Too often we tiptoe around religious subjects. They’re too big. Too important. We have a faith-based anxiety about dragging them into the light. And we certainly don’t think of religion in the same breath with pleasure. Here are three books that broach the subject in ways that ironically render these looming issues in human scale. They are, in fact, serious fun.
The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb (Norton)
Whenever I mention this book, people always ask if it’s a joke. After all, since the ’60s Crumb has been pushing the boundaries of good taste in every direction he could think of. He’s made his sexual fetishes, his basest prejudices, and his interminable insecurities the enduring subjects of his art. What gets left out of that litany of filth and misfeasance is any appreciation of Crumb as an artist. And it’s the artist who’s most present in Genesis. So, no, this is not a joke.
Crumb was one of the inventors of what became graphic novels. No one has ever more skillfully welded text and illustrations into a unique sort of storytelling, and Genesis is his crowning work. Playing it completely straight, he visualizes all 50 chapters of the first book of the Old Testament. He may not be reverential, but he always respects the narrative. Maybe because he knows that these stories do not need improvement, that they haven’t lasted for millennia for no good reason. That doesn’t mean they don’t warrant recasting and retelling—the best stories always bust through the genre fence—and on page after page, Crumb inks a version so vivid that you catch yourself forgetting that you’ve known these stories since childhood. He’s that good. —MJ
God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible by Adam Nicolson (HarperCollins)
Never let it be said that nothing good ever came out of a committee. The King James Bible did. In 1604, at the behest of King James I, a group of churchmen and scholars organized into six committees, or companies, as they were styled, divvied the books of the Bible among themselves, worked back through various translations—English, Greek, Latin, Aramaic, Hebrew—and then labored for seven years to produce what is arguably the greatest single work of English literature and is certainly the most read great piece of English literature.
Nicolson would have written a fascinating book had he merely stuck to narrating how the committees produced such a masterwork. But he does more: he gives us context, painting a detailed portrait of the time and place in which the translation took place. The Jacobean era was a fractious age. The English of the early 17th century argued about everything, especially religion. At the same time, they prized unity as an ideal, and no one prized it more than King James. This argumentative tension—between unity and separatism, between the group and the individual—defined the age, and it was in this spirit that King James commissioned a Bible that could be understood and cherished by all his subjects (including those who could only hear the word of God from the pulpit, although English literacy rates were vastly higher than those in the rest of Europe). In describing how James got what he asked for and more, Nicolson produced his own masterpiece of literary history. —MJ
The Damascus Road: A Novel of St. Paul by Jay Parini (Doubleday)
This absorbing fictional recreation of the life of Paul the Apostle conjures the dark time after Christ’s crucifixion and ascension, a time when following Christian teaching was deemed the sin of idolatry and punishable by death, forcing early believers to pray and praise the Messiah in small secret groups. Saul of Tarsus, a Jewish Pharisee, was one of the nascent sect’s most virulent enemies. But his was a swift conversion, beginning with a vision of Christ asking him not to persecute him and his followers, which is exactly why Saul had hit the road to Damascus. Once converted, and his name changed to Paul, he became Christianity’s most ardent traveling salesman. He was also the ultimate unreliable narrator, prone to exaggeration, contradiction, egotism, and moments of shaken faith. So Parini divides the storytelling in two. Paul’s account alternates with a version by his more logical sidekick, St. Luke, who continually corrects the record. Although, as Luke points out, Paul may tell stories a different way every time, his message never wavers: all are welcome—Jews, gentiles, women, men, prostitutes, thieves, the impoverished, and the infirm.
Paul is one of the most complex people in the Bible. Spreading the gospel of Christ to the West meant eschewing Old Testament laws. Forgiveness, he taught, was only a prayer away. But he was always a man of dual vision, and a part of him still revered the old laws. So when he and Barnabas escape capture disguised as women, we hear Paul reciting from the fifth scroll of the Torah: “The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment…” As early Christianity’s most vigorous evangelist, both as speaker and as writer, Paul was so compelling that he became, after Christ, the New Testament’s most influential voice. Evangelical preachers with their invitations to come forth and be healed follow his example to this day. He also invented the sign of the cross. It was his signature move. —SR