Note: While some may consider it a conflict of interest to post a review of a book edited by one of AMV’s contributors on AMV, to you I say, “Blogging is all about the art of self-service and self-promotion. So I’m reviewing The Fob Bible (published May 2009 by Peculiar Pages and edited by Eric W Jepson, et al) here as a public service whether you like it or not. And I say that with all the kindness I can muster.”
Part I appears today and I’ll post part II next week.
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Re: The Fob Family Bible, Part I: Introduction and The First Four Fobnesses
I’ve got two family Bibles on my bookshelf: one nearly brand-new two-volume set from Bookcraft/Deseret Book–The Old and New Testaments for Latter-day Saint Families (Salt Lake City, 2005 and 1998 respectively); and one unwieldy, second-hand volume from Crusade Bible Publishers, Inc. (Nashville, 1980s)–The Holy Bible Family Altar Edition. These were intended, I believe, as coffee table volumes, books meant to be points of gathering, conversation, and communion between family members, their communities, and their God. Such creation of communal understanding is enhanced, the editors of all three volumes imply, with the editorial apparatus–the study helps–built into each text: among other things, the glossaries, the book and chapter introductions, the topic headings, the colored words that highlight important aspects of the text, and the footnotes that include cross references and scriptural commentary. According to the editors of the scriptures for Latter-day Saint Families series, these helps are “designed especially” to “help [“¦ us] read, understand, and think about [“¦ the scriptures] in exciting new ways”1–ways that will lead us, presumably, to become as God is, the central and defining focus of LDS theology.
The Fob Bible, an anthology of stories, poems, closet drama, and email correspondence, positions itself within this general tradition of enhanced, altar-type, family Bibles, though with a significant revisionary difference: instead of constructing a new apparatus intended to direct our study of the scriptures in specific, predetermined ways or offering a new translation of a text that has already been translated repeatedly, the contributors to The Fob Bible have re-imagined well-worn Old Testament stories, revisiting Eden and its surrounds, the Deluge, the final moments of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham and Isaac’s ascent to Moriah’s pinnacle, the relationship between Isaac and Esau and Esau and Jacob, Joseph’s–then Moses’–journey into Egypt, Balaam’s bond with his ass, Samson, Solomon, Rehoboam, Naaman, Ezra, Job, Jeremiah, Daniel, and, of course, Jonah and the giant fish.
These postmodern visitations reshape each historically privileged narrative and narrative voice from the perspective of the less-privileged story, the unheard voice, offering new characters–or familiar characters recast in new molds–the opportunity to speak and, in the process, to influence the world “in exciting new ways.” For instance, Danny Nelson gives voice to Job’s wife, a woman unnamed in the canon whose scriptural screen time amounts to one line of dialogue2 and two obscure references,3 three slight appearances from which she is sometimes judged to be “bitter, angry, and wrong.”4 Yet, Nelson gives the woman a name, “Hadasa,”5 the whole cast of human emotions, and a book of her own, a space in which she (or Nelson’s version thereof) can flesh out her poignant account of Job’s tale, which is, in the end, their story and deserves to be told in her voice, too.
This revisionary proclivity is one of the book’s defining features and, I believe, one of its greatest strengths. Indeed, each contributor exhibits the tendency to some degree; they are Mormon, after all, and writers to boot. And in their collective creative engagement with Mormonism, a Christian religious heritage founded on a restorationist theology, they’re ultimately encouraged, by Church doctrine and historical practice, “to reexamine fundamental assertions of their culture.”6 This reexamination includes the processes involved in the canonization and interpretation of scripture, historio-cultural practices that Joseph Smith essentially challenged from the beginning with his expansive view of God’s word and his witness of our need, as individuals and human communities questing to make something of ourselves, for continued interaction with God’s eternal being and will.
Not that The Fob Bible qualifies as Scripture in the strictest sense of the Word. Scriptural, indeed, but little more. Even the subtitled claim that this is “A Quotidian Book of Scripture Containing, But Not Limited To, the Juiciest Portions of the Old Testament” seems meant more as a nod in the revisionary direction of the text than as any assertion of the book’s alleged canonical authority. In other words, whereas the other family Bibles on my bookshelf, as in Mormon culture generally, take as their editorial province a strict adherence to and commentary on the language and meaning of the King James Version (the KJV is, after all, accepted as the “standard” or “official” LDS Bible), this “Quotidian Book of Scripture” is more concerned with finding transcendence in the acts of everyday language. As such, its province is narrative and any authority it exerts over the reader is purely rhetorical, flowing from the influence of storytellers practicing their craft with passion and integrity.
