< Gimme that Online Religion


Friday, March 27, 2009

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Maybe it’s divine providence that the aforementioned blogging of the Bible by the aforementioned David Plotz is now available as a book – but probably not. When I spoke to Plotz, who is the editor of Slate, in 2006, he was deep into the Old Testament and his Slate blog. Blogging the Bible, he said, was one way to ensure that he would finally read it - all of it.

DAVID PLOTZ: I had read parts of it. You know, I knew Ten Commandments, twelve apostles, twelve tribes, forty days and forty nights. There was rain. There was a burning bush. That was about all I knew. And I thought, if this is the thing on which my religion is based and on which 4,000 years of law and scholarship and learning and education are founded, I think it would behoove me to find out what's actually in it, and to do it kind of unmediated by the rabbis or the priests, and just to see what parts they've left out or what parts are too tricky or what parts don't seem to mean what I was told they meant back when I went to Hebrew school 25 years ago.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you start your blog entry on Genesis, when God is creating the earth.

DAVID PLOTZ: That is the beginning. [BROOKE LAUGHS] That’s the beginning. I knew that much.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] And you suggest that God is a tinkerer. And just to give the listeners a flavor, would you read a ‘graph?

DAVID PLOTZ: Sure. "Creation seems so out of order. If God made light on the first day, what was giving the light, since the sun doesn't appear until the fourth day? And God tackles the major geological and astronomical features during the first two days - light, sky, water, earth. But day three is a curious interruption - plant creation - that is followed by a return to massive universe-shaping projects on day four, with the sun, moon and stars. The plant venture is a tangent, like putting a refrigerator into a house before you've put the roof on.”

BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] So what’s your goal here?

DAVID PLOTZ: First of all, just to see what happens to me, sort of theologically and intellectually, as I do it, but also to offer a kind of an everyman's reaction.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: One thing that you observed from the start is that God seems inclined to prefer clever behavior to good behavior.

DAVID PLOTZ: That's right. And again and again throughout the Bible you see that the man who takes action or the woman who takes action - occasionally it's a woman - even if it's vicious, even if it's immoral, unethical but it leads to kind of progress, that God appreciates that, that God shows favor on those who are the smartest. And we see that Jacob is the paramount example, but Joseph that's true of, and Moses it's true of, and Abraham. I mean, all these, the kind of older Biblical figures, aren't really the most admirable men in the world. And because the Old Testament shows so many stories in which there's so much immorality, in which the Jews themselves behave so badly, it's required to try to find moral rules in this kind of stew of immorality and viciousness. And the result, I think, is a religion which works really hard intellectually. And a lot of Jews have actually objected to my reading the Bible, as I read it, because they say, Jews are not supposed to read it this way, because they're supposed to read it with a teacher, because it's so intellectually demanding and because it's so liable to confuse you.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: You had some people objecting to the fact that you were reading this book without a teacher. You were, however, blogging it. Was there something particularly attractive about using the blog format?

DAVID PLOTZ: I think blogging it parallels the way people really read the Bible. And in churches or in synagogues, you have a reading for that week, and so I was trying to mimic that. And the blog format turns out to be just a perfect match for it. You know, I can write 800 to 1,500 words, and that really can capture sort of what a good day's reading of the Bible is. And it gives readers a way to connect with me immediately, so that I - you know, I just checked before I came in here. I have 3,288 unread messages about this column. You know, I pose a lot of questions for which I need answers from my readers, and so, like, you know, I get hundreds of answers. I get incredibly interesting commentaries. I get, you know, corrections. I get denunciations. I have various people who write me two or three times a day. It's an incredibly useful and vital way to stay in touch with readers.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: I have to say I laughed [LAUGHS] out loud when you talked about the massive circumcision that went on before they entered the Promised Land.

DAVID PLOTZ: Yeah, the "Hill of the Foreskins."

[LAUGHTER] Yeah, there are a million, the million Israelites who crossed over into the Promised Land, and for some reason - I posit it's the lack of bagels and lox [BROOKE LAUGHS] - they did not perform circumcisions while they were in the wilderness wandering for 40 years. And so they all get circumcised in this gigantic ceremony, and I guess they leave the evidence in this one spot, which I plan never to visit when I'm in Israel.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] You imagine taking your kids there. No, honey, don't pick that up! [LAUGHS]

DAVID PLOTZ: Right, [LAUGHS] right. Don't put that in your mouth!

BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Now, have you found that your reading of the Bible this way has influenced or changed your understanding of your religion?

DAVID PLOTZ: I'm somebody who kind of believes in God but in a very vague way. And what's happened is that I've sort of found myself in this kind of conversation with God all the time, where not just when I'm reading it - when you read it, you sort of say, why are you doing this, God, or good move, God - but I start to think about, well, why would God do something like that? And I don't think it's made me a greater believer in the existence of God than I was before, but I think I'm having a kind of a conversation about the sort of moral and theological issues raised in the Bible in a way that I just haven't for however long I've been alive, 36 years.


BROOKE GLADSTONE: David, thank you very much.

DAVID PLOTZ: Thank you, Brooke.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: David Plotz is the editor of Slate. He spoke to us about blogging the Bible in 2006.