My Answer to Christians Denouncing R. Crumb’s “Genesis Illustrated”

I think we can all guess how THIS critic would respond to R. Crumb's latest work.

Yesterday I wrote that I fail to understand how any Christian could not welcome R. Crumb’s Monumental “History of Genesis Illustrated.” Naturally enough, a Christian or three wrote to tell me how.

So I thought I’d present the Christian arguments against the book of which I’ve been made aware—and then (in order to save time and space) respond to them between brackets, in lovely, easy-to-read blue.

First off, in an article from The UK’s Daily Telegraph, we have this quote from Mike Judge, of the Christian Institute, “a religious think-tank”:

“It seems wholly inappropriate for what is essentially God’s rescue plan for mankind. [Why? What aspect of it is inappropriate?] If you are going to publish your own version of the Bible it must be done with a great deal of sensitivity. [Who would argue that?] The Bible is a very important text to many many people and should be treated with the respect it deserves. [Right. Who would argue that?] Representing it in your own way is all very well and good but it must be remembered that it is a matter of people’s faith, their religion. [Have I bought a ticket to Obvious Fest 2009?] Faith is such an important part of people’s lives that one must remember to tread very carefully.” [Okay, seriously: think tank? The "tank" part, I definitely got. This is just a blanket condemnation followed by four declaratives of the purely obvious---none of which is then connected to anything specific to Crumb's book. Yawn. Based on this statement, I'd bet my house and all its plumbing that Mr. Judge judged Genesis Illustrated without first having seen the work. No one who has spent any time at all with the book would suggest that, of all things, it's not done with the respect Genesis deserves. To claim it is, is, I think, manifestly unthinkeristical.]

Someone also sent to me a link to Cartooning the Word—R. Crumb’s “The Book of Genesis,” written by my fellow Crosswalk.com blogger, Albert Mohler. (Mr. Mohler is president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Hi, Mr. Mohler! You’re a great writer! Please don’t get me fired from Crosswalk for writing this.) Mr. Mohler’s objection to Crumb’s book seem to boil down to these three:

1. Crumb, an agnostic, found Genesis to be defined by “a primitive, backward morality,” and thinks it’s insane that millions of people have taken the Bible as seriously as they have. [To show how anti-Bible Crumb is, Mr. Mohler uses quotes from Crumb that appear in this piece published in The Financial Times. What's interesting is that in that same Financial Times article, Crumb is quoted as saying, "I had a very powerful dream in the year 2000 when I saw God, and that (how I drew him in Genesis) is what He looked like.” Speaking at his only European press conference to promote Genesis, Crumb then declined to respond any further to the reporters' excited follow-up questions to his surprising revelation. But I think that quote makes it safe to say that the state of Crumb's mind toward God and/or Christianity isn't as cut-and-dry as Mr. Mohler suggests it is.

But more to the point: I fail to understand the relevance of a person's personal beliefs or opinions when evaluating work done by that person. If I hire a man to build me a house, I don't care what he thinks about me, or houses, or architecture, or ... anything. I care about nothing else beyond the quality of house he builds. By all accounts Picasso was a real doinknut of a human being. Should that fact stop me from being enamored of his art? While lost gazing into the depths of a Jackson Pollack painting, should I take pains to recall the great number of his personal failings? Of course not---because that's not what the interaction between artist and viewer is about. If Crumb is anti-God, or anti-Bible, I dare anyone to find a single line stroke in all of his Genesis that shows it.]

2. Crumb is merely a cartoonist. [Though he never explicitly says it, the fact that throughout his piece Mr. Mohler never refers to Crumb as anything but a cartoonist (never an "artist," "comic artist," or "illustrator") renders the appellation "cartoonist" a dig. I assume that Mr. Mohler is unaware that over the years Crumb's work has been taken with increasing seriousness by the established art world (as evidenced by an exhibition of Crumb's work in Genesis showing until Feb. 7, 2010, at the Hammer Museum). If the work in Genesis is mere "cartooning," than Dore was a doodler. "Cartoonist" is hardly an automatic denigration---Art Spiegelman, anyone?---but no one should fail to note that, with regards to the discipline of artistic rendering, Genesis Illustrated is about as solid and deserving of praise as it gets.]

3. To use Mr. Mohler’s own words:

“[Genesis Illustrated] also reveals once again why God gave us words, and not images. Crumb’s newest work may be described as a triumph of the human imagination—and that is precisely the problem. [Respectfully, why is that a problem? Christians have always turned to the creative arts as a means of expressing and reflecting their passion for God and Christ. Are we to dismiss such works as Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel, Da Vinci's The Last Supper, and Handel's Messiah as trifling works of nothing more interesting than human imagination? What better tool do we humans have to apprehend---must less express our apprehension of---God, but our imaginations?]

“The Bible always lays claim upon the reader. The Book of Genesis demands a decision. [I don't understand that as true. As a 33-year-old non-Christian, I took an extraordinarily illuminating college class titled "The Bible as Literature," in which we fastidiously studied all of "Genesis"---and I never felt compelled to "decide" anything at all about it or the Bible. I just ... studied it.] The God who reveals himself in these words is not only the Creator of the cosmos, but the judge of every human soul. Genesis not only begins the Bible, it reminds us of our need for Christ. Every single narrative Crumb depicts finds its ultimate meaning in the atonement accomplished by Jesus Christ. [No argument here---nor, of course, from any Christian.]

