Better than Brothers Grimm

 

by John Tyler Connoley

April 27, 2004

 

My family's house always contained lots of books -- Dad's Louis L'Amour collection, Mom's romantic novels, Dr. Seuss and Golden books, the Peanuts & Rin Tin Tin anthologies, and all sorts of classics from Moby Dick to The Lord of the Rings. We were a family of readers, and we often read to each other. I have clear memories of Dad reading us Treasure Island, and Mom reading me The Hobbit, when I was in the hospital for a week with dysentery.

 

Books mattered to my family, but there was one book that mattered more than all the others. I have many more memories of Dad reading us Bible stories, than of him reading other books. While my friends were growing up on Merlin and Arthur, Luke and Leia, and Robin Hood, my sister and I were soaking in other stories -- stories that predate and, in some ways, preface those later tales. Long before the first fairly tale "Once upon a time," there was a book that starts, "In the beginning . . ."

 

In that book, Joseph's brothers sell him into slavery, but he becomes a powerful ruler, and eventually saves those same brothers from starvation in a famine. Moses challenges the God-King of Egypt to "Let my people go," and wins his case (after some wrangling). Ehud, the left-handed prophet, kills the monstrous Eglon and frees his people from bondage. Elijah taunts the prophets of Baal, "Chant louder. Perhaps your god has gone for a walk, or maybe he's on the toilet." (I think Dad added that last bit.) Elisha watches as an angelic chariot of fire carries his best friend and mentor away.

 

These people were my heroes -- my pirates and cowboys. My dragons were leviathans, and my damsels were Persian princesses.

 

In an age when Veggie Tales, The Passion of the Christ, and The Life of Brian are common sources for biblical knowledge, the most radical thing about my family's approach to biblical stories is that we read them directly from the Bible (with a few of Dad's asides thrown in). My father assumed these tales, popular for three millennia, would capture his children's attention -- and they did. Like generations of storytellers before me, my sense of how a story should be framed was influenced strongly by the books of Esther and Jonah, and by the story of Joseph. Like my western ancestors, these literary texts affected my sense of humor, of comic timing, and of irony.

 

For example, one of my favorite ironic moments is in the biblical story of Joseph: When two of Joseph's prison buddies find out he can interpret dreams, they ask him to interpret theirs. To the first, he says, "In three days, Pharaoh will lift up your head, and restore you to your office as cupbearer." To the second he says, "In three days, Pharaoh will lift up your head . . . from off your shoulders." That's funny stuff, when you're a twelve-year-old boy. So is the beginning of Jonah: God said to Jonah, "Get up! Go to Ninevah." So Jonah got up, and fled to Tarshish.

 

Today, I find most of my friends a little bemused by my continued interest in Bible stories. When people find out I'm working on a book retelling stories mostly from the Hebrew Bible, I generally get one of two reactions. Christians tend to respond with, "I've never really liked the Old Testament, with all its rules and thou shalt nots. " People from other faith traditions, or those who don't claim a religion, usually say something like, "That's very interesting . . . Oh look, there's Bob, I've been meaning to talk to him all night."

 

Of course, for me as a Christian, the Bible is more than just a literary collection. However, this all-time bestseller also happens to contain a good deal of interesting literature that has influenced generations of western writers. Where would Milton and Steinbeck be without the story of Adam and Eve? Where would Shakespeare be without the King James Bible? Biblical themes and images even permeate the modern pulp fiction of John Grishom, Stephen King, and Anne Rice. The Bible contains stories that still resonate with our lives, be we California Buddhist or Ohio Baptist. It's not by coincidence that three thousand years of westerners have listened to these stories, laughing with Jonah, gasping with Ehud, and crying with Esther.

 

Which reminds me, I think the book of Esther has one of the best opening setups of any story ever. You see, the king of Persia throws this huge party that lasts six months, and then he throws another party that lasts seven days. When he's good and toasted, he calls for the queen to come show off her beauty for all his guests. He says, "Wear your crown" (and some scholars think that means "wear only your crown"). Well, believe it or not, the queen says, "No" -- she tells the king "No" in front of all his guests, and with him drunk as a skunk! Then, the king . . .

 

But, you don't need me to tell you what happens next; you can read it for yourself. Suffice it to say, it's better than anything the Brother's Grimm could think up, and it's a much better girl-power story than the latest Hillary Duff movie could ever hope to be.

 

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Copyright 2004 by John Tyler Connoley

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