I was introduced to The Book of Genesis Illustrated by an artistic friend who had an excerpt of R. Crumb’s work in another anthology. It was instantly intriguing to me since my life and my work revolve around scripture. R. Crumb is a renown illustrator who works primarily in ink sketch. This work was published in 2009 and contains all 50 chapters of the Book of Genesis in black and white ink sketch.
I ordered a copy and couldn’t put it down once Amazon over nighted it to my front door. It seemed destined to be controversial to someone since there was nudity, sex, and vice drawn for the eyes to see, but that’s the point. All those things (and more!) are in the Bible, especially Genesis. It took Crumb 5 years to complete this project and the detail of his illustrations are proof of his hard work on a long tedious task of creating a visual for this long text.
Somethings to know about this book, include that Crumb does not consider the Bible authoritative, which he plainly states in his introduction. He does not ascribe to biblical literalism or the idea that it is inspired by God as many Christian denominations do, Methodism especially. To me it is critical to note that Crumb has utilized two distinct sources for his biblical text: the King James Version and translations by California Berkley Professor Robert Alter. This is problematic because the translation he uses is not the best scholarly translation we have to date. I myself use the New Revised Standard Version. Verses will differ dramatically based upon the version one uses. Robert Alter also changes how the product will read because his translations of a translation, in effect, create a paraphrase of scripture. Compile this with Crumb’s interpretation and you have a paraphrase of a paraphrase. This may or may not be problematic depending on your outlook. I try to stay as close to the original text as possible and wrestle with any historical, literary, and textual issues that may arise. That’s just me.
Ok, so the work itself… wow, it’s pretty impressive to see such a prolific book of the Bible visually. I know what I picture in my head when I read Genesis, but I must censor mentally because even my own honest readings are not so carnal. I think there is value to facing how base, earthly, and realistic the events of Genesis are, just like Crumb draws them. These things are a reality. Life is gritty, dirty, and real. Looking at Cain use a rock to crush his brother, Abel’s skull, I was left surprised to consider that I had never before pondered how Cain killed Abel, just content to know that he had. How much more heinous is his crime if he, like Crumb depicts, used one hand to hold his brother down and bashed his skull in with sheer force? Wow, now that’s sin. And that is just one example of a continuous reaction I had coming from someone who has probably read the Book of Genesis over fifty times in its entirety and countless others in fragments.
Now the negative critique… Crumb’s visual style is as much a hindrance as a benefit. He has a stylistic portrayal of human beings that impacts his image of characters in an incredible way. There’s not one beautiful woman in the entire work. They tend to be short, overly muscular, and portly, even manish. While scripture is clear in telling us that some women were strikingly gorgeous, like Sarah who was so attractive that Abraham was afraid people would kill him to get her, or Rachel who must have been quite a looker for Jacob to indenture himself to her father for seven years in order to marry her after just one look at her. Neither of these two women are attractive to say the least, not in their faces or their bodies. That’s not a reflection of modern aesthetics either; I see incredible beauty in the women on the walls of Ancient Egyptian tombs. Why does that matter? Well, there is a reoccurring emphasis in scripture to the beautiful barren woman and her plight. The woman who seems to have it all, but cannot bear children. Maybe this isn’t important to Alter or Crumb, but it is to me and one or two other women.
I also have a big issue with Crumb’s uninspired depiction of God as the stereotypical old man with a flowing white beard. First of all, why do we assume God takes a human form at all? Or why would it be an old man? God doesn’t age, so why not assume any human form he appeared in would not be a human in their prime? I think Crumb had an opportunity to diverge from the Renaissance image of God and do something as radical as his Book of Genesis as a whole, but it was not to be.
What would Jesus think? I think Jesus would appreciate anything that gets us “reading” scripture and being in conversation about God’s word. I also believe that there is real merit to looking at someone’s visual depiction of the text because it makes those hallowed words even more real, the sins that much more visceral. The need for redemption is all the more pressing when you see how bad things were, and are today because these images are all over the news. I really think Jesus would be pleased to see that Crumb does not leave out portions of the text just because it makes us uncomfortable, especially the story of Lot’s daughters or Judah and Tamar. It’s just important to remember that this book is not a spiritual endeavor created by a Christian so we cannot expect that it would be a perfect reflection of what we think or how we feel about the Bible, but it is a great way to look with new eyes at God’s word and reflect upon the sometimes gruesome reality of humanity. When we do, I think we find that we need a relationship with God, and we are more grateful for the gift of Grace in Jesus Christ. I know I am.
The Verdict: Right(eous)!