“But that great fact cannot be reduced to a cartoon. It was never meant to be.” [Respectfully, I think it unfair to, again, dismiss Crumb's work as nothing more than a reduction of Genesis to a cartoon. That's like calling Mt. Everest a bump in the ground. Genesis Illustrated doesn't reduce "The Book of Genesis" at all. It builds upon it, enhances it, brings it to life; it gives us a wonderfully engaging way to learn, remember, and appreciate one of the most dense, complex, and important books in the Bible. And, again: if illustrating episodes of Bible is something that shouldn't be done, then we have got a whole lot of artwork we need to start removing from museums, innumerable stain-glass windows we need to shatter, and a mountain of illuminated manuscripts we need to burn. There's nothing wrong with illustrating the Bible. Crumb's book is nothing more (or less!) than an important contribution to the ancient and hallowed tradition by which Christians have always relied upon visual imagery to help them better understand and appreciate the Bible.]

Finally, I received a thoughtful email from Bob Luedke, himself the author and illustrator of a series of award-winning Christian graphic novels entitled Eye Witness. Here’s what Mr. Luedke had to say:

I think that some of the hesitation among Christians toward embracing this work, is Crumb’s past works. Many of his creations (Mr. Natural, Fabulous Furry Freak Bros, et al …) are iconic for many sins that the Christian establishment have traditionally stood against. My thought is they just don’t feel comfortable embracing him now—especially since, as you mention, he regards himself as agnostic. And the work did not arrive with any testimony of birth or re-birth as a believer or man of faith. In fact, I read a quote in regards to this, where Crumb stated (and I paraphrase), “This was just another illustration assignment for me.” The Christian marketplace and media love a good “come to Jesus story,” and they just didn’t get one here.

[Again, since when must one be a Christian in order to do work that is pleasing to God? I have a friend who is a Jewish pediatric heart surgeon. Would any of we Christians dare to assert that God is displeased with the work to which this champion of children's health has dedicated her life? Moreover, who among us knows how R. Crumb's personal story is going to end? Don't we believe in the God of redemption, of forgiveness, of transformation? And don’t we know—aren’t we proud of the fact?—that God can and does use virtually anyone to fulfill his plans on earth? Have we forgotten that Noah was an incestuous drunk, Jacob a liar, David an adulterous murderer?

Not for nothing does our beloved Paul write (at 1 Timothy 1:16), ” …  I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.”

How does any of us know that won’t end up being R. Crumb’s song, too?

When I think of Genesis Illustrated—of a man who on the one hand claims he doesn’t believe in God, but who on the other diligently applies himself to the creation of an homage to the Bible of (as far as I know) unprecedented breadth and depth—I think of what God himself says at Isaiah 43: 19:

For I am about to do something new.

See, I have already begun! Do you not see it?

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About John Shore

John Shore (who, fwiw, is straight) is the author of UNFAIR: Christians and the LGBT Question, and three other great books. He is founder of Unfundamentalist Christians (on Facebook here), and executive editor of the Unfundamentalist Christians group blog.  (In total John's two blogs receive some 250,000 views per month.) John is also co-founder of The NALT Christians Project, which was written about by TIME,  The Washington Post, and others. His website is JohnShore.com. John is a pastor ordained by The Progressive Christian Alliance. You're invited to like John's Facebook page. And don't forget to sign up for his mucho awesome monthly newsletter.

  • David Barach

    Bravo, sir. It's for the rare, lucid and accurate posts in the name of tolerance and grace such as this one that I follow this blog. And the fact that John knows where I live.

  • Matt

    I think it's just human nature to act this way. Let's say both your pastor and Richard Dawkins do a Bible translation and it's word for word the same. Aren't you going to like the one your pastor did just a little bit more? If not, you're a better man than I.

    • Ryan

      I can't imagine why one wouldn't prefer Dawkins' translation (I believe we're assuming here that both the pastor and Dawkins are equally expert). I don't see how that would make one a "better" or "worse" person.

      Could you please explain?

    • http://home.earthlink.net/~johnoco John Ohannesian

      If they are exactly the same how could you like one more than another? That makes no sense at all!

  • http://www.johnshore.wordpress.com John Shore

    David: I DO know where you live! (Great video of your boy laughing on your blog! Sounds like you had a terrific Thanksgiving.)

    Matt: I'm sorry; I'm a little confused as to what two sorts of products you're referring. This post is only about ONE … effort, right? Well, I'm sure I'm missing something here. But as to your question, the answer is simple: I'll like whichever Bible translation is the best. Same as anyone would, I think.

  • Matt

    I'm just saying most people judge works of art, literature, ect, at least a little bit by their pre-concieved biases, even though that obviously shouldn't be the case. I know I'm not immune.

    • soulmentor

      Not to be nit picky, but I'm seeing this more often. ECT. That's incorrect. It should be etc, an abbreviation for the word etcetera. I know, many people pronounce it ekcetera when they speak it but that's like saying aks instead of ask. It's a small thing, but such small things can indicate intellectual carelessness to a discerning eye. I assure you, Matt, the rest of your writing indicates quite the opposite so just a small observation comin your way. Feel free to nit pick me anytime.

  • http://megaloi.blogspot.com Redlefty (Michael)

    Our preacher said that by far the best sermons he ever gave was during the six months he was sure there wasn't a God.

  • http://www.headpress.info Bob Luedke

    John…I truly enjoy your powers of observation and wit concerning this issue. Let me share a couple thoughts.

    One, that I would agree that I'd bet Albert has not seen the work.

    Two, that Albert like the majority of people in this country (USA) just don't appreciate comic-style literature and artwork as anything more than the realm of the superhero or kiddie fare. I've personally been fighting this battle within the Christian Marketplace for the last 6 years with Eye Witness and it's still very much an uphill battle.