And my, what stories this “meeting of misfits,”7 this writing group turned producers of a literary anthology can tell. What follows is a brief rundown of what each of the eight writers has laid down on the rhetorical altar.
Friends of Ben (FOB) namesake and co-founder Ben Christensen (attributed as B. G. Christensen) gives us one of the most poignant stories of the collection with “Abraham’s Purgatory,” one of his three prose offerings, though the other two aren’t one narrative whit behind. Here Christensen plays variations on the theme of Abraham’s sacrifice. He begins on the well-worn path of Abraham and Isaac’s ascent up the mount, then, with this shocking line, “He lay the knife against the boy’s neck and cut,”8, he veers into a circling descent through the thorny undergrowth of Abraham’s consciousness as his repeated journeys to the mount–eighth, ninth, tenth–end with the same result: a son dead at his father’s hand. And we see the prophet come unhinged:
“Father,” Isaac began on the eleventh day, but Abraham shushed him.
“No questions, boy.”
Please, Lord, don’t make me do this.
I beg of you, release me from this hell.
Please, not again.
Abraham had lost track of how many times he’d relived this day. It felt like months, perhaps a year. He was not sure which he dreaded more–waking up the next morning to kill Isaac again, or waking up the next morning to find his son was truly gone.9
As this Groundhog Day from hell unfolds and we, with the prophet, lose track of “how many times he’d relived this day,” we’re compelled to watch through the disconnected narrative as he falls again and again onto the soul-piercing yet very human wonder over why he had to kill his promised son, why he had to give up his hope for posterity as infinite as the desert sands, until, in the end, he finally finds reprieve from his burning madness as he lowers the sacrifice-stained knife from the thicketed ram and makes his way home, the nightmare ended, Isaac at his side.
Beside Christensen on the FOB family tree, we have Eric W Jepson, FOB co-founder and lead editor of the Bible, who adds the greatest formal variety to the anthology. Partnered with his Thmazing alter-ego Theric (a very postmodern pairing), he presents fourteen total narratives: five public service messages (each under the heading “How to Get Over It”), four short stories (one co-written with Danny Nelson), two poems, one closet drama, one extended email correspondence between multiple historical characters, and one bar song (at least that’s what it claims to be). While this jack of the narrative trade knows his way around each form, the most revisionary of his efforts (aside from his companionship with Theric) is “Ezra’s Inbox,” a list of the electronic messages Ezra, priest and scribe of ancient Israel, may have received if email had been available circa 450 BC (or so). The central premise underlying this interaction isn’t simply whether or not prophets, priests, and scribes can or should use email in their work, even where it is available; no, matters of prophetic Internet usage are peripheral to the real narrative work going on here. More broadly, Jepson seems to be exploring, among other things, the relationship between medium and message–in this case, for example, what the narrative limits of new media are and, more specifically, how new media/email might be used to serve the expansive interpersonal and leadership needs of a religious organization confronted with institutional flux from within and international political flux from without.
The correspondence centers on the ever-developing relationship between Israel’s post-Babylonian-exile leaders Ezra (though we only hear his voice as it’s echoed through replies to his messages), Zechariah, Nehemiah, Jeshua, and Haggai as they converse, among other things, regarding how to deal with Israel’s worldliness, the rebuilding of the temple, and military/political leaders vying to take control of the temple and Jerusalem for themselves. The messages begin with this short update:
To: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org
Subject: New Prophet
The Lord has seen fit to send a second prophet to support us in telling the people of Israel to repent and to rebuild the city walls and the temple. I’m quite glad. I’ve been running short on metaphors.
I gave him your addresses. I’m sure he’ll be contacting you soon. I think you’ll like him.
In this brief interaction between men called to keep God’s people from reverting to the world, we’re offered a glimpse into a fraternal camaraderie borne of struggle and priesthood fellowship shared across time and space and through a rhetorical medium that arrives almost as soon as it’s sent, opening conduits for dialogue and personal and institutional development in yet-to-be-fully-explored ways.
