$39 In Your Pocket…To Go From Michigan to Texas

The Dirty Parts of the BibleThe Dirty Parts of the Bible by Sam Torode
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As a parent of triplets who are almost teenagers, I sometimes worry that they don’t have all of the information they need to make it smoothly to high school graduation — and beyond. But then I stop and remember that my parents spent quite a bit of time giving me a lot of information that I’m sure they thought I should use. It got filed away, somewhere, and a lot of it pops into my head, now and then. A lot of the conclusions I have come to, though, I have found on my own.

My aunt posed an interesting question on Facebook not too long ago — specifically, what the purpose is of an overarching moral authority, since we have to develop our own systems of morals as it is. It is this desire to provide some sort of moral authority that has led members of the evangelical wing of Christianity to start pumping out books that throw the Bible into a theological dryer and turn on the hot cycle, trying to shrink 66 books (more, if you have the Apocrypha) that include stories of God’s chosen people pretending that their wives are their sisters, and letting local kings have their way with them (Abraham), refusing to feed their siblings unless they can have the family birthright in exchange (Jacob), as well as passages that describe the erotic love between a husband and wife (Song of Solomon), into a pamphlet that has all of life’s questions answered with a series of bullet points.

These tinhorn theologians have also turned out some fiction as well, which tries to shoehorn as much of their doctrine as they can into the stories they write. The problem, of course, is that making theme run your story is kind of like letting egg be the dominant taste in your chocolate cake. The egg is an important part of the foundation, but it should work silently to produce the glorious taste of chocolate, not dominate the outcome.

The same is true with theme in fiction, a lesson which the Tim LaHayes of Christian fiction have yet to learn; the fact that the “Left Behind” series did so well is a testament to the fearsome power of the collective that drives the evangelical juggernaut, even today.

Every now and then, though, a book comes out that has ideas that resonate with Christians — all the while telling a compelling story that also resonates with other readers. This is how the gospel originally worked, you know: Jesus did not have a ready-made audience prepared to listen to his theology and nod, almost automatically, with each sentence.

Instead, his message shocked, surprised, rang true. So it was with Leif Enger’s “Peace Like a River,” which tells a story that shows the power of faith and prayer in a lyrical and beautiful way — and lets the story have its head, instead of whipping it and driving it along a predetermined path.

And so it is with Sam Torode’s “The Dirty Parts of the Bible.” The plot is a modern retelling of the apocryphal book of Tobit — set in the Great Depression. Tobias Henry is the son of Baptist preacher Malachi Henry, who has wandered far from his seminary training in Texas to the town of Remus, Michigan, where he preaches hellfire and brimstone in the cold of the American north. After talking down once too many times to his wife (and getting a frozen chicken to the head as a result), Malachi ends up drunk on apple cider and crashes his car into the side of the church, disgraced — and no longer the pastor. A hail of bird poop has rendered the old ex-pastor blind, as well.

Given 30 days to get out of the parsonage, Malachi sends Tobias to Glen Rose, Texas, with a map that has directions to a dry well on the old family farm — where Malachi has hidden a satchel full of cash from his days in a band — before he went to seminary. This is the story of Tobias’ wrestling with his beliefs, with the black-and-white theology that makes many Southern Baptists so unhelpful when it comes to showing others the love that made Jesus compelling to all who met him, with his own sexual awakening. Tobias leaves with $39 — enough, back then, to take the train to Texas. Of course, as with anything that seems so easy, so black-and-white, Tobias learns much more along a way that becomes so difficult. Along the way, he becomes a person whom the Lord might well watch with a smile, because of the gifts of the storyteller.

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