    Three, agree 100% that God provided us all with very unique gifts to use for the Kingdom. For some, they may preach, some may counsel, some may write/perform music and some may be visually artistic. God calls all of us to use our skills sets for the Kingdom…no one gift is better or more deserving of praise than an other (re: the parable about the parts of the body all being important to the whole). But through all gifts can the gospel be shared (which, not counting Albert's slightly off balance view that the written word is the only path), is what we are ALL called to do by Jesus.

    Four, just so you don't misunderstand me…I don't agree with the statement I made about the non-acceptance of Crumb's work….it's just my viewpoint on one of the potential reasons why it exists.

    Mark my words, that one day…probably after he passes…Crumb's work will be viewed as some of the most influencial of the 20th century, due to his influence on the industry and countless artists. And also, that his Genesis work, could very well spark a whole group of other artists to share their love and vision for God through the comic arts (which is something I've evisioned happening for years, when the right artist and/or writer commmited to the cause).

    R.J. Luedke

  • http://ramblingsofaspiritualidiot.wordpress.com ~Julia~

    I prefere the Brick Testament… .http://www.thebricktestament.com/index.html

    **ducks and runs**

  • Christine

    the day we start saying art cannot be a way to understand God and his Word is the day we give up our status of being co-creators with God, being made in his image means that we will, want to and love to create things too!! And that is for Christian and non-Christian alike…..give it up people, those who don't believe are still human and therefore allowed to express themselves and talk about God how they see fit!!

    John: thank you for this piece, think too many of us start thinking the church is the only way to God not Jesus. Oh and you should read the 'Kiwi Bible', written by this guy who put the New Testament into NZ slang, very funny when Jesus is yelling "Oi fellas, come get some Kai [food]" at the breakfast on the beach (and know the guy who wrote it and it brought him way closer to God even if it didn't convert anyone!!)

  • James

    Not to play the part of comic Nazi, regarding Bob Luedke's comments, but the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers were a creation of artist Gilbert Shelton.

  • http://www.headpress.info Bob Luedke

    I do stand corrected, re: Gilbert Shelton and FFFB. But simply substitute another seminal character of Crumb's…Fritz the Cat, and the point remains the same. He created work that represented the dark side to the Church.

  • Mark Lattimore

    Understand that there is a long standing theological discomfort within many diverse Christian traditions regarding visual depictions of God (the Father). Even within the early iconophilic traditions of pre- Eastern Orthodoxy (I assume it is the same now, though of that I'm not certain), which celebrated the veneration of images of both the incarnate Christ and the saints, any depiction of the the first person of the Godhead, that is, God the Father, was considered improper (even sinful, according to John of Damascus, an early defender of the use of images in worship). Though I cannot speak for Dr. Mohler, it may be this, at least in part, that he's trying to get at (although I suspect he would probably go somewhat further). Under the early "pre-Orthodox" view, incidentally, depictions of Biblical events and even of Christ himself are not prohibited per se, only depictions of God the Father. The point is that it is overly-simplistic simply to say that disapproval of Crumb's work is based on some notion of distaste for cartoon art or that Dr. Mohler's comments somehow fly in the face of centuries of the Church turning "to the creative arts as a means of expressing and reflecting their passion for God and Christ." The objection is somewhat nuanced but theologically important. Whether or not one agrees with Dr. Mohler (honestly, I haven't made up my mind yet), we must still recognize the fact that his is a thoughtful opinion steeped in 1500 years of Christian tradition and theological development.

  • http://www.johnshore.wordpress.com John Shore

    I'm aware of the history of Christian iconography. I LIKE the tradition of declining to visually represent God. But I see scant if any reason to believe that Mohler's objection to Crumb's masterpiece is that it violates the ethos of pre-Orthodox Christianity.

    • soulmentor

      Those same critics and christians everywhere seem to have no problem with that ubiquitous "portrait" of a long haired Jesus the shepherd standing at the door, as in opportunity knocking. Such a fine looking man. Never mind that Jesus would not have looked remotely like that, and always, always lily white.

      Jesus was an Aramaic Jew. He would have been darker complected and looking more like how Arabs are depicted in movies. Probably short haired too cause the male Jews of that time kept their hair shorter as I seem to recall reading somewhere long ago.

      Of course, it's all conjecture. No one knows what God looks like for obvious reasons and no images were ever made of Jesus. But they prompt stupidly irrelevant arguments and critiques.

  • Tamara

    I searched and searched in my mind for what to say to you about this article..and this is all I can come up with ….since I don't have your natural and profound ability to make words flow so beautifully and touch hearts and lives with their well chosen truths..

    Simply Brilliant Writing and thank you

    • soulmentor

      I think your words flowed rather well, actually. Don’t sell yourself short.

  • http://www.johnshore.wordpress.com John Shore

    Well, I can't imagine any words I'd rather hear than those. Thank you, Tamara.

  • laurie

    Not to change the subject but what is a PreOrthodox Christian art ethos? Are you talking about the icon entitled "the icon made with out human hands" while Jesus was still alive? Was there any other Christian art made prior to Pentecost? Or are you perhaps referring to the time before Orthodox art was officially defined prior to the 7th ecumenical counsel? truly confused.

  • Carin

    I came across the book in Chapters, and took a peek. My problem with it mostly lay in his depiction of God as angry and frowny all the time…. in places where it is not apparent from the text that He was angry. This leads to a dangerous depiction of God as not our loving Creator but as a perpetually angry being with unrealistic expectations.

    • Ken

      I didn't see anger; I felt it was intensity of concentration.

      • soulmentor

        Perfectly illustrates how different people can differently interpret the same words or images. No wonder we have difficulty communicating anything, let alone religious discussions.

  • Jim

    Thank you for your words.

