I always wanted to read the whole Bible from cover to cover. Somehow I never quite managed to muddle through all one-thousand-something onionskin pages of it. But I read God Is Disappointed in You—a sort of naughty Cliffnotes version of the Bible—in one day. It’s designed like a real Bible, with silvered edges, rounded page corners, columns, red print for Jesus’s words, and a ribbon bookmark. Instead of the occasional sentimental watercolor of Jesus healing lepers or John the Baptist’s head on a platter, New Yorker contributor Shannon Wheeler livens the pages with single panel cartoons. It is the Bible, condensed and repackaged for a contemporary audience.
The Bible is like a hot dog, author Mark Russell asserts: No one really knows what’s in it. We hear the same stories in Sunday school over and over again and take the rest of it on faith. If you aren’t a Bible scholar yourself, reading God is Disappointed can be a confusing experience: Did that actually happen? Now that can’t be in the Bible.
Russell reimagines Isaiah as a motivational speaker, Elisha as a marriage counselor, and God as a scrapbooker. In one of his most successful devices, he likens the relationship between God and the Jews in the Old Testament to a dysfunctional—even abusive—marriage. God is the controlling husband and the Jews the unfaithful, disrespectful wife. While God looks down on everyone who rejects him, he holds special contempt for the Jews, who really should know better. “I’m saving my worst revenge for you, ‘Chosen People,’ because you are always cheating on me,” God says in Zephaniah. He blasts them with a few more natural disasters, hoping to win their fear and admiration. The Old Testament God is a jealous and angry god with low self-esteem.
Shannon Wheeler’s cartoons stand on their own, taking familiar bits from the Bible and stirring them up with equal doses of pop culture, humor, and irreverence. My favorites go hand in hand with the written text. In 1 Corinthians, we see Paul leading a group discussion: “You’re having an affair with your father’s wife… Can you tell me about that?” We get this joke, having just read Paul dispensing his marriage advice. As Paul’s letters continue over the next eleven books, Wheeler depicts the poor guy getting older and more exhausted. By the time he’s scribbling out his letter to Titus, his eyes are screwed shut, he’s missing a few teeth, and he can barely hang on to the table to reach the page.
Reading God Is Disappointed in You, I began to question the wisdom of letting violent prisoners spend any time at all in their cells reading the real Bible. And should we really leave copies in hotel drawers, where innocent children could find them? This thing is bloody. After several forced circumcisions, sacrifices, and stabbings, I started doing a body count. People kept dying. They were felled by bows, mauled by bears, thrown off towers and eaten by dogs. Elisha murdered forty-two kids for making fun of his bald head, and God knocked off 70,000 with “divine wrath.” A few pages later, someone was impaled by a spike. Then another 75,000 got the ax in another God-ordained genocide. Satan smote Job. God himself smote some other guy. And that was just the Old Testament.
While Russell doesn’t set out to mock the Bible, he’s not taking it especially seriously, either. It’s been years since I set foot in a church, but still, I felt a little bad that I was laughing—actually laughing—during the Last Supper scene. To say the book is irreverent is an understatement. It feels blasphemous (or, at the very least, disrespectful) to read unholy words coming out of holy mouths. I wondered if it was necessary to “liven up” the Bible. It’s already so rich with poetry and wisdom, not to mention peppered with plenty of bear maulings and divine wrath to keep it interesting. Ironically, I got a more comprehensive view of the Bible in this faithful but slimmed-down version than from the dozens of sermons and church camps of my youth. The author doesn’t interpret the Bible as a religious expert, or as a lost soul hoping to feel God through the pages. As such, he doesn’t gloss over the parts that don’t jibe with our twenty-first century sensibilities. He approaches the Bible, refreshingly, as a careful reader. He aims to “throw out all its sacred baggage so we [can] really get to know it,” he says in the Afterword. God Is Disappointed in You accomplishes an impressive goal: it takes the holy book—as inscrutable and culturally significant as it is—and makes it readable.