Magazine article The Christian Century

Genesis: A Living Conversation

Magazine article The Christian Century

Genesis: A Living Conversation

Article excerpt

REVERED by believers for over two millennia, the Book of Genesis is currently enjoying its 15 minutes of media fame. Make that ten hours in the public eye, thanks to the ten one-hour episodes of Bill Moyers's PBS series Genesis: A Living Conversation that began airing in mid-October. Times devoted a cover story to the series, Newsweek and the New York Times Magazine gave it major coverage, and a host of Genesis-related publications hit book-stores in time to ride the wave of publicity generated by the series.

Moyers's television project is based on a Genesis discussion group in New York that was launched in 1987 and led by Rabbi Burton Visotzky. Though Moyers and Visotzky are the shows, two regulars (Visotzky missed only two tapings) and act as moderator-participants, it's Visotzky's appetite for alternative readings of the text and gossip-column relevance that sets the tone for most of the programs. Visotzky likes to say breezy things like "God is a tough cookie.'" and "God says to Pharaoh, 'Don't touch da lady.'"

Each episode follows same format. Moyers briefly introduces the session; a passage from Genesis is recited - the creation story, for example, or the binding of Isaac, or Joseph in Egypt - and then eight participants seated in a circle talk about the story for around 50 minutes. The more than three dozen participants who make up the various teams for the programs include Jews, Christians, Muslims and the religiously non-aligned. About half are biblical scholars, including Robert Alter, Elaine Pagels and Renita Weems; many are artists and writers, including Mary Gordon and Oscar Hijuelos, a handful are drawn from other professions, including psychologist Carol Gilligan, bioethicist Leon Kass and journalist Byron Calame of the Wall Street Journal.

The television programs them selves achieve the status of an elevated talk show. As often happens in the genre the medium itself, televised talk, quickly overwhelms any substantive message. At their best the programs yield flashes of insight and entertainment. More often they're less than absorbing viewing. "My Dinner with Noted Readers of the Bible" this is not.

One wonders who the intended audience is. The discussion will almost certainly be lost on a general public whose biblical literacy is notoriously low. Those who read their Bibles without benefit of academic scholarship will likely be confused or angered by the participants' unexplained critical perspectives. Specialists will find nothing new in the exchanges. The shows most receptive audience may be seminary students cutting their teeth on the interpretive methods that lie hidden beneath the discussion's surface - including redaction criticism, theories of biblical narrative and the multiform hermeneutics of suspicion.

A fair evaluation of the series should consider Moyers larger intentions since, despite its title, the television series is only in part about the Bible's first book. In remarks gleaned from the companion volume to the series (in many ways a fuller, more coherent record of the conversation than is the television series), it's evident that Moyers is convinced of several things: religion and religious folk have contributed more than their fair share to our national incivility; democracy is best served when its diverse members talk openly with each other even at the points of their greatest disagreements, including religious disagreements, and Genesis is a pretty good book that's relevant to today's believers and nonbelievers - and more scandalous than many may realize. Moyers is wagering that the example of people conversing civilly about their quite diverse interpretations of the human condition will provide a beacon of light in the storm of cultural dissension.

Conversations are not all the same, however. When friends converse over an evenings meal, what is said is not always as important as simply being together in conversation. At the end of the evening its not so important whether you've talked about silly bosses and the elections or a new Woody Allen movie and the kids. …

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