    As a non-believer raised in a believing family, I always felt the text was at odds with the absolutist views of my elders. R Crumb nails the complexity, the internal conflicts, the text of Genesis, whether or not you believe in higher power behind them. The patriarchs are all complex, and compromised, individuals, not entirely upright in their faith. Christians who can't deal with that complexity seem to be looking for simpler answers than they'll find from a close, thoughtful, literal reading.

  • http://www.johnshore.wordpress.com John Shore

    Thank you, Jim. All very well said—and so utterly true.

  • RogerC

    I have not seen Mr. Crumb's work and am not commenting on it. My comment is about your statement, "I fail to understand the relevance of a person's personal beliefs or opinions when evaluating work done by that person."

    My view is almost the complete opposite of that statement. How can we know the message of an artist's work apart from their intentions?

    Solomon wrote regarding those with evil motivations- "Stay away from them and keep on going because they cannot sleep until they do evil. They cannot rest until they harm someone."

    I believe an artist's personal beliefs and opinions affect their work and and provide the viewer proper perspective.

    For instance, if I were going to buy a new car, and I knew one of the saleman dedicated his life to helping the poor and homeless, and the other salesman slept with underage girls, I would purchase from the first. Although they may both be great at their jobs, I would feel more secure buying from (and supporting) someone I trusted.

    • soulmentor

      Seems to me all art is a labor of love to varying degrees. I can't imagine Mr Crumb laboring 5 years to the point of ill health if he was doing something he didn't have at least a great deal of, at least, respect for, never mind his comments after the fact.

  • http://www.johnshore.wordpress.com John Shore

    1. Neither of the salesmen MADE the car, so their character/views/lifestyle has … no bearing upon the quality of the car itself. So … relative to the point I was making, that's not really actually very much of a good analogy. But … yeah, anyone would rather a sales commission go to a nice guy than a jerk.

    2. You can't KNOW the background/heart/intentions of every artist. Before I appreciate an artistic work hanging in a museum, am I supposed to research everything there is to know about that artist, and then try to GUESS his exact frame of mind and intentions at the time he created the work I'm considering liking? That just … doesn't makes sense, if you see why.

    Good people create crappy art. Terrible people create fantastic art. In the end, all that matters, ART-wise, is the quality of the art. That's all I'm saying.

  • http://www.headpress.info Bob Luedke

    I agree with John, that your analogy is kind of off base Roger. If you do a bit of research you'll find that many of the artists who created some of our most historically beloved works (including iconic Christian paintings, sculptures etc…) were doing so mainly for a commission and were not particularly sinless individuals…in fact, many were quite the opposite.

    So I think you'll find, with a professional artist, belief will not necessarily characterize or limit their work. They are hired (or paid a commission) to create a specific work with a specific theme or intent. So, more critical is intent or belief of the one behind the work…re: the benefactor or person who is commissioning the particular work…for if the artist doesn't not correctly convey the intent of the benefactor, they might not be paid. And from all I've read about the Crumb work…this is not his brainchild, rather a commissioned illustration project.

    R.J. Luedke
    http://www.headpress.info

    • soulmentor

      Yeah, Michaelangelo was well known as a homosexual but the Pope seemed to have no problem with that when it came to his talent. With the nudity……well, he and the cardinals eventually got over that too. Yes, homosexuality is intrinsically evil but hey, you can direct our choirs and play our organs (oh dear!!), decorate our chapels and donate, donate, donate, BUT…………

      Arrrggghhhh.

  • soulmentor

    I don't understand the criticism either. Have you seen those little religious tracts so commonly produced by the more fundamentalist sects? They're horrible but I'd bet the farm that Albert would do a critical tap dance around them if he couldn't totally avoid a critique.

    Yeah, Albert's critique has to be a reaction to the artist, not this work. But then again, his rhetoric is so generic it says nothing. There's no there there.

    • Callie

      I was just thinking about all the different "versions" of the Bible that are churned out for Christian bookstores. There's one for teenage girls in the form of a fashion mag, how can that escape the kind of scrutiny R. Crumb comes in for if all things are being equal?

      But I think I get the point — it is to squash the questioning, to quell any dissent from the most reductivist interpretation possible. Chick tracts may be inflammatory, but they toe a line rather than embrace the curiosities in the Bible.

  • http:&#039://www.americanwitch.net Annie Finch

    Just came across this discussion. As far as the comments go, the most imaginative, observant, thoughtful and useful response to this post is Carin’s, about God being depicted as frowning all the time in Crumb’s Genesis. Carin is absolutely right–and this is not a side issue, but key to how Crumb’s Genesis walks the line between respect for tradition and honest, heartfelt critique. Moreover, most people feel this way; fear of god is a key aspect of the power of christianity, no matter how much people sugarcoat it.

    However, I notice that nobody responded to her comment. The only other comment by a woman was unadulterated praise for you, John–a comment to which you lost no time in responding!

    I also note, throughout the comments, a kind of self-righteous piety and sanctimoniousness punctuated by the pronoun “he” to refer to god, and the word “Kingdom” (capitalized).

    There is a connection between these two things! Christianity as it has come down to us, culturally, as an extremely patriarchal and male-centered religion in which women’s proper place is to admire men. Crumb’s dream of God’s angry face is part of this. Your non-response to Carin’s extremely to-the-point observation is part of this.

    Male domination has brought this planet to the point of near-total-destruction, through environmental degradation and violent war and quarreling, usually about which monotheistic religion is better.

    The time is now for the true power of women and the feminine to be welcomed eagerly into the world. Read the new book HALF THE SKY by Nicholas Kristof http://www.halftheskymovement.org/ and you will see that this is true on the most practical level; look into your heart and you will see that it is true on the most spiritual level.

