December 23, 2009

Review: John R. Coats, "Original Sinners: A New Interpretation of Genesis"

Title: Original Sinners: A New Interpretation of Genesis
Author: John R. Coats
Publisher: Free Press
Genre: Religion
Year: 2009
Pages: 237
ISBN13: 9781439102091
Price: 25.00

John R. Coats doesn’t necessarily believe in a historical Garden of Eden but he still believes the Book of Genesis is as relevant today as it ever was. “If you’re alive and breathing and reading this,” he writes, “these stories and their characters have already shaped you, and in greater measure than you might think….Their moral, ethical, and spiritual DNA are embedded in the foundations of our civilization, in our awareness of who we are as a people and as individuals, our best and worst selves” (6). Coats was raised in the Southern Baptist faith, became an Episcopal priest, and left that ministry to become a life-improvement and management adviser. In this book he wishes to bracket the question of scriptural historicity and introduce readers to an alternate way to interpret the text—what he calls “the reflective use of scripture” (5). Whereas some readers regard Genesis as “the history of the world” and others “regard all of it as a silly story with naked people and a talking snake,” Coats takes a “third way…, to read the story as myth and metaphor, a medium for study but also for self-reflection” (23):
I was particularly interested in readers who find themselves in the middle of the modern debate between religious fundamentalists and the new atheists, the marginally religious to the nonreligious who may sense those genetic markers, who are curious about those stories and characters, but want neither to be saved by religion nor saved from it. How does one provide a way into these stories that neither discourages nor requires a religious point of view—that in fact does not require the reader to believe in anything beyond his or her own experience of being human? The answer was to take it entirely as story and metaphor, the characters as the ancient reflections of ourselves, their stories, our stories, mirrors in which to see our best and worst selves (212).
Coats's familiar, conversational writing style weaves personal experiences and historic interpretations into a selective overview of Genesis’s narratives in four sections. He occasionally steps outside of the book of Genesis itself to engage a few other Old Testament narratives, including Jonah, David and Goliath, and Saul and Samuel. Part one, “The Beginning,” features Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel, and Noah. Part two, “The Wanderers,” includes Jonah, Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Isaac. Part three, “The Blessing Thief,” regards Jacob (Israel ), Esau, Leah, and Rachel. Part four, “The Dream Reader,” concludes the narrative by following the story of Joseph and his brothers. Making liberal use of biblical “Source Theory”1 he discusses later interpretations of the stories in selections of Jewish midrash, quotes from early Christian Fathers, and the works of contemporary scholars like Karen Armstrong and Harold Bloom.

Depending on the interpreter, different ideas have been extracted from scripture throughout history. Coats seeks to show how the way readers interpret the Fall of Adam and Eve, for example, determines much of how they view themselves. Depending on the source, Eve has been seen as “Inferior-Guilty Eve,” who foolishly caused all of the problems in the world by eating the fruit, making her weak and subordinate to men, or as “Hooker Eve,” the sexual bad girl depiction with the knowing smile and forbidden fruit. Coats finds more meaning in what he calls “Genesis Eve,” the depiction who is “strong, [but] vulnerable, neither apologetic about her womanhood nor tempted to cheapen it. She is carnal, neither afraid of sex nor only about sex. Her partner never says or implies that her sex is inferior to his own, or that she bears more, or less, responsibility for the incident at the tree, or the consequences that enveloped their lives as a result” (22). The Fall is not merely “a onetime occurrence, but an ongoing process” for each of us, when real people confront emotions of “jealousy, greed, stupidity, brilliance, cowardice, bravery, hate, love,” become self-aware, make decisions, and learn to discern right from wrong (2, 16-17).  

Coats says he has been his Abel-like brother and sister’s keeper, but he’s also been their Cain-like killer, figuratively speaking. Thus, Genesis depicts life as a cycle of "falling from grace, regaining it, falling, regaining,” and recognizing this causes the Bible to lose “all purchase as a measure of one’s goodness or badness—loses its tyranny. Instead it shows itself to be a mirror in which to see one’s own humanity, one’s flaws of character, one’s strengths through the lives of the people found in its stories” (2).

Coats recognizes the drawbacks of his interpretive approach. He wonders aloud to the reader whether such a reflective interpretation help readers “to better understand these ancient texts, or am I ascribing meanings that are simply echoes of my own time and life? That is always the risk. Awaiting any attempt at biblical interpretation is the conscious and unconscious imposition of norms prevalent in one’s own time and place, these having become so ordinary, so natural, so obvious, that surely they must have been typical of human culture at all times and in all places” (78). Following Bloom he notes that multiple factors influence our reading, including “family, religion, education, where one was born, and even when one was born” (ibid.). We might entirely miss the point if we allow our preconceived ideas of what the text says dictate our reading. Despite that limitation, Coats embraces a utilitarian view of the scriptures (“I’m all for using what works,” Coats says, “and for me the Bible works well as a resource for mental health—that is, in its role as a repository of human stories that continue to aid my understanding of my own story, the world, and my relationship with others,” p. 60.) After all, “What good are these stories,” he asks, “if we can’t connect with them first at that primal, human level?” (113).

Throughout the book Coats emphasizes that he is not offering the only correct interpretation of a given biblical story, but there are definite moments when he seems to overreach the text. His psychoanalytical speculations about Noah turning into an alcoholic child abuser following the flood seem over the top, for instance (57-66). He admits that after his ordination as a priest he became “something of an iconoclast, with a thirst for shaking things up.” (139). Much of that iconoclasm is carried over into the book. Occasional self-disclosures indicate he is reluctant to proclaim any absolute truth about God, and feels that organized religion generally cannot maintain meaningful inspiration from God (see p. 72, for one example). A few of his self-disclosures may make some readers uncomfortable, including discussion of his acts of adultery during a previous marriage, or his old enraged threats toward a teenage daughter, or his sneaky political maneuverings within church leadership. Moreover, his likening of biblical characters to current situations is mostly projected through a middle-class white American lens. Perhaps readers who cannot relate to those particular experiences might be prompted to seek their own meaning within Genesis, which would make the book worth reading even for those who cannot necessarily relate to a Southern Baptist upbringing or an extra-marital affair. Original Sinners: A New Interpretation of Genesis is worth the read and offers plenty of forbidden fruit for thought. Coats’s easy-flowing dialog makes the often foreign-sounding stories of the book of Genesis seem much more accessible. As Coats notes: “Genesis does not portray every possible human challenge and metamorphosis. But it has more than I, and perhaps you, might have imagined” (213).

His brief discussion on source theory, or the Documentary hypothesis, on p. 6. gives a serviceable but simplistic explanation of different contributing authors to the biblical stories. At times he plays a bit fast and loose with the different sources, see p. 28. For an interesting take on the Documentary hypothesis from an LDS perspective, see Kevin L. Barney, “Reflections on the Documentary Hypothesis,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 33, no. 1 (2000): 57-99.