The Book of Genesis is the first book of the Bible, and it includes not only an account of the origins of the world, but the stories of the great patriarchs and matriarchs of Israel. I emphasize the fact that Genesis is not only an account of the origins of the world because our cultural preoccupation with the first few chapters may have led many to the impression that the entire book is just about how the planet came into existence. For the past few decades, the creation story from the Book of Genesis has been brandished as a weapon in a neuralgic debate between those who espouse a fundamentalistic worldview and those whose faith is in a radicalized form of materialism. As a result of this, a comprehensive vision of the Book of Genesis has been obscured.
Not so for R. Crumb. He sees the Book of Genesis in its totality and enables the reader to see it too.
R. Crumb is one of America's premier cartoonists and satirists. He has produced his own visual interpretation of the Book of Genesis: The Book of Genesis Illustrated
by R. Crumb. Crumb’s visceral style of representation is a perfect complement to the off-putting stories of Genesis. The cover of the book even goes so far as to include warnings that adult supervision is required for minors and that the content is “graphically depicted with nothing left out.” For those unfamiliar with the Book of Genesis, or whose familiarity might not extend beyond Vacation Bible School, these kinds of warnings likely seem perplexing. But Crumb, even though he professes to be an unbeliever in the status of Genesis as divine revelation, demonstrates through his illustrations that he has considered the stories of the book very carefully. He knows what the pious often are afraid to admit- that the content of the Book of Genesis is rated “R”. Scenes of sex and violence abound in Crumb’s renderings of the stories, but the artist is not just being provocative, because Genesis is in actual fact filled with the stuff. What are we to make of this?
It is my contention that Crumb is doing us all a favor in showing us the Book of Genesis, not as we think it should be, but as it really is. It is not a storybook for children. It depicts the lives of real people, not platonic archetypes of the virtuous, and perhaps most importantly, demonstrates that the Bible and its Revelation are not so fragile that the weight of human experience would cause them to buckle and collapse under the pressure of real life circumstances.
Crumb’s illustrations are great helps in terms of initiating the reader into the strange world of Genesis, but he falters in his literary interpretation. Thankfully, commentary on the Biblical text is not the focus of his work, but he does offer us some brief reflections concerning what he thinks Genesis might mean. Unlike his illustrations, which are so vividly expressive, his commentary is a popularized and reduced version of the kind of stilted historical criticism that one might encounter in a university classroom, mainline denomination, or reform synagogue. One wonders how such a blood and guts text has managed to evoke such an anemic interpretation. Perhaps this is because the modern imagination cannot stomach much in terms of the real content of the Bible. For all its claims to largesse of spirit in terms of its tolerant reasoning, modern biblical interpretation suffers from its rapacious need for certitude and its aversion to ambiguity. The Bible ignores these kinds of stipulations. Inasmuch as it will not conform to modernity’s prejudices, it is dismissed as a mere artifact of culture or has its sharp edges dulled by those who seem to need to be congratulated for their sophistication and lack of fundamentalist fervor.
Unfortunately, our culture cannot at this moment come to terms with the fact that there might be alternative ways of understanding the Bible other than fundamentalism or skepticism. Genesis (and the rest of the Bible) has been a victim of this cultural predicament for far too long and is too significant a text to be cast away to either side of these interpretative options. R. R. Reno shows us an example of the kind of scholarship that is the best the way forward. His recently published commentary on the Book of Genesis is part of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible
series. Reno offers this insight in his introduction: “Thus, the truly impossible task for the interpreter of Genesis is to bring into view the fullness of the promised future that pulls on the characters, scenes and episodes of Genesis like a supernaturally powerful magnet. The small mark of circumcision in Abraham’s flesh, the seed of the promises first planted in Sarah’s womb, the thin fragile line of inheritance that finds its way through Isaac and Jacob- these original impregnations of human history reach through the entire history of Israel toward an embrace of Christ.” Reno masterfully demonstrates that this impossible task is actually possible, and it is possible when one accepts that the Bible is not just a book about us, it is a book about God; this book does not just stand alone and isolated from those communities of interpretation that have reverenced and worshipped the God of biblical revelation. If we ignore this synergistic rapport between the Bible and the Church, the Bible will not deliver to us its meaning.
The story of Genesis, indeed that of the whole Bible, is not just a literary, cultural or historical construct. It is about God’s Revelation, a revelation that makes itself known in particular events. The Bible, even with all its sex and violence and peculiarity, is, first and foremost, a theological narrative. Lose sight of this fact about the text and you will lose sight of its meaning and purpose. Modern approaches to biblical interpretation have not always been generous to the theologian (or to anyone else) who takes the Bible seriously as real Revelation. The end result of this estrangement is a culture like our own that might be able to read Genesis, but fails not only to understand it, but to believe in it.
Father Steve Grunow is the Assistant Director at Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.