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The Word of God Sparks Lively Conversation

BY John Prizer

November 24, 1996 Issue | Posted 11/24/96 at 2:00 PM

 

MOST OF US study the Bible to deepen our faith. Bill Moyers's 10-part series, Genesis: A Living Conversation, has a different agenda. The text is examined primarily for its meaning and relevance to our cultural heritage, not as sacred truth—a perspective that owes more to the mythological studies of Joseph Campbell (about whom Moyers produced a celebrated series) than an orthodox Christian understanding.

Each episode of Genesis features Moyers and seven experts in a lively, free-wheeling discussion that focuses on a single story. These include: the creation; Adam and Eve in the garden; Noah and the flood; Cain and Abel; Abraham and Sarah in Egypt; Sarah's jealousy of Hagar and Ishmael; God's asking Abraham to sacrifice Isaac; Jacob's stealing of his birthright from Esau; Jacob's dreams; and Joseph working for pharaoh in Egypt.

The participants come from a variety of religious backgrounds— Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and atheist—in fact, almost everyone except fundamentalist Christians who believe in creationism. Each explores the narrative from his or her own particular perspective.

This format had its origins in the Genesis seminars held monthly for the past decade at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York under the direction of Rabbi Burton Visotzky, an expert in Midrash, or Torah interpretation, who also functions as a kind of co-host on most of the programs. (The show airs weekly on PBS until mid-December. Check your local listings for exact times.)

Visotzky isn't a big fan of conventional piety. “Genesis is an ugly little soap opera,” he writes in his book, The Genesis or Ethics. “All those dirty secrets we know about each another strung into a ‘family’ narrative.” The televised discussions adopt a similar tone.

As the series allows us to see some of the best and the brightest of each denomination at work, it also unintentionally provides an overview of contemporary religious studies. Some generalizations are in order: The Islamic scholars seem to be the only ones who still believe completely in their religion; the feminists consider much of the Genesis material damaging to contemporary women's self-esteem; all the African-American experts make an effort to relate the stories to their faith; and most of the Catholics display an orthodox understanding of the Bible—but, when challenged, they lack the vigor and selfconfidence of the Muslims and the feminists in defending their point of view.

The most disturbing part of the series may be the overt hostility to God expressed by some of participants. For example, the devastation caused by the flood is compared to the holocaust inflicted on the Jews by Hitler, and God is held responsible. When the African-American preacherscholar Samuel Proctor tries to defend Yahweh, Visotzky asks: “Why are you so protective of God?” Moyers ups the ante: “Why does God have to destroy everyone,” he wonders. “Can't He distinguish between a misdemeanor and a felony?” Prodded by Moyers, Visotzky adds: “God does evil things.”

Father Alexander Di Lella of The Catholic University of America joins Proctor in standing up for the text, but they're overwhelmed. Noah is compared unfavorably to Oscar Schindler who sheltered Jews from the Nazis during World War II. Visotzky closes by saying: “I have to believe that God is large enough to contain my anger.” He's almost certainly right, but some may be uncomfortable with that perspective.

To see a Catholic, Protestant and Muslim bond together around this sacred text is a beautiful moment…

This kind of heated exchange is typical of the series. An even nastier punch-up erupts during the program on Joseph's stay in Egypt. Feminist scholar Phyllis Trible of Union Theological Seminary takes issue with the seduction of Joseph by Potiphar's wife. Joseph is the Egyptian Potiphar's slave, charged with managing all his master's affairs. Potiphar's wife tries to take the Israelite to bed, and when he refuses, she falsely accuses the young man of trying to seduce her. Joseph is thrown in jail.

She places it in the context of the teaching in Proverbs: “Proverbs has only two places for women—the gutter and the pedestal.” Sister Dianne Bergant of Catholic Theological Union in Chicago agrees that the Joseph story does both. Trible goes further: “Atext may be one day the word of God and another day may not be the word of God.” The Muslim scholar, Seyyed Hossein Nasr of George Washington University, is appalled at the moral and cultural relativism implicit in Trible's arguments and tries to rebut them. The Christians remain sadly silent.

Then the program takes a turn for the better. As is often the case during the series, the heated disagreements lead to personal sharing, and some agreement emerges. Nasr identifies with the story because Joseph is in exile; the Muslim scholar relates it to his painful separation from his native Iran. Francisco Garcia-Treto, a Presbyterian who teaches at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, sympathizes with Nasr. Garcia-Treto was born in Cuba, and he talks movingly of the deep pull he feels towards both America and his place of birth.

Nasr broadens the discussion by observing that “all spiritual people are in exile.” Sister Bergant, who had previously attacked the Joseph story, agrees. Her vows of poverty, chastity and obedience often make her feel an exile in her native land, she says estranged from America's materialistic culture. To see a Catholic, Protestant and Muslim bond together around this ancient sacred text is a beautiful moment in which the series fulfills its highest promise.

Visotzky ends the discussion with an observation which could be the series' credo: “When we read, when we talk, when we get heated, that's when we hear the word of God. That's when the text becomes revelation.” Most orthodox Christians believe otherwise; they are taught that the word of God remains revelation even when we're not in the frame of mind to receive it.

Nevertheless, an encounter with the series can enrich our faith in a way different from the usual Bible studies. In wrestling with the intelligent and unsettling challenges thrown up by these programs, we're forced to examine our own beliefs and reflect more deeply on the meaning of our own walk with God.

John Prizer is based in Los Angeles.