August 7th, 2014


Theological ramblings in the form of a book review: The Bible According to Mark Twain

Readers of this blog may recall my review of The Bible According to Spike Milligan. When I came across the book The Bible According to Mark Twain, I thought: this I must read.

It is a very different book from Milligan's; but that shouldn't be surprising, as they were very different characters. The book consists of narratives by Twain, some of them previously published, some not, on the two subjects of Adam, Eve, and the antediluvian civilisation (which Twain portrays as a high civilisation, in order to use it to satirise his own—I bet you didn't know Cain and Abel's sisters were called Gladys and Edwina), and Heaven and the afterlife.

Much of the book consists of gentle mockery of an overliteral reading of the Bible and the traditional Christian interpretation of it, for example (from "Adam's Diary"):

[Eve] engages herself in many foolish things: among others, trying to study why the animals called lions and tigers live on grass and flowers, when, as she says, the sort of teeth they wear would indicate that they were intended to eat each other.
(I thought as I was growing up that this kind of argument was fully thrashed out in the mid-nineteenth century (certainly Joseph Herman Hertz, Chief Rabbi in the first half of the twentieth, wrote a wonderful rebuttal of literal Creationism that I can post here if anyone is interested); it's depressing that this has come back as an issue in our day and age.)

I wasn't strongly grabbed by these narratives, and found some of them wandered somewhat, failing to maintain a uniform voice or theme. However, later in the book—corresponding, loosely, to later in the author's life—the narratives grow darker and more theologically challenging, and hence more interesting to myself.

One of the appendices to the book, "God of the Bible vs. God of the Present Day", sets out Mark Twain's views on the nature of God circa 1870, in which he contrasts the pettiness of the scope or scale of God and his interests as portrayed by the Bible, with that as envisaged by the theologians of his day.

The Biblical universe consisted of but one important feature, a miiniature world 8,000 miles in diameter; the minor features were a roof a rocket-flight overhead, containing a toy sun and moon, and speckled with dimensionless sparks, placed there with the avowedly sole object of confining their homage to that little world and humbly serving it. The difference between that universe and the modern one revealed by science is as the difference between dust-flecked ray in a barn and the sublime arch of the Milky Way in the skies. Its God was strictly proportioned to its dimensions. His sole solicitude was about a handful of truculent nomads. [...] One day he coaxed and petted them beyond their due, the next he harried and lashed them beyond their deserts. He sulked, he cursed, he raged, he grieved [...] but all to no purpose; his efforts were all vain, he could not govern them.

In comparison:

The universe discovered by modern men comports with the dignity of the modern God, the God whom we trust, believe in and humbly adore.

And so forth, at greater length than I am willing to beg your indulgence by quoting. He concludes from this:

To trust the God of the Bible is to trust an irascible, vindictive, fierce, and ever fickle and changeful master; to trust the true God is to trust a Being who has uttered no promises, but whose beneficent, exact and changeless ordering of the machinery of his colossal universe is proof that he is at least steadfast to his purposes; whose unwritten laws, so far as they affect man, being equal and impartial show that he is just and fair.

This I found astonishing: He is willing to avow disbelief in much of what the Bible says, yet goes on believing in God. Apparently in this he was much influenced by the classic eighteenth-century deist tract The Age of Reason. I think I shall have to read this now. I'd known about deism in an abstract way, but had never seen belief in God set out alongside outright denial of core Christian values in that way beforehand. (I think I thought of deism and (intellectually informed) theism as both acknowledging the Bible and the evidence from the universe, but differing in which was considered trustworthy for proof.)

It's also interesting that Twain concludes that God is still to be worshipped, as some of the charges that can be put against the Biblical God can also be put against the deistic one. These charges came to the fore as Twain's theological outlook darkened in the 1890s and 1900s. They include the way that God, although claiming to be just and fair, has a habit of punishing not just the guilty, but anyone remotely connected with them.

Here I think Twain is making a theological mistake: He is conflating the ascription to God of attributes we value and should wish to emulate—lovingkindness, etc—with the ancients' attempting to find meaning in a world in which bad things happen to good people by declaring that they must be acts of God, i.e. beyond the human capacity to understand or explain. Without a firm mental separation between the two, you end up with a contradictory depiction of God, which lends itself to the charge of hypocrisy.