    A good way to start is by treating the comments of women who comment on your blog with equal respect to those of the men. I request that you respond to Carin’s point immediately. . .

    Annie

    • soulmentor

      Annie, and all,

      You may find this interesting. Your comments brought to mind a book that takes a fascinating approach to eras in human relations, THE ALPHABET VERSUS THE GODDESS, by Leonard Shlain. The premise is difficult to boil down for comment here but basically is that prior to Christianity and the invention of writing, both of which developed roughly concurrently, humanity was more right brain, empathetic, experientially and"Goddess" oriented. Along came writing and the predominant use of the right hand which in turn prompted linear (in line) thought processes, retraining the brain from right to left prominent usage. That, along with Christianity (one patriarchal "jealous" wrathful God as opposed to the more empathetic Goddess) competitive thinking, patriarchy, aggressiveness, wars, individualism, etc; left brain manifestations,all interestingly correlated with the astrological Pisces era, an era described as competitive, warlike, aggressive, etc.

      Beginning roughly with my parents' generation comes change, another retraining to right brain/left brain blending with the (ambidextrous) typewriter followed by the more visual and ambidextrous internet usage; broader, less localized human connections and understandings, women's rights, civil rights, gay rights, ethnic sensitivities, challenges to patriarchal religions by more "spiritual" and empathetic philosophies as we transition from Pisces to Aquarius, a more peaceful, pastoral age. We are in "the dawning of the Age of Acquarius". Climate change and the logically resultant global upheaval seem to be developing concurrently. Humanity has begun a new birth and the birth pains are already becoming all too apparent, and they won't be pretty. Birth is violent and messy.

      The End Times may indeed be upon us, but I suspect it will not look as supernaturally simplistic as the Millenialists' favored imagery.

  • Annie Finch

    Apologies–I see that people have now responded to Carin after all. So I’ll just say that I also found Crumb’s God to be frowning–and i found that accurate to my own idea of how the christian god is usually presented to me, as a non-christian. At the same time, I found the book quite moving.

  • http://www.anniefinch.com Annie Finch

    Soulmentor,

    Yes, I know that book THE ALPHABET AND THE GODDESS and agree that it has a lot to say about these issues!

    Interesting, that Crumb has translated the Word into the Pictures, and that in itself is subversive of left-brain dominance… maybe that is part of the controversy this volume has aroused…

    Annie

  • Ex Christian

    Man I have to say, you have your work cut out for you being a Christian as a Liberal Arts educated, arguing guy. I suppose there are a few congregations / denominations that you'd fit with but, for the most vocal part of Christianity, you'll spend your life arguing, and in vain. I hate to say it but, most are not that educated, and /thinking/ in a faith leads to difficulties, not rewards, and it shows.

    • soulmentor

      Thank you…..I think.

      I could fit into Unitarian, I’m sure, or gay friendly UCC, where I was once a council member, or even ELCA where I raised my sons and where they have now fully embraced homosexuals, but I’ve lost even the impulse to attend anything, which is not the same as losing my faith. I believe in a higher power that we can connect with, hopefully one that pays some form of conscious attention to the human condition but even if it doesn’t, that it is somehow beneficent. I just don’t feel the need to label it. I also do believe that Jesus somehow had a more direct connection to that power than any other human. Just how that worked for him I don’t presume to understand but the reality of that is, if we are to believe the biblical accounts, quite apparent.

      Yes, thinking does lead to difficulties with “faith” but I don’t find them incompatible. You can’t grow without it. When I was still a teen, my mother told me that I think too much but I now count it a blessing. As I’ve told my family, I had to think to survive my struggle with their world. An example of what I mean is this: A number of years ago I was talking with my younger evangelical type brother about my life and faith and all that and he suggested I need to get off the teat and begin to find the true “milk of the Word” (yeah, they talk like that!!). I bit my tongue at the ironic hubris of that because I knew back then that I had already gotten off the teat that he was truly still on. To this day I don’t know what teat he thought I was on….the teat of worldly knowledge perhaps? Of human thinking? Of reasoning? I’ve never asked because there’s no way to ask that without appearing confrontational and I know how that just shuts down someone with the evangelical mind set.

      I think of it as evolving and I think humanity is moving rapidly toward an evolutionary moment in spirituality. It will be a painful transition and it may be what is meant by the end times tribulation and “the coming of the Kingdom”. The Age of Aquairius?

      I don’t suggest all that as truth. Just…..thinking.

  • http://home.earthlink.net/~johnoco John Ohannesian

    Speaking as an artist, a long time Crumb fan and an agnostic, I find this debate laughable. Christians do not control how others see their religion, and I am very glad of that, as many Christians have a limited appreciation of how others see the world we all live in. Well, not just Christians but all people who come to conclusions about life based on what they are told to believe based entirely on faith without evidence.

    I painted a piece titled "They bet your life" depicting the major religions gathered around a poker table in the sky (http://home.earthlink.net/~johnoco/gallery1.html), using human bodies (souls) as the poker chips. I had always refrained from using religious figures in my work before (I think it is too easy to take cheap shots, especially to gather fame based on outrage), but in this piece I decided it was acceptable since I didn't single out a particular religion for my scorn, I included as many as I could. Artists are free (in America at least) to comment on religious matters as a subject of general concern to all people. Crumb merely depicted the words in Genesis as best he could, which is of course: masterfully. He shows a depth of understanding that few artists of faith could muster up, I think. It is a beautiful work for all of us and I'm really sorry that Christians can't find it in themselves to observe it without condemnation.