Such revisionary exploration continues in the three selections from A. Arwen Taylor–two lyric poems and a retelling of Jonah’s fish tale. While her re-vision of Jonah is human and humorous and touching, the place where she most pressed me beyond myself was in her poems. Her lyric is crisp and pointed, her poetic engagement with words a means of “linguistic worship”11) centered on the conjugation and communion of bodies through rituals of the tongue, as she expresses in “Lingua Doctrinae“: Speaking to an unnamed “you” (a lover? the reader? God?) upon whom “light unfolds [in] a dusty yellow ray,”12, she discusses their conjugal acts of language, witnessing that they “resurrect the third declension, bring / the plural genitive alive,”13, renewing the complexities of linguistic inflection and possession in the plural pronouns “we” and “our” as, in the poet’s words, “we” “conjugate the Mass, and sing / our hallelujas” and “pater nosters,” paying “pronoun penance / for our poor grade in repentance / for our reprobate translation of this sentence.”14 Such trouble as the poet’s punning and rhetorical uses of ritual may make is, at once, as these lines suggest, the source of the poet’s need to repent and the means of that redemption. Through the “locution of [“¦ this poetic] system” of worship,15 a very Arnoldian proposition, she thus explores the relationship between languages, doctrines, individuals, the sexes, human and the divine, in ways that highlight the subversively redemptive possibilities of humanity’s communal acts. And by so doing, the poet presses her readers to consider that language is something more than garments for our ideas, more than mere marks on the page, or more than a series of vibrations that pass through the aural cavity, even as seemingly meaningless as these garments, these marks, these vibrations can sometimes seem.
Danny Nelson presses readers in a similar, though distinctive, way with each of his twenty-seven offerings (the most of any contributor), including twenty-three poems of various stripes and four short stories (one co-written with Eric Jepson). As a poet of considerable range and talent–he works deftly in poetic forms from light verse to the free-verse dramatic monologue–Nelson’s influence within the anthology is clear, illustrated in the placement of his poem “Creation“ as the Bible’s opening text. Although this position is likely a result of the editors’ efforts to mirror Old Testament chronology (“In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth”16), it also serves as a frame for the “procreant urge of creation”17–a phrase straight out of Whitman–as it runs through The Fob Bible as a whole. Indeed, in Nelson’s poem, as in Whitman and the FOB anthology, we find this “Urge and urge and urge, / Always the procreant urge of the world” advancing “opposite equals” “out of the dimness”18 of matter unorganized into bodies and relationships eternally on the verge of being (or greater manifestations thereof). Nelson captures this paired advancement in “Creation” with his depiction of the (pro)creative union of the sun and the moon, an interaction representative of the male and female aspects of Nature working together to craft a new sphere from the fabric of the universe.
Within the Mormon context of The Fob Bible, the (pro)creative movement of these “opposite equal” spheres further implies the eternal (pro)creative influence of both male and female Deities over the universe. For if we have a Father in Heaven and if, as Eliza R. Snow reminds us, “truth is reason, [then] truth eternal / Tells me I’ve a Mother there”19 and that she’s doing more than merely keeping House. Rather, as Nelson’s variation on this theme suggests, she, as represented in the creative power of the moon (which here “lift[s] land”20 from the earth’s watery void, “set[s] the rain in silver sheets / upon the ocean’s stormy streets,”21 and places “birds in flight” and fish in the sea22) and as the feminine coeval with God the Father, is an active participant in the eternal, reiterative round of creation, a circling “dance”23 that is more productive of all that is “good,”24 beautiful, and holy than many of us may care to–or even, at present, can–imagine.
(Next week: Part II, The Final Four Fobnesses and Conclusion)
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1. Thomas R. Valletta, et al, The Old Testament for Latter-day Saint Families (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2005) ix.
2. Job 2:9.
4. “Job’s Wife: Bitter, Angry, and Wrong,” Mom of 9’s Place 19 Feb. 2007, 10 May 2009, http://www.momof9splace.com/jobswife.html.
5. “The Book of Job’s Wife,” The Fob Bible (El Cerrito, CA: Peculiar Pages, 2009) 161.
6. Eric W Jepson, et al, The Fob Bible ii.
8. “Abraham’s Purgatory,” The Fob Bible 46.
10. “Ezra’s Inbox,” The Fob Bible 131.
11. “Lingua Doctrinae,” The Fob Bible line 9.
14. 7, 9-12
16. Gen. 1:1.
17. The Fob Bible i.
18. Walt Whitman, Song of Myself 3:7-9.
19. Eliza R. Snow, “O, My Father,” Hymns of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1985) 292.
20. Danny Nelson, “Creation,” The Fob Bible line 8.
22. 21, 24.