Original Sinners: A New Interpretation of Genesis by John R. Coats

When it first came in the mail I didn’t think I would read Original Sinners: A New Interpretation of Genesis. It is written by a man who has lost his faith – who no longer sees the Bible as the Word of God but rather a sort of literary touchstone or psychological tool to understand yourself better.  Here is Publishers Weekly:

An entertaining narrative voice, personal reflections from the author’s life and insightful interpretations combine to produce this accessible and lively new addition to Genesis scholarship. Coats, a former parish priest and management consultant, cogently applies source theory—the hypothesis that four separate documents went into the first five books of the Bible—to familiar stories whose ethical and spiritual DNA seeps through Western culture. Through his approach, the author makes complex biblical scholarship comprehensible, while challenging the reader to examine the actual text. Asserting that biblical characters are rather relentless in their mirroring, Coats uses second-person hooks (Imagine yourself as the first human being) to invite readers to use their own perspective to interpret the text. Cheeky chapter headings entice and inform; First, about the ark, which is most definitely not a boat begins his analysis of Noah and the flood. While cultural references from Maimonides to Mae West spice up the narrative, Coats’s exploration of how his own history and self-understanding inform his interpretations makes the most compelling reading. His reflections on his own aging and his analysis of the stories of Noah and Abraham prove compelling and thought provoking.

This is not usually the sort of book I read.  But having read the introduction I was interested enough to push on. And in the end I found it an interesting read despite disagreeing with his fundamental assumptions in many ways.

If you are not familiar with source theory and Biblical criticism a lot of this book will surprise you. If you are threatened or uncomfortable by a sort of revisionist history of scripture some of it might upset you.  As I find Biblical scholarship fascinating I was intrigued and interested.

The weakest part of the this aspect of the book, however, is when Coates lays on the psychology a little too hard. But in an interesting twist, Coates own history becomes a big plus.

I am usually not a fan of books that mix genres to a large degree – and this one is part scholarship, part argument, part memoir and part cultural commentary. But Coates uses his own experience to both break up the close reading of scripture and to strengthen his theme that stories are a part of what it means to be human (as well as a tool to understand that humanity).  Somehow this tactics, mostly because of his voice and personality, adds to rather than subtracts from narrative.

This is one of the books that I found interesting and enjoyable even as I disagreed with the author and often found his points questionable.  In the end, Coates is a good story teller and than makes him worth reading.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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