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.

David Plotz was online at Washingtonpost.com to chat with readers about his new book, Good Book, about his year spent reading the Bible and blogging about it. An unedited transcript of chat follows.

David Plotz: This is David Plotz. I'm looking forward to talking to you about the Bible and my new book: Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous, and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Single Word of the Bible.

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Vancouver, Canada: You found it remarkable that well-educated people are often ignorant of the Bible. Should students in public high school be required to study the Bible? If so, should they also study the Quran, Talmud, vedas, etc. to the same degree?

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David Plotz: I do think students in public school (and private) should be required to study the Bible. I recognize that it raises hideously complicated church/state issues, and I recognize that the Supreme Court has already said, essentially, that it can't be taught. But as a matter of pure education, it's shocking that we are not compelled to learn the book, which is the source of our language, our common stories, our political structure, our conflicts.

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Prescott, Ariz.: While you were reading the Bible as literature, as a cultural touchstone, how did you feel about it as a moral guide?

David Plotz: I wasn't reading it as literature. I was reading it as literature, and as history, and as a moral guide, and as anthropology and law and culture. I do think that one problem with how we think about the Bible is that people tend to jam it into narrower categories, when in fact it is many things all at once.

But to answer your real question: It was very confusing as a moral guide. The inspiring parts of the Bible—Leviticus Chapter 19, for example—are astounding, far better than anything I expected. And the shocking parts are far more shocking. God is erratic, sometimes vindictive, sometimes merciful. The people I was taught were heroes—Jacob or Moses or David—were ambivalent figures, or worse. (Jacob is a con artist, effectively.) But that messiness was joyful, and challenging. I loved having a Bible that I could argue with.

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Richmond, Va.: Why not continue to the New Testament? If you're reading the Bible for literary value, there's certainly plenty of metaphor and idiom there. I, too, am an unobservant and agnostic Jew-by-birth, but I would definitely include the New Testament in a cover-to-cover reading of the Bible.

David Plotz: This is by far the most common question I get, and I sympathize with it. I was giving the Bible a very irreverent, very personal reading. As a Jew, I felt I could do that with my Bible, the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament, more or less). I did not feel I could do it with the New Testament, because I couldn't treat the life of Jesus fairly. I think that Christian readers would have a right to expect a New Testament reading from someone who belonged to the group, not from some outsider chucking spitballs. But maybe I should have kept going: My Christian friends tell me that reading the OT but not the NT is like leaving the play at intermission.

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Maryland: After someone reads the Slate article, do they have any reason to buy your book instead of just buying a Bible? What does your book have that a Bible doesn't?

David Plotz: You can leave my book in the bathroom, and not feel guilty about it!

My book is by no means a substitute for the Bible. It's an effort to bring a new, curious, irreverent perspective to a book that has been made inaccessible and difficult by clergy and academics. If there is anything I hope Good Book does, it is to show readers the exuberant, fascinating messiness of the Bible, and encourage them to read it themselves.

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Irondale, Ala.: I love the Bible blog! It's sort of a cliche to say that the Old Testament god is "not a loving god," but I had no idea just what a vain, capricious, bloodthirsty, and rather muddled deity is depicted in these stories. I just finished reading "Miss Lea's Bible Stories" to my daughter — it's sort of a "Blogging the Bible" for young children (and raises some of the same questions you raise).

I wonder if you have noticed any differences in the reactions of your Jewish readers and your Christian readers.

David Plotz: Great question. I seem to have three categories of readers. The first is nonbelievers who are glad that I am reading the Bible so they don't have to bother. The second group, which is quite large, is very Biblically literate Jews. And the third, which is also very large, is Christians, most of them evangelical. The evangelical readers and the Jewish readers have generally been very encouraging, because they appreciate someone taking the book they love so seriously, and actually reading it and grappling with it. The Christians think I am making a mistake by not trying the New Testament and meeting Jesus. The Jews tend to think I am making a mistake by reading without support from educated people. After all, there is 2,000 years of scholarship about the book, they say, so it's perverse of me to ignore it.

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Arlington, Va.: Even as a Religion major, I got away with reading very little of the Bible, and with remembering even less.

Many high schools do permit the reading of at least parts of the Bible in literature courses. Which one book of the Bible would you choose as required reading? And how do you recommend reading? Starting with "In the beginning" and working your way forward, or maybe with a different book? Did you find yourself reading each book of the Bible more than once, or returning to previous books in order to better understand the book you were concentrating on at the moment?

David Plotz: Which one book would I require? Great question. I suppose Genesis has to top the list. But I might require the Book of Ruth, because it is so incredibly beautiful. And First and Second Samuel, because the story of King David is rich, powerful, and provocative.

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