Genesis: A Living Conversation

Article excerpt

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. And God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light. And there was evening and morning the first day.

And on the second day, God made Bill Moyers and put him in charge over public television's religious life. And God said, "Make unto them documentaries where you and a multicultural, ecumenical mix of interesting-but nondogmatic people, who have beards and don't wear coats and ties, sit around for hours and hours and talk about ME." And there was evening and morning the second day.

And Bill Moyers has done unto us something close to what God has said and we should be glad. Beginning Oct. 16 and continuing for 10 weeks, PBS will present one-hour sessions of "Genesis: A Living Conversation," wherein Moyers has gathered two storytellers, 38 novelists, poets, scripture scholars, theologians, artists and social activists (19 men and 19 women including five Catholics, three Muslims, several Protestants and more Jews) to discuss, m groups of seven, the stories in the Bible's first book.

I emphasize stories. Traditional theologians who study scriptural texts for an exact sense of the divine message, if they watch, will be squirming in their chairs; and basic Catholics educated to see scripture as a structured revelation as a narration of God's plan for mankind in which God always acts wisely, are in for a surprise.

"Genesis," just to refresh our memories, is the book in which God makes the world, Adam and Eve sin, Cain kills Abel Noah survives the flood, God calls Abraham who with his wife Sarah, does time in Egypt Abraham has a son by Hagar the slave girl and later by Sarah, Jacob tricks his father, Isaac, into a blessing but is nevertheless favored by God with a vision of a ladder to heaven and a wrestling match with an angel, and Jacob's sons sell their youngest brother, Joseph into slavery in Egypt, where he rises to power and later forgives his brothers. Whew!

It's important to the Moyers method that we do not see these tales under the traditional categories of biblical inerrancy or divine inspiration. Rather we are to approach them "democratically," as the "stuff of cheap novels and fast reads" but, "underneath, Faulkner and Tolstoy."

Thus, his little discussion groups include seminary professors, like Rabbi Burton L. Visotsky from Jewish Theological Semmary and Robin Darling Young from Catholic University of America, novelist John Barth and the painter Hugh O'Donnell, who has no religious background and can approach the stories unencumbered by faith.

WNET and PBS producers have chosen a format that can be either intellectually courageous or ratings foolhardy: an unadorned, uninterrupted hour of eight talking heads. No dramatic re enactments, no film clips from old Bible epics, no lush medieval or Renaissance paintings. Just faces, many with beards and bald spots, and writer-musician Elizabeth Swados' enormous red mop cascading down to her shoulders and her thin arms waving madly as she sticks up for Abraham's poor exploited Sarah.

Sarah the victim, the second-class citizen, whom Abraham in Egypt has disguised as his sister, virtually sold to the pharaoh, so the money-grubbing old patriarch can pull off some fast business deals and leave Egypt richer than when he arrived. The Genesis God of these stories has all the humanity of the irrational grandparent or the neighborhood mafia boss. He deals quite arbitrarily with his creatures and, from time to time, seems shortchanged on moral sense.

So the discussants are quick to put him m his place--though after God takes his beating, one of the theologians, sticking up for his boss, might suggest maybe God might have been right.

For example, they say, the Lord protects Abraham's scam in Egypt. Abraham gets rich because he has given his wife to Pharaoh's harem. And who can worship a God who orders Abraham to kill his son, Isaac, even if he means it only as a test? …