In the Beginning (Excerpted from "Genesis in Japan")

'Living backwards!' Alice repeated in great astonishment. 'I never heard of such a thing!'
-from Alice in Wonderland

This book rises from a journal of reflections that I have had while teaching the Bible to Japanese university students in Tokyo. Diverse responses to the Bible have rebounded, subtly but forcefully, back to me from my students—extraordinary responses, in that they are simple, pure, ordinary, and entirely disorienting. Teaching and learning the Bible in Japan has led me to another view of the Bible, one that stands in stark contrast with the Bible in the Bible heavy culture that was my beginning at a small crossroads in central South Carolina.

This book is not just about teaching the Bible. It is also about how this experience has shaken my view of the Bible and the Bible’s relationship with the Christian world. My students come from a culture that is not Christian. They are not un-Christian, or non-Christian. They are not against Christianity: they are detached from it, though they are sincere about wanting to learn about the Bible. They come to the Bible from a place beyond Christianity. Their distance from the Bible makes their responses to it seem radical, but they do not mean to be radical. Their understanding of the Bible, tossed into a volatile mix with my own thinking, has jarred me into seeing the Christian world as having a marginally insane relationship with the Bible.

This view is not panoramic. There is no high definition. It is only partially visible when you look at the Bible first and Christianity second. In the Christian world this is the reverse order of things. We learn something about Christianity before getting to the Bible. Christianity leads us to the Bible. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul talks about seeing life through a glass darkly. Japan holds up such a glass when it comes to the Bible, one that is deceptive in that you think you are looking through at something else when you are in fact looking at yourself. At first you do not recognize what you see.

While teaching, the biblical images that return from your students also reveal that you are on a circular, not a straight journey through the Bible—as if you are unable to exit the D.C. Beltway, or the rapid, crowded juggernaut of a train line that circles central Tokyo, the Yamanote line. As soon as you leave any station you are circling back to that same station. Heading back just as you are trying to leave. I left home years ago and thought I was heading straight to a place far away from the Bible and the religion that permeates my home front. It turns out that I have always been circling through the bible soaked religion of my childhood. This is a fresh but uneasy look at the Bible and its uneasy relationship with Christianity, a raw look from the land of raw fish. Anyone from a Christian culture, religious or not, interested in Japan or not, should be forewarned. We cannot go gentle into The Good Book, not from the perspective of teaching and learning the Bible in Japan.

I grew up close to the Bible: at least I thought so. All of us did. We went to church. We were taught Bible stories. We learned, sometimes memorized, verses from the Bible. Throughout America and in other Christian cultures, even those who have not spent much time with the Bible still have had passing contact with the Bible and Bible-based religion through popular culture or second hand sources. Those of us from the Christian world, devout Christians or not, cannot view the Bible with the objective detachment that my students have. Whatever angle we are seeing from, we have an attitude about the Bible, a strong attitude, and this attitude is set in place before we reach for a Bible. The Bible in English permeates our language so deeply that we refer to it while talking and writing even when we do not know we are. We cite quotations that we think come from the Bible even when they do not. It is impossible for us to see the Bible, the Bible itself, through the haze of the many things thought and said about the Bible in the Christian world.

The story about the fellow who knows nothing about the Bible, who picks it up, starts reading, and suddenly finds God, is a fairy tale. In the Christian world it would be hard to find a person who has had no exposure to the Bible, who knows nothing of things said about what the Bible is supposed to be, before getting to the Bible. It would be easier to find an unbiased juror for an O.J. Simpson trial.

My new view of the Bible comes from a place that is, in terms of the Bible, more pure or Eden-like. The Bible and Christian ideas about the Bible have little influence in Japan—almost no influence. What the Bible says would never enter into political debate. Political candidates in Japan are not asked if they believe in Jesus. Japanese students enter my class without knowing much about the Bible’s greatest hits. They are well educated, but they have not heard much about Noah and the flood or Joseph and his coat of many colors. They may have seen Raiders of the Lost Ark, but they do not know what the Ark of the Covenant is, except what they draw from the movie: that it is an ancient tub-like container with an unstable element that will blast the flesh off of anyone who opens it, particularly Nazis. They are unschooled in the ideas that hover over the Bible in the Christian world. The idea of being saved, the notion of falling from grace, both of