    I bought the book immediately when it came out, I had been waiting for many years to see it and I am amazed at Mr. Crumb's talent and insight. Seeing his conception of the words of the Bible gave me a view of that work that I had never experienced before. It didn't bring me any closer to faith but it did give me a sort of happiness that much other religiously based art does not. As for depicting God's image, check out Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel representation of God… he ain't smiling! He's too busy and important to be giving Adam a big grin.

    All who comment on this work MUST "read" it first. Comments based on hearsay are irrelevant. It is a masterpiece.

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  • Siri

    You do know Crumb had that vision of god as a direct result of dropping acid, right?

    Seriously.

  • http://www.nomolos.org Solomon

    There are a couple of different ways of looking at this issue.

    First, from a non-religious perspective, the Bible is just a text and everyone has the right to read and interpret it, discuss it, etc. Since R. Crumb is self-described as non-religious then he is not really bound by religion-imposed constraints. And even if R. Crumb was religious then he still has the right to illustrate the Bible even if he shouldn't or shouldn't do it in the manner that he did. And the fact that he is non-religious really has nothing to do with what others get out of his work, whether they are religious or not. Sure, his views might be informative as to why he interprets things in a certain way, but that has no bearing on whether or not there is beauty in what he did.

    Second, from a Jewish, religious perspective it is mostly ok that R. Crumb illustrated Genesis (as many others have produced art based on biblical stories) but there are two issues: one major and one minor (and yes, I do own this book).

    The major issue with the book is that R. Crumb has drawn pictures of God. This is strictly forbidden via the 2nd commandment which states: "You shall not make for yourself a graven image, nor any manner of likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth." Again, R.Crumb is not bound by this rule since he is not Jewish but it would have helped even for the non-religious if he had tried harder to show a representation without form (something more akin to the ubiquitous internet-cloud) as that is the idea of God that the Torah is trying to convey. By showing God with a form this gets people to think that God might actually have some or all of those characteristics (old, white, male) but God truly has no physical characteristics or gender.

    The minor issue is that by illustrating the story of Genesis, R. Crumb has provided an interpretation of the text as opposed to simply a different form of it without regards to interpretation. The problem here is that many will not look at this as "his" interpretation but instead they will see it is "the" interpretation.

    Again, the book is well done and interesting but it does tend to over-simplify a text that is extremely dense and complicated. However, I will give him credit for being as detailed as he was. I did like that he represented the serpent in the Garden of Eden with arms and legs since that is what the story says but nearly all other illustrations of that story have a typical snake wrapped around the branches.

    • http://home.earthlink.net/~johnoco John Ohannesian

      "Man was created in God's image" seems to say that God has a human form. Depicting him as a human is an outgrowth of that idea. It is silly, but so are most of the old testament's four or five thousand year old observations.

      Also, don't you think that the reason man was instructed not to make graven images was to avoid worshipping those images (such as a golden calf) and not to limit human artists? In any case, what a crock, not allowing artists to do what they do naturally, make images. If religion wants humans to not make art, that alone is good enough reason to stop believing in these tales.

      @Siri: what difference does it make whether Crumb first envisioned God on acid? Why is that relevant in this discussion? Is that a way to say that he was wrong to do so? What is your point? Seriously.

      • http://www.nomolos.org Solomon

        Hello John. Regarding the “God’s image” statement, the actual phrase is: “Let us make Man in Our image, after Our likeness”. The “image” and “likeness” do not refer to, or imply, physical characteristics but instead mean that humans have: reason, intellect, free will, and moral choice. To imply that God has a physical form would be to take that statement on its own outside the context of the rest of the Hebrew Bible / Old Testament. Doing analysis only on a fragment isn’t really fair to the Bible or any text, religious or otherwise. When looking at the rest of the Torah there are numerous indications that God has no physical form. God even explicitly reminds Moses of this in Deuteronomy 4:15 – 20: “…for you did not see any likeness on the day God spoke to you at Horeb, from the midst of the fire…”. So no, there is nobody who believes in this text religiously (outside of the Mormons) that has ever interpreted that passage in Genesis as implying physical form to God. Hence, drawing pictures of God is not an outgrowth of that passage but instead an outgrowth of either lack of education / understanding and/or lack of caring and/or lack of being bound by the prohibition.

        I was not saying that R. Crumb should be condemned or will be punished for drawing God. I was saying that from a religious perspective, since this is a religious text that is being illustrated, that this one aspect is an issue. And I was saying that if R. Crumb was trying to be accurate in the conveying of the ideas of the text in his illustration (which I believe he said he was attempting to do in the introduction), then he should not have included a physical form for God.

        Regarding your second paragraph, you are absolutely correct about the prohibition against images of God (though of God only!) being due to idolatry; it is actually stated in the rest of the 2nd commandment that I did not paste in here before, being: “You shall not prostrate yourself to them nor worship them.” And yes, this was the case with the Golden Calf and other examples. However, I am not sure how you got from what I said that humans are prohibited from making ANY images or ANY art. As I said, there is A LOT of religious art and much of it is wonderful. There is ONLY an issue with attempts to depict God in any way. But art is encouraged and I have several paintings of biblical themes and a very nice Lladro statue of Moses that is quite popular. And as I said above, the prohibition against making images of God is technically only for Jews.

        I hope this helps to explain. Take care, Solomon…

        • http://home.earthlink.net/~johnoco John Ohannesian

          Dear Solomon,

          "Image" and "likeness" both are words implying physical characteristics in English. Perhaps a less misleading translation would be "with my non-physical characteristics", wouldn't you say? Not elegant, but closer to what you believe?

          Also, since God is supposed to be indivisible according to the Jews (but of course, not the Christian Trinitarians), why would one use the word "Our" to refer to oneself unless it is the royal or editorial "We"? More bad translation?

