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The Bible and the barcode 

Flannery O'Connor once characterized the South as "Christ-haunted," and the same could be said of her fiction. Many Southern writers have followed in her footsteps, producing impressive works informed by an understanding of the importance of religion in Southern culture. In fact, it's safe to say that Southern literature would be nowhere without God--so who could blame Him if He occasionally demanded a little quid pro quo?

In December, He apparently looked upon the Triangle and called upon Reynolds Price and Charles Frazier. Price heard the call through the intercession of the editors of Time magazine, while Frazier was tipped to God's will by a publicist for Grove Press. The separate efforts of these two award-winning authors to explicate the Almighty's actions as presented in the texts of the Bible, are, in this merry land of fundamentalism, striking fusions of the sacred and the secular.

For his part, Reynolds Price helped put Jesus on the cover of the Dec. 6 issue of Time for its story, "Jesus at 2000." His visage gazes mournfully up at the right-hand corner of the magazine, where in tiny block lettering is printed www.time.com. He is crying. Whether the tears are for the crown of thorns, being forsaken by his Father or being exploited by Time Warner for magazine sales is difficult to assay. The occasion is the publication of Price's personal essay-cum-gospel, "Jesus of Nazareth: Then and Now," in which the author of A Long and Happy Life and Kate Vaiden reviews the historical evidence of Jesus' life, plumbs the texts of the Bible and New Testament Apocrypha for clues to Jesus' character and emerges with his own Apocryphal Gospel.

Price introduces Jesus as a sort of character out of a Dorothy Allison novel, a man who lived "a short life in a rural backwater," who was "dogged by the accusation of bastardy" and "died in agony as a convicted criminal." His Jesus is a humanist, however--a man who may have had progressive views about women and sexuality. This is the mature Jesus, an improvement over the precocious, adolescent Jesus of the Apocrypha, a "sometimes amusing, sometimes dangerous superchild playmate." Most of Price's understanding of the life of Jesus comes from the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, which he says he's ready to accept for their historical revelence, in contradistinction to most 20th-century New Testament scholars who view the Gospels, in Price's words, as "campaign biographies" or "propaganda." Price's Jesus is patient and compassionate, full of mercy and acceptance, even to the point of instructing his followers not to resist evil, insisting that "the unrepentant outlaws of the world will enter the reign of God before the righteous."

Price is easily one of the country's most serious students of the Bible. He's been here before, particularly in his 1996 book, Three Gospels (the last chapter of which he has drawn on heavily for this recent interpretation) and in his l978 A Palpable God, which includes his own translations from the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. In the recent Time article, Price takes some liberties with the story of Jesus, including a final invention in which Jesus, after his Resurrection, appears to Judas and helps his former disciple commit suicide. Price's version is highly personal, informed by a firm belief in the Resurrection and the intervention of God into the lives of humans. He recounts, as evidence of Jesus' continuing compassion, his experience with cancer 15 years ago, when, as "an outlaw Christian," he received a vision while undergoing radiation therapy to his spinal cord.

In the vision, he's lying on the shore of Lake Galilee, surrounded by the slumbering disciples, when Jesus comes forward and asks Price to follow him into the lake. "Waist-deep in the water, I felt him pour handfuls down the long fresh scar on my back--the relic of unsuccessful surgery a month before," Price recalls. Jesus then tells the author that he's forgiven--and cured. The fact that the vision (not to mention the cancer) has never recurred, Price writes, suggests that there is some objective core to the experience. But despite his beliefs, he ends the essay with an imprecation against proselytizing, which "goes on contributing heavily to the evils of national and religious warfare, institutional and individual hatred, imperialism and enslavement." So sayeth brother Price, the Triangle's radical, scholarly prophet.

At the same time, on the other side of the Triangle, Charles Frazier was tapped to write the introduction for one of the books in Grove Press' new "Pocket Canon" series, their hip, cleverly designed versions of 12 books of the King James Bible. (The original publisher of the series was Canongate Books of Edinburgh, hence the series title.) The books are available in a boxed set or singly, priced at $2.95 each and come adorned with contemporary black-and-white photos on their covers. The image on the cover of The Book of Revelation, for instance, is of an H-bomb's mushroom cloud. Frazier, who introduces the Book of Job, shares this task with the likes of Bono, lead singer of U2 (who introduces the Book of Psalms), Doris Lessing (Ecclesiastes), E.L. Doctorow (Genesis) and Barry Hannah (The Gospel According to Mark).