Another theological mistake Twain makes is to say that Man is not to blame for his nature, given that that nature is the work of God. It is (as I have heard other theologians say) unfair to blame Adam and Eve for sampling the forbidden fruit when it was both in their nature to do so, and they neither did, nor could, understand the nature of the punishment (without having eaten of the fruit in the first place). Twain's mistake here is to extend that to all Man's nature and actions. He would absolve an adulterer for adultery simply because he is of an adulterous nature. But by that criterion, surely all law systems are in the wrong! But of course without them civilisations would descend into anarchy (which, despite the protestations of some anarchists, is not a good thing, as we have seen in countries deprived of law and order in the last few years). What Twain seems to forget is that what distinguishes Man from the beasts is an ability to overcome his nature. I cannot understand how Twain did not mention this, but of course have only read in this book a selection of his thoughts on the subject.

Twain's darkened theological outlook is captured in his powerful Letters from the Earth (sent by an incredulous Satan back to the other archangels about the nature of life on Earth). These depicts God as having created a universe in which everyone and everything suffers. The fly being eaten by the spider, and the spider by the wasp are all part of this suffering for Twain; indeed for him the situation is even worse for the animals, as they don't even get a heaven to look forward to afterwards. Yet for him the advent of the promise of a Heaven is a double-edged sword, because it resulted in the creation of Hell too. Recognising (implicitly) that neither exist in the Hebrew Bible, he talks about Hell as having come about "When God got religion" or "became Christian".

Of course, Twain's antagonism to these derives from the Christian concept that only a tiny proportion of humanity will get into Heaven, the rest will fry in eternal torment; this concept is mercifully lacking in my own religion.

Twain goes on to criticise God for supposedly being omnipotent but not saving everyone. What perversity is it to cure one leper without curing all lepers? Indeed, what perversity was it to create diseases in the first place? This finds expresson in Twain's treatment of Noah, whom he criticises for having taken the housefly on the Ark, rather than letting it and all the diseases it carries die out.

Which raises the question of whether, then, one still owes such a God worship. In a quotation from his autobiography dating from 1906, Twain concludes emphatically no. It's strange to read Twain going on in this manner, and yet still using the term "God" to describe this entity to which worship is not due. I suppose it's because English doesn't really have a term for an entity that is Creator and Supreme Being but not suitable to be the object of worship. Or, to put it another way, what makes such a being worthy of being called God if worship is not due it?

Twain concludes:

[Man] is flung head over heels into this world without ever a chance to decline, and straightaway he conceives and accepts the notion that he is in some mysterious way under obligations to the unknown Power that inflicted this outrage upon him—and thenceforth he considered himself responsible to that Power for every act of his life, and punishable for such of his acts as do not meet with the approval of that Power—yet that same man would argue quite differently if a human tyrant should capture him and put chains upon him and make him a slave.

Though of course we cannot expect Twain to have heard of Stockholm syndrome! Which raises a question that's been going through my mind in recent years: How much bad does God have to do to the Jewish people before we stop praising God for the few good things God has done in our long history?

The answer to this I think lies in the appeal of the traditional liturgy, as borne out by the history of the Reform movement, which started out by throwing out everything traditional, and then has spent the last two centuries gradually putting it back in again.

This is not, however, for me a closed question. I've spent years looking for a theology which does not leave me unsatisfied. I read Nill Gillman's book Sacred Fragments, which gives a description of all modern such attempts, and none of them really did much for me.

There's a story of a group of rabbis in a concentration camp during the Holocaust who decided to put God on trial for what God had allowed to pass. They assigned counsels for the prosecution and defence, weighed up the evidence, and eventually, after much debate, found God guilty. But they came to pronounce sentence, one of them looked at his watch and said, "It's time for mincha!; so instead of sentencing God, they went off to pray to God instead.

There is a sense that we—they, I—continue because it's what we do. I've posted before about how I came to start reciting בִּרְכוֹת every day because I wanted to express gratitude for things, but got sucked into using theistical language, because it's the language of Jewish prayer. This is the same problem here, just on a wider scope.

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