          The bible has been translated many times, always somewhat differently, and from one language to another. This leads me to think that no translation is accurate. Perhaps reading it in the original language (Hebrew? Aramaic? Greek? All three?) is closest, but even that is fraught with problems due to changes in language over time. I realize that there are many scholars attempting to make sure it is as accurate as possible, but even then, a lot has been left out that was once in it! It was humans who codified it, correct?

          “You shall not make for yourself a graven image, nor any manner of likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not prostrate yourself to them nor worship them.” Doesn't that expressly state that absolutely no images of anything on earth are allowed, and if it doesn't, why not? That seems very clear to me, no images of anything whatsoever and especially not ones that are idolized. I'm no Biblical scholar, so I ask this in innocence. If it meant that one "shouldn't make images to worship", wouldn't that be a far clearer way to express that idea rather than forbidding them all and then adding the second part?

          I know that in Islam they take the meaning literally. No images of anything. I realize that isn't germane to what Jews believe, but it is certainly Muslims interpretation of that passage, isn't it? You can be killed for transgressing that stricture and many have been. Why would they use that meaning if it is so clear to others that that is not the meaning? I know you can easily say they are wrong, but it begs the question, why?

          I'm sorry, I can't begin to take this book seriously any more than I take any other religious text seriously, they all appear to be fables made up by humans to control or fool people into actions the writer(s) wish to have happen. As such, to me, all discussion of these topics are really wasted time, although I still perversely enjoy discussing them!

          I do appreciate your gentle tone and lack of condescension. Thank you.

          I've been called an Antagnostic by a friend. :) I'm certainly very anti-religion. I'll stop bothering you with my carping if you wish.

          • http://www.nomolos.org Solomon

            Hello again, John. I would very much disagree with your statement of “all discussion of these topics are really wasted time” since most things in life are worth discussing to gain better understanding. I am certainly not asking you, or anyone else, to take the Bible seriously but instead to just consider an explanation of another point of view on this topic. As you pointed out with the various translations and languages and even differences within Islam, surely you would accept that there are many ways of looking at this subject and to avoid the topic after looking at only one (or maybe two) of them might not provide the answer(s) that you are certainly looking for since you do, even perversely, enjoy the topic. My point in commenting on this post is to express a point of view (the Jewish one) that is most often not heard (or ignored) since most people only ever approach religion from the Christian point of view (even if they are non-religious) since that is the majority view in the world or sometimes with a little knowledge of Islam since that does kinda cover 20% – 25% of the planet.

            I think your questions here regarding translations and word-choice are very good questions. The reason why I mentioned that most people only ever approach the Bible from a Christian perspective is because there are many ways to approach a text (again, not just in religion). But when it comes to discussing the Bible people tend to take a very narrow approach, typically only accepting a literal interpretation. This is not valid in Judaism. The Hebrew Bible (i.e. Old Testament) is a Jewish book (whereas the New Testament is a Christian book and they are written in different styles let alone different languages) and I think it is important to consider how Judaism approaches its primary text before rendering judgments on it.

            In Judaism there are actually four different and equally valid ways of reading the Bible (again, everything prior to the New Testament): Literal, Symbolic, Mystical (Kabbalistic), and I can’t remember the fourth (sorry). Looking at the exact same passages in these different ways can produce different understandings but yet they are all valid understandings. This is a slightly difficult concept for most people brought up in the standard Christian approach where there is a single meaning or approach to the text.

            In conjunction with these four ways of approaching the text there is the universally (within Judaism) accepted idea that this text is NOT the sum-total of revelation from God. The Torah (the “written” tradition) was only part of the religious tradition with the other part being the explanation of the Torah know as the Talmud (the “oral” tradition). It would be fair to ask why the “oral” tradition is in a written form (the Talmud is a rather large collection of books) and there is a reason but that is out of scope here. Suffice it to say that nobody who ever claimed the Torah as religiously meaningful for the first 1500 years it existed (until Christianity came around and claimed it as well) ever took it at face value as most Christians do and as you are attempting to do with trying to render your own interpretations on it in terms of word-choice. The “oral” tradition was designed to be that commentary and explanation that existed in such a way that as language and cultures evolved, the explanations could be reworded over time to have the same meaning but not be locked into 3000 year old language structures that often are not meaningful anymore. To this point, as Jews we are not allowed to read the Bible on its own but only in conjunction with the commentary or with someone who is already learned in it to provide explanation. It is accepted that the Torah was written in a very brief and cryptic way so as to require detailed study of it. Christians are told to just read the Bible and pray for understanding but as Jews we are told to not read it if we do not have the commentary available since that provides the explanation via the Sages and without it we will certainly be lead into misunderstanding it.

            So, the questions you are raising about “image” and “likeness” as well as the usage of “Our” instead of “My” have been greatly discussed and commented on for 3000 years now. For example, keep in mind that Hebrew is a conceptual language and sometimes pluralizations are used to express vastness or greatness. So the word “Elohim” (pronounced el-oh-heem) which means “God” (who is always singular) is actually a plural form since it ends with “im”. Christians use this “fact” of the word being plural to be a reference to the Trinity. However, this is not so since the pluralization is only to imply the greatness of God that cannot be encapsulated in the singular form (since this is a conceptual language). Hence, there is no singular form of that word; it only exists in the plural. And it is not the only word like that: water and sky / heaven(s) are also words that only exist in the plural form.

            And there is commentary relating to everything including the Ten Commandments. For example, the commentary on the commandment for “Thou shalt not steal” states that the real meaning is not theft of inanimate objects (since that prohibition is covered later in the rest of the 613 total commandments) but instead a prohibition against kidnapping. Why doesn’t it just say “don’t kidnap” then (I’m sure you were going to ask ;-) ? I don’t know but I’m sure there has been discussion about that over the past 3000 years.

