Wednesday, 25 August 2010
Book review: The Bible According to Mark Twain by Tulpesh Patel
The Bible According to Mark Twain is collection of his writings on Eden, God’s flooding of the Earth and Heaven, written over a period of nearly 40 years. I must confess, for my sins, that this is the first Mark Twain I have ever read, save for his countless quotations and aphorisms which litter books and websites of an atheistic bent.
The book is composed of two main sections, the first is Twain’s understanding and re-working of the Christian creation myth through fictionalised diary accounts from Adam and Eve, the second concerns Heaven and the afterlife. Each piece begins with a short introduction by the editors, who place it in historical context, referring to either Mark Twain as the writer, or (his real name) Sam Clemens, when referring to events in his personal life.
The background reading provides an interesting account of how the pieces were composed. Some of them evolved over decades and we get an insight into Mark Twain’s battle with both the literature and the numerous re-writes and edits, but also how he wove personal tragedy such as the loss of his young daughter into this his musings on heaven and how he wrestled with the effects his writings would have on the religious establishment.
Mark Twain knits issues of the time from biology, technology and sociology into Adam and Eve’s account of their time in Eden and the ideas still have remarkable resonance today. The Extracts from Eve’s Diary capture some of the real wonder and curiosity that many of us feel when observing the world around us. Adam’s grapple with ‘science’ the description of Eve’s love for nature and Adam are genuinely funny and affecting. A recurring theme in all the pieces is the objection to God’s punishing Adam for eating an apple from the Tree of Knowledge with death, even though they would have had no concept of it as the Moral Sense, death and evil had not yet entered the garden. Twain also repeatedly emphasises the sheer vastness of the universe and the inconsequence of man in a miniscule corner of it.
A shorter third section, ‘Letters from Earth’, is a collection of letters written Satan recounting his visit to Earth and his wonder at the illogical nature of man and the God they create(d) to worship. This is Twain’s most devastating appraisal of Christianity, and religion in general, as some of the wonderful allegory and story-telling of the previous works is stripped back to really hammer home some astutely observed and eloquently constructed arguments for the fallacy of man’s belief in God, particularly a personal one that cares for humans.
With these various writings, Mark Twain achieved the incredible feat of weaving together an extraordinary deconstruction of religion, with funny, touching fables that far exceed the morality and humanity of the source material.