Biblical Short Story Collection Surprises

by Mindy Borie
Columnist

Jonathan Goldstein’s irreverent short story collection “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bible!” surprised me. Retellings of myths, fairy tales and religious fables have been done so many times that I didn’t expect to find anything new. But “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bible!” offered something that, if not brand-new, was at least worth exploring.

The stories of “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bible!” should be familiar to all of those with a Judeo-Christian heritage (which I’m going to guess is most of The Rambler’s readership). It functions as a sort of “Old Testament Greatest Hits” — only the last one of the 13 tales presented is from the New Testament. However, this collection has stripped these highly recognizable stories of their veneer of respectability, and it really adds another, more human, layer to the storytelling.

The gang’s all here, as never seen before. Adam is a well-meaning idiot and Eve is his dissatisfied wife. Cain never meant to actually hurt his brother but just wanted to see if God would stop him. Noah is the only one able to understand God’s plan because he, too, is disappointed in how his children turned out. Jacob and Esau have been forever separated by the inequitable nature of their mother’s love.

Samson, driven to madness by his love for Delilah, attempts great feats of strength to impress her. David, who spends his life on a quest to be a successful comedian, is undone by his son Absalom’s superior grasp of fart jokes. Jonah takes some bad advice from his sensible older brother. And finally, Joseph of Nazareth recounts in his memoirs how it feels when the woman you love cheats on you with God.

Joseph also refers to the glow of pregnant women as them “walking around like uranium Buddhas.” This book is full of similar conversational diction and modern references, which is only one way Goldstein alters the stories. It makes us better able to connect with the stories, and it takes them down from their lofty pedestal.

Each story represents a twist on a classic, and all of them are uproariously funny. But there’s more to it than that. In telling these stories, Goldstein doesn’t seek to demean the originals. He isn’t mocking or devaluing the power of these stories, though that certainly is a risk an author takes when reinterpreting such tales. He just wants people to think about them. People who lived long ago weren’t just figures in a mythos; they were people, and they behaved like people and felt like people.

What is outstanding isn’t the writing itself or the humor that runs throughout. This, I confess, is what most surprised me. I was expecting the collection to be merely a comical take on the Bible. I was not anticipating the tenderness with which Goldstein treats his subjects. There are touching moments, moments characters understand the wounds they’ve given each other, moments they realize God’s power and how small they are. There is a feeling of hope for humanity, which builds as the stories progress. Goldstein is a true believer in the power of his words, and a true believer in the idea of the divine.

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