            Lastly, I think it is ok to see some of the stories as fables. I certainly do not take literally most, if not all, of Genesis. And from what I have read, while there are elements of historical truth to the story of Exodus, it is likely that it didn’t happen exactly as told. But that is fine since the stories can still give us understanding just like any fable or parable (which Jesus was fond of). I am not sure that the Bible is claiming itself to be an exact historical record (and certainly NOT a science book!) so saying that it contains fables is a non-issue for me as I would agree with that as much as I would agree that it does contain some historical accuracy in so far as what archaeology has proven.

            Sorry for this to be so long. It wouldn’t look so bad on a slightly wider page ;-) .

            PS. Since you did mention Islam I will just say that I do not believe that they are rendering an interpretation of the Hebrew Bible but instead of similarly worded passages in the Qur’an.

  • http://home.earthlink.net/~johnoco John Ohannesian

    Solomon,

    Thanks for the elucidation. I guess the reason I consider talking about these things a bit of a waste of time, even though I find it interesting, is that there is no way to ever come to a conclusion or pin anyone down to a final answer, it is always up in the air and a matter of personal opinion. There is no concordance among religions or even within religions. One could (and many do) spend a lifetime stuying these books and traditions and still not have any solid answers to fundamental questions that spring to mind from having existence.

    I must say, having a religious text that the average person "should" find mystifying is an odd way to go about spreading knowledge. If you need an expert to tell you what it means perhaps it is too obscure to really be useful, or even true in any significant way. However, I suppose science also works this way, I accept the law of gravity as stated by Newton and Einstein even though I would never have come up with it on my own.

    Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions and reply to my statements, however inadequate they are. You are a thoughtful person and it shows.

    I wonder if Mr. Crumb would find this discussion interesting?

    • http://www.nomolos.org Solomon

      Hey John. Thanks for the compliment.

      I think your first point about what you find frustrating about religion is interesting because it is the exact reason I enjoy it so much: there is never going to be an absolute answer and hence it is a source of never-ending learning and discussion. I would go further to say that it is probably unfair to expect concrete answers out of any subject area, whether it be religion or science or anything. Humans just aren't physically capable of absolute understanding so even if we have an idea that somehow matches what would be known as an "absolute" Truth in the universe, we would have no way of knowing it. THAT is what frustrates me: when people claim to know something as "absolute" Truth as opposed to having the best theory that they can have with the available information. At least science is honest about this in terms only having theories based on current evidence that can be negated at any moment if new evidence gives a better understanding. I just wish more people were more mature when it came to discussing religion (or even science) with others who might have a different understanding and I am glad that we have been able to do so. I think part of the problem is that "typical" Christianity and Islam (which most people grow up with) work on the premise that there is only one path to God whereas many (or most) other religions (such as Judaism and Hinduism) accept that there are many paths to God.

      Regarding the "oddness" of the primary religious text being cryptic and requiring expert knowledge, I would say that it depends on the intention of the text. The intention of the Torah is not such that any person can read it and automatically know what God wants. My understanding is that requiring expert knowledge also requires human interaction: religion (Judaism, at least) isn't about the individual only and their relationship with God, but about the reader and their relationship to BOTH God AND other people. Studying the Torah requires interacting with other humans. Proverbs 27:17 states: "As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another". The idea is that by interacting with each other (discussing these ideas) we work through our thoughts and help the other person work through theirs. This is why in yeshiva's (Jewish religious schools) people study the Torah and Talmud in pairs and not individually. So in this sense the obscurity is specifically useful :) . Also keep in mind that the brain is like a muscle in that it does not get stronger if not exercised; if the answers were given to us then we would have much less opportunity to grow intellectually.

  • Susan G.

    My only quibble with Mr. Crumb’s vision of Genesis is that he used the KJV and that’s not my favorite translation. I thought it was interesting and conveyed the fleshly, pastoral, pagan world that Abraham, et al trod and how alien this One God idea must have been. Jeez Louise – some people will complain about anything and everything!

  • Linda B

    ok maybe I have found my next read, but I still like Jodi Picoult for the summer shelp at the beach or here at home as I live in Ohio.

  • Mary

    My husband bought it for me as a gift, and this church lady absolutely LOVES it!

  • Karen

    I viewed Crumb’s exhibition of original artwork at the Portland Art Museum a few years ago. I believe I spent about three hours reading each and every panel — more bible study than I’ve ever done in my life, as I am not Christian. The power of this work is astounding — much more so than mere written words could ever be.

  • http://allegro63.wordpress.com/ sdgalloway

    I thought the response to this work by Bob Luedke interesting He said

    ” I think that some of the hesitation among Christians toward embracing this work, is Crumb’s past works. Many of his creations (Mr. Natural, Fabulous Furry Freak Bros, et al …) are iconic for many sins that the Christian establishment have traditionally stood against. ”

    What I find interesting is that a beloved author was once an atheist and was a writer of science fiction, before penning works such as Mere Christianity and The Screw tape Letters, much less the Narnia Chronicles.

    But then I think it matters less what the religious affiliation matters less then what one can glean from a work of art, be it music, written word or visual art. Art is subjective, appealing to some people, rarely to all. To get all hot and bothered that a non-Christian did this piece to me misses the point.

  • Kara

    Huh. Didn’t have any idea anyone had a problem with Crumb or his “Genesis.” We use his stuff for bulletin covers a lot at my church.

    • Diana A.

      Okay, maybe this is an excuse for me to buy it for myself–and another copy to be passed around at church.

      So many books, so little time/money/me.


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