The original British version of the series was a marketing miracle in the publisher's home country, selling up to 60,000 copies of each book and making the headlines of London newspapers for controversial statements made in some of the introductions. Will Self, for instance, described the Book of Revelation as "a sick text" and "the very stuff of modern, psychotic nightmare"; rocker Nick Cave introduced The Gospel According to Mark by suggesting that in reading it, one might enjoy "watching a whacked-out God tormenting a wretched humanity." Whence came all this high concept hipness? British publisher Jamie Byng joined Canongate after graduating from the University of Edinburgh with a thesis on "The Development of the Black Oral Tradition and the Hip-Hop Lyric"; soon after, he was responsible for the publication of books such as Pimp: The Story of My Life. Perhaps justly recognizing that Mammon had at last subsumed all other gods in Western culture, and operating on the assumption that each generation should get the Bible it deserves, Byng rolled out his new series to a British audience appreciative of brilliant marketing and soon had bookstore cash registers ringing like the bells of St. Mary's.

Frazier, the author of Cold Mountain, is an interesting choice for introducing The Book of Job, having last read it when he was 12 years old and confessing in his introduction to Buddhist leanings. But he nails its essentially perverse nature, characterizing Job as the story of a bet between God and Satan, who are "depicted not as real enemies, but as affable adversaries." Job opens with Satan dropping in on God like any regular houseguest, after a world tour during which he no doubt wreaked much havoc and presented much temptation. God welcomes His guest with a taunt, dangling Job in front of Satan like raw meat before a starving wolf: "Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and upright man ... ?" It isn't long before Satan has murdered Job's 10 children, destroyed his vast material wealth and plagued him with head-to-toe boils--leaving him, in Frazier's words, "sitting in an ash heap scraping his sores with a potsherd." Job's wife sensibly advises him to "curse God and die." Frazier, finding the story of dubious moral value (he calls God an "accessory" to Satan's "crimes"), quotes Mark Twain, who "called the Old Testament's account of God's doings 'perhaps the most damnatory biography that exists in print anywhere.'"

Frazier seems to momentarily prefer Satan in this story, whom he characterizes less as the "Prince of Darkness" than a "folkloric trickster figure, slyly but pointedly challenging power and authority." Frazier's point is clear: He may not be equipped to understand God's unique moral position, but from where he's standing, it looks little better than Satan's--and at least Satan's consistent. Frazier's bemused study of Job's plight can be summed up with bumper-sticker pith: "With friends like God, who needs enemies?"

In keeping with the spirit of the series, Frazier treats the book as literature, not as the Word, acknowledging the power of writing that takes the question "Why me, Lord?" and "fashions the simple query into some of the greatest and most terse expressions of despair and soul weariness we have." Job's laments are compared to those of the Delta blues--an apt comparison, considering that both the blues and The Book of Job discuss suffering in a way that renders meaningless the consolations of conventional piety. Frazier imagines Charlie Patton sitting down with an open Bible on his lap and singing Job's blues: "My face is foul with weeping, and on my eyelids is the shadow of death." The power of poetry, Frazier implies, brings pain closer to the point of bearability. "It is some reimbursement, at least, with everything you have taken from you ... to have language of such force and simplicity at your command as both weapon and balm."

Frazier points out that the God of Job offers all the wonders of this world, of Creation, as compensation for mortal suffering and counsels humility before the beauty of His design. But ultimately it's difficult to get past a Creator who seems to value force over reason, a God who will say, as Frazier quotes from Isaiah 63:3, "I will tread them in mine anger and trample them in my fury; and their blood shall be sprinkled upon my garments, and I will stain all my raiment."

The portrait of Jesus on the cover of Reynolds Price's Three Gospels shows a young man with an open, caring expression and the gentle eyes of a lamb. This is Price's God, the empath, representing Price's successful negotiation of a modus vivendi between faith and reason. But the authors of the Bible could be as nihilistic as Camus. While fellow Triangle writer Reynolds Price finds hope in Jesus' compassion, Charles Frazier asks himself whether there is reason for us to fear the universe--and advises, "Yes, sometimes do." EndBlock

More by Mark W. Hornburg

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