21.10.09

The Bad, the Bible and Babel

God is one rocking muse. Some writer or the other uses religion as allegory, metaphor, reinterpretation. Some religious group or the other is offended.

Jose Saramago who won the 1998 Nobel Prize for Literature has written a book Cain that has been described as an ironic retelling of the Biblical story of Cain, Adam and Eve's son who killed his younger brother Abel.

I assume since he has titled the book after the bad guy, it would be a bit rebellious and off-track. However, his one comment resulted in some intellectual fracas. He said:

“The Bible is a manual of bad morals (which) has a powerful influence on our culture and even our way of life. Without the Bible, we would be different and probably better people.”


It is intriguing that for one who is seeking to upset the apple cart of Eden he is concerned about morals, bad or otherwise. If morality is about values that formulate and to an extent formalise social mores, then those would not be uniform and specific to any one society. Is there anything like the Catholic or even Christian culture outside of the realm of religion? Morality learned through belief systems is essentially a conduit between conscience and this way of life thing.

With or without the Bible or any religious text we would be denied this channel. The probabilities of being better depends on what we perceive as good, and the good and bad are again dependent on value systems as well as social behaviour.

Saramago has been accused of being a publicity seeker. It is possible that he does not mind a bit of controversy, and his book is indeed using an aspect of the Bible so it would be a fair exploitation on his part. That apart, what could be the reason for his comment that the book would not offend Catholics or the Church “because they do not read the Bible”? Had he said that it would not offend his readers because they are not religious or they think with an open mind, it would make sense. This, unfortunately, does not.

Does he mean it is not read or read? The Bible has sold more copies than many books and it is entirely possible that Catholics would not read it with much interest beyond what faith dictates, which is true of any religious text. It is also true that many regressive fairytales are being reinterpreted, which is also true for holy texts. Have the updated fairytales had any influence to change mindsets? Is the addition of gender ambiguous ideas enough?

The author believes that his work might offend Jews but he does not care. I find it a bit disconcerting that he has made all these slots about who it will offend and how much. I read that in 1992 he had caused a scandal in Portugal with The Gospel According to Jesus Christ. The book depicted Jesus losing his virginity to Mary Magdalene and being used by God to control the world.

It seems like an interesting idea and there have been works that have tried to analyse the role of Mary Magdalene. As for control, whether anyone writes about it or not, the belief that Jesus is deified for having “died on the Cross for us” is a manner of control. The psychological dimensions of it are right inside the Bible.

Saramago attacked “a cruel, jealous and unbearable God (who) exists only in our heads”. I find the use of such words in a report rather amusing. How can one attack a god one does not believe in and who exists only in our heads? And why expend so much energy on one who is cruel, jealous and unbearable?

We all have demons on our heads, and they have little to do with god or the devil. They have to do with our circumstances and how much we internalise aspects of it. It is our baggage and our tag, both.

These, in fact, could help elevate us to be better since we become more aware about the bad, and consequently the good. The ugly is our reserve player for those bad hair and dare days.

5 comments:

  1. Farzana,
    love your attack on nobel's.
    They may not be deserving attack for sure they need more exposure by ordinary (may be not so ordinary )writers.
    Saramago makes sense, sometimes . These atheist thinkers and writers make more sense when they are discussing spritual and religous issues.
    Saul Bellow declared in Ravelstein that all professors( by proxy serious thinkers )are atheist .I add that they are trying to become theist and religion does not allow them to do so .They end up discussing futility of practiced religion and its follies and end up promoting Saul Bellow's views of them.
    I can only label you troublemaker and rebel rouser.
    Keep on picking on nobel's or almost nobels.You will at least be picking on so called powerful. Gandhi will fall in that category and i could write a critic on his biography,i am re reading it these days.Is he not the holiest of holy cows.

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  2. Jose Saramago is lucky that he is talking about Bible. Had he been talking about Koran, he would have by now a fatwa on his life.

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  3. Kul Bhushan:

    This was not an attack on the Nobels, although per se the Nobel Prize, like many such awards, does raise questions often. I am not sure I am here to give them “more exposure” and whether it would matter to them. Or to me. Not to me, for sure because that is not what prompts me to write about an issue as opposed to an individual, unless s/he represents the issue.

    Indeed I would myself be more on Jose’s side ideologically but, as with Dawkins, I have a problem with the way such atheism comes across and buffers the very aspects of religion it seeks to subvert. Here the issue is morality. Why use a moral paradigm when you do not believe in it?

    Much as I like Saul bellow, I don’t believe all professors are atheist and most certainly not serious thinkers! These have nothing to do with a profession.

    I do not accept holy cows in principle and practice, and Gandhi has heard enough from me, but being a non-violent sort did not reciprocate in kind!

    I can only label you troublemaker and rebel rouser.

    If you really mean ‘rebel rouser’, then I am glad I am one. Why, I don’t mind being a rabble-rouser too. Too much somnambulism around us. As for trouble maker, you must like trouble a lot then :-)

    Anon:

    Yup. Lucky Jose. No fatwa. But his publishers must be weeping that sales won’t hit the roof as they would if the writer had taken on the good old Quran. Btw, what is the difference between a fatwa and the Church getting all hot and bothered and issuing statements? Has anyone killed Salman Rushdie? Wake up and smell the zam-zam…

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  4. FV
    Yes nobody killed Salman Rushdie but at what cost for his security and is there not a trail of murdered people who were associated with Rushdie's book- Translator etc.? The difference btw fatwa and the Church getting all hot is simple: The one or anybody associated with you can be killed while the other may amount to nothing more than hot air bellowing like from speakers at Hyde Park corner.

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  5. Why do "etcs" not come with some evidence? Yes, his Japanese translator was killed, but Rushdie got complete security cover and is now a much in demand socialite. This is not to condone any killings at all. But, had some mullahs gone to Speaker's Corner would you just dismiss it as "hot air"?

    The difference is in the attitude. A few years back a devout Catholic guy killed a gay couple in California because he said the Bible considered homosexuality a sin; he used religion to justify his act.

    A fatwa, as I have said repeatedly, is an opinion of a group of people; a group of people do not necessarily represent the religion. However, the fatwa has a nice ring to it, even if quite a few of those cases reach the courts and are not stuck with the Ulema.

    Usually, the mullahs pick on well-known people or those in the media eye, and these people make the most of it by getting more mileage than they deserve. Example: Taslima Nasreen.

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