David Plotz discusses Good Book, his chronicle of reading the entire Bible.

Real-time discussions with Slate writers.
March 4 2009 6:30 PM

Biblically Speaking

David Plotz discusses Good Book, his chronicle of reading every single word of the Bible.

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Falls Church, Va.: What did you think about the column in "On Faith" a few days (weeks?) ago about how a lay person shouldn't read sacred texts without the assistance of his or her official religious person (rabbi, priest, pastor, what have you)?

Also, what is the tone of your book? Informational, conversational, sarcastic, sincere?

David Plotz: Second question first: The tone of Good Book is irreverent curiosity. The book is funny (or it's supposed to be), but it also tries to grapple with the Bible's most fundamental questions.

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I really enjoyed the On Faith discussion. Not surprisingly, the clergy involved generally discouraged the idea of reading without guidance. I get where they are coming from, but I think that's a narrow view. Look, either a sacred text stands or it falls. If it takes a professional with a graduate degree to explain the book to you, or to tell you that it doesn't mean what it appears to mean, then perhaps the sacred text isn't cutting it. I know I would have learned a huge amount had I read the Bible with my rabbi. But I also would have missed a huge amount, and I would have been guided down the narrow paths where the rabbi led me, not the paths that I chose for myself.

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Portland, Ore.: If I were crazy enough to try it, which two or three versions or edits of the Bible are most readable/comprehensible?

David Plotz: Not so crazy!

The King James, though the most famous, is not great for a modern reader.

If I were doing it, I would read Robert Alter's translation of the first five books of the Bible. He ends there. If Jewish, I would read the Jewish Publication Society translation, which is marvelous. If Christian, I would read the New Revised Standard Version, which is also great. All of these use the King James as a kind of foundation, but are written in more accessible language.

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Traverse City, Mich.: Are there any novels you want to re-read for a different perspective after having undergone your Bible project?

David Plotz: Fascinating question.

I do think the Book of Ruth is very much like a Jane Austen novel, so I will think about that next time I read Austen. There are some 19th and early 20th century American novels that might be worth a second read—Scarlet Letter, The Damnation of Theron Ware.

Oh, and Moby Dick. I never knew who Ahab was when I read Moby Dick in college. Now that I know, I expect the book will make a lot more sense.

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Bloomington, Ind.: How do the assumptions you bring to your reading of the Biblical text differ from those of a practicing Jewish or Christian believer? How important are those different assumptions to the conclusions you come to?

Another way of asking this question: Presumably you see yourself addressing religious believers with your book. What do you want these believing readers to come away with? What's the payoff for them?

David Plotz: The payoff for religious readers is this: It's always wonderful to learn something new about something you love, whether it's a person or a place or a book. Good Book, I hope, will remind religious readers of the exuberance and joy and excitement of the Bible. When you have spent too much time with something, you may lose sight of what's marvelous about it. I hope the curious eagerness of Good Book is a tonic for those religious readers.

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David Plotz: Thank you for a great discussion!

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