Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bible!

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bible!

By Byron Rempel

A review of Ladies And Gentlemen, The Bible! by Jonathan Goldstein

Published on August 1, 2009

Ladies And Gentlemen, The Bible!
Jonathan Goldstein

Penguin Canada
$24
paper
240pp
978-0-14-305654-6

Jonathan Goldstein may have had good connections with God. He almost went to yeshiva to study the Torah. Almost, mind you. He claims to have been booted from classes for being too silly. But now he’s got more powerful connections. Brooklyn-born and Montreal raised, Goldstein has been involved with the NPR radio show This American Life for years. Thus he can summon three well-known hip and witty writers who kick-started their careers on the show: they gloss the cover of his updated commentary (or postmodern Midrash) on Bible stories, Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bible! David Rakoff, Sarah Vowell and the unstoppable David Sedaris believe Goldstein is the Second Coming. Will you?

You may be familiar with Goldstein from his sublimely kooky WireTap program on CBC. But now Goldstein has turned from the trademark telephone conversations with his imagined friends and family to retell Bible stories. It’s more than just another in a spate of books trying to make sense of religion; it’s less than the latest Hollywood superhero makeover.

The Bible tends to take itself seriously; Goldstein, not so much. His Bible remixes of Adam and Eve, Noah, Samson, and David benefit from the deadpan and dry tone WireTap listeners are familiar with. Like that show too, the writing is precise and remarkably well-edited: there are only three unnecessary words in the book. The style and voice carry through the book without faltering. But these are monologues, compared to the snappy tension of his radio dialogues. That means you may not be on the floor laughing while reading. It probably wasn’t Goldstein’s goal, notwithstanding the claims of his NPR buddies. Despite the modern and witty turn, many of the tales have a good dose of misery.

You can hardly go wrong riffing on the plots of the Bible, but Goldstein goes one better and crafts real characters. He puts meat on the morality puppets of the Good Book. Noah in particular comes across as a convincing, if not particularly likeable, patriarch.

Combining all of those elements leads to blissful moments. In Goldstein’s universe, before the Fall, babies were meant to appear nested above heads when two people in love shared a like-minded pretty thought, or put their head on someone’s stomach and just felt happy to be alive. After the Fall, God made babies happen because of sex. “It was like pairing the eating of a nectarine with a lunar eclipse.”

Noah’s son Ham is dating an installation artist who has just recreated a Tree of Life, replacing the apples with dead snake skins. She thinks Noah “the truest artist she’d ever met, and that his ark was his art… ‘He builds it for reasons no one can fathom, he applies himself to it every day, and every day he works with great passion.'”

Obviously Goldstein’s topic is not simply the Bible. His tales reflect his obsessions: God, the difficulty of relationships between men and women, and the difficulty of being artistically funny. In Goldsteinland men in general come off as oafs, or at their best as lovable goofs. From atop their pedestals, women are manipulative and long-suffering. When Eve dreams, “beautiful thoughts flew out her ears and lit up the sky like fireflies…and there would be Adam, his yokel face pressed right up against hers, his dog food breath blowing right up her nostrils.”

Funny keeps coming up too, self-referentially. King David as a failed funnyman is excruciating to watch. But there’s also (especially added for the goyim!) Joseph, husband of Mary and the most under-used character in the Bible. “To most people I was a high-strung whiner,” he says, “but to Mary, all my whining was a laugh riot.”

Goldstein uses his considerable talent (and perhaps that of his NPR cohorts and his companion Heather O’Neill) to make “the best sense of things that he can,” to quote the kosher-style father in the preface. If that’s the essence of religion, is the essence of funny exactly the opposite? mRb

Byron Rempel is the author of "Truth is Naked," an autobiographical exaggeration with commentary on Mennonites.

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