God is Disappointed In You – Book Review

The cover of the book.

The cover of the book.

Humor is evidence of a deep comfort with something. You don’t joke about the zit you’re ashamed of, for instance. We can joke about our country, politics (well, some of us!), lawyers, love… so why do we have trouble joking about faith? There’s a fear of being blasphemous, sometimes – a righteous, healthy fear that can become something less healthy when one has a skewed vision of who God is.  There’s a fear of ‘losing face’ to the secular culture if we admit that there’s something funny about faith. Perhaps there’s an inner insecurity – a discomfort with faith – in today’s empirical culture that prevents the necessary conditions for humor from developing. I don’t know if those quite account for it, but theologians are singularly unfunny when it comes to examining faith.

Maybe that’s why agnostics are better at it. God Is Disappointed In You by Mark Russell is a comic summary of all the books in the Bible written by an agnostic. The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs was another comic take on the Bible by an agnostic that I enjoyed. They don’t have the close, intimate relationship with faith that a believer does, nor the enmity that atheists do. The tension is gone – so they and we can laugh! We need humor – it keeps us honest, about ourselves, and about God. But we also need good humor. Can it be found in this particular book?

God Is Disappointed In You is so titled because the author and his illustrator think that this best sums up the message of the Bible. In that sense, despite his years of Sunday school and classes, Mark Russell hasn’t actually understood what he’s reading. He also seems to look at this project as a series of summaries of a series of books rather than an overarching narrative. No effort is made to reconcile the God who is irreverently described as “a bit of a dick” (just like everyone else in the ancient world, apparently) with the more loving portrait of God that emerges in other books. The four Gospels are presented as intentionally different messages, and the Gospel of John is given a decidedly heretical spin where Jesus is really just God inhabiting a pretend human skin. As you can tell from my earlier comment, Mark doesn’t shy away from using vulgar language. So this isn’t something you can read to a Sunday school or recommend to a teen, and there’s a vanishingly small group of Christian adults that I can see enjoying this.

For all that, some of the summaries were brilliant and laugh out loud funny. Imagine the Psalms as a greatest hits album, for instance. When it works, it actually reminds me of a better version of The Message by Eugene Peterson. Some of the books contained genuinely touching insights, and some of Jesus’ interactions with the Pharisees ought to be read over a few times. While I do not always agree with his interpretation, books that are hard to come to grips with in the Bible are still hard here, and books that are easier for us are easy here. He tracks with the content quite well – better than Hollywood, at least.  Mark Russel explicitly denies that he cares whether or not someone believes in the Bible; he simply thinks they ought to know what is in it. And when he succeeds, he does so brilliantly. In his afterword, he admits being nervous about the reaction from ‘religious people’ but remarks that a pastor a nun both ordered a bunch of copies for classes they were teaching.

But in the end, I don’t think I would generally recommend this book. Though Jesus once compared God to an unjust judge, I’m not comfortable with using “a bit of a dick” to describe God – that’s horribly inappropriate and crosses a line. The beautiful and humorous summaries are balanced out by some of the very poor ones. I’m at a loss as to what to do with this book – I’d love to use some of these summaries in Bible class, but it would not be appropriate for my kids to go on and read the book that the summary came from. It would be great for discussion in a small group… except most Christians I know would be uncomfortable with the language. I wouldn’t recommend it to someone who doesn’t know the Bible well, because it doesn’t uniformly do a good job of presenting an unvarnished version of the Bible’s message. Perhaps other armchair theologians would like it – I did enjoy most of my read through. I’m sure this book has a potential market for atheists, and perhaps some creative theology professors, but beyond that…

Verdict

The good:

+ Made me laugh!

+ Often brilliant and thought provoking

+ A summary of all 66 Bible books that can be read in an afternoon

+ An honest attempt by a non-Christian to engage with the Bible, and get others interested in studying it

The bad:

– Occasional vulgar language

– Poor choice of descriptors for God

– Lack of a cohesive narrative make it feel disjointed at times

– A “Gnostic” take on the Gospel of John and some other questionable interpretations

– Occasional, random references to Raiders of the Lost Ark and the colonization of North America temporarily derail his stated goal of explaining what’s in the Bible

The ugly:

Can’t see the forest for the trees and misses the entire message of the Bible – not ‘God Is Disappointed In You‘ but ‘God made you, loves you, and has a plan to save you

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