facilitate that possibility, where there were parallels – and there were plenty – I’ve interlaced stories from my own life and the lives of people I’ve known. For instance, in Cain’s story and in Jacob’s, I saw, and learned more about, my own darker impulses. As I dug deeper into the feud between Noah and his oldest son, I unraveled a four-decade-old knot of resentment, and in both the young Jacob and Joseph I saw my own youthful penchant for jumping from one frying pan to next.

The pushback I expected from religious conservatives never materialized, but those who’ve read it have been excited at how the characters come alive. But I’ve been surprised and baffled by the rigid fundamentalism from the unreligious. The response shows up in a sort of syllogistic insistence that puts the same stamp onto anyone who finds value in the Bible. That’s a pretty broad sweep of humanity. I have a hunch it’s a reflection of the mostly silent rage from lives damaged by religion, and of very real fears, some of which I share, about the political and financial power of the religious right.

After reading “Original Sinners,” people unfamiliar or new to the stories of Genesis might acquire an opinion far from a major consensus. Could you describe an argument that might arise from an encounter between these two perspectives?

Let’s say the reader in question is a single, young woman raised in a “Bible-believing” family in a mid-sized American city. Taking a new job, she moves to a large city where she acquires a new, more cosmopolitan circle of friends. Their attitude toward religion and the Bible, while it is shocking to her, does lead her to question what she’d always assumed, to open up. She likes the freedom of it – a lot. But let it all go? Why the limited choices? One day she picks up a copy of my book and is surprised to discover that there is a tradition that offers a third choice. A few days later, she arrives at an event attended by her parents and several of her most vocal friends. She makes the introductions, and as she opens her briefcase to retrieve something, one of her friends spots the book, grabs it, and says, “You’re reading about Genesis?” Her parents, fearing their daughter had gone astray, say, “You’re reading about Genesis?”

She’s in a very tough position. The rise of religious fundamentalism with its denial of science and inherent threat to free thought and expression has spawned a pro-science, anti-Bible and very expressive countermovement in the “new atheists.” The players on both sides of this game have little, if any, room for those who disagree with the “correct” position.

Interpretations often require one to examine a subject from a distance. What are some examples of distant views that came into focus for you while writing this book?

Like it or not, the Bible’s DNA is embedded in the foundations of Western civilization. It has influenced the shape of our society and the lives we live. Given that, the Bible belongs, in equal part, to everyone. “Original Sinners” demonstrates yet another way that the religious reader can teach the Bible, and, for the reader who’s marginally religious or entirely unreligious, it demonstrates a way into the material that requires no “belief” beyond the universal constants of human experience.

Are you ever surprised by the types of readers you find enjoying “Original Sinners”?

I think my primary audience is the curious reader who is interested neither in being saved by religion nor in being saved from it, who, on seeing the word “Genesis” in the book’s title, will not assume to “know,” without further inquiry, what he or she will find between its covers. I thought the book would find an audience among readers who considered themselves “searchers,” “thinkers,” people who, at most, would likely never be more than marginally involved in religion but, nevertheless, might be curious about finding a way into the biblical material that did not require them to believe this or that. And it has. Where I’ve been surprised is hearing from conservative Christians who’ve found it useful. And there’ve been a few biblical scholars who’ve liked it, and others with advanced degrees as well as readers, men and women I know from my consulting days, others, whose lack of formal education past, say, high school has not in the least hampered their curiosity.

We all fall into the realm of making decisions based on our own previous life experiences. Has writing this book changed the course of actions you take in your life?

Yes. It’s a story I mentioned earlier, and that I tell in detail in the book. In outline, it goes like this: Almost forty years ago, during my final semester at the seminary, for reasons I considered more than a little suspect, the dean tried to expel me, and would have had my bishop not stopped him. The outrage cooled into a knot of resentment I’d never entirely come to terms with. Then, digging into the relationship between Noah and his oldest son, I was reminded of the relationship between Samuel and Saul, and the outrage I’d always feel for Samuel when I read the story. Digging deeper, I realized it was the same outrage. There’s more to the story, but the bottom line is that the knot is gone and I’m the wiser for it.

What kind of research did you have to undergo for this book? What fascinated you the most?

Lots of research, more than I’d imagined, and it was all fascinating. But then, I’m one of those odd ducks who loves spending day after day digging through obscure tomes. Still, it had been decades since I’d done any kind of serious biblical studies, so I had some catching up to do. I decided to focus primarily on the Jewish scholars and, one by one, discovered the likes of James Kugel, Tamara Cohn Eskanazi, Robert Alter, Richard Elliott Friedman, Ellen Frankel, Everett Fox and others. Their scholarship is unparalleled. They are very good writers and never suggest that I believe this or that.

However, I’d have to say that what fascinated me the most was the relationship I formed with the text itself. I once heard a young man tell of his experience with a tai chi master in Beijing, how it had taken three years of showing up most every morning, whatever the weather, before the master would regard him as a serious student. The old rabbis spoke of their experience with the Torah in the same light: prove yourself willing to return and, in time, it will begin to reveal its secrets. That may sound strange, as if the “it” I’m referring to is a living thing, yet my experience of returning day after day for more than three years revealed a Genesis I’d never known, one that is alive with subtle meanings.

Do you have any projects lined up for the near future?

I now have a blog in the religion section of The Huffington Post. I’ve been asked to post at least once a week. And I’m laying the groundwork for a book, this one on Exodus. Also, I’ve been making notes for several essays I have in mind. And I have a couple of short stories and a completed novella that I’d like to go back and polish, but that’s for another time.

What would you like your readers to take with them after reading this book?

A new method of interpretation, not the usual non-scholar’s method of extracting a religious-cum-doctrinal lesson from the text, but a way of mining the text for the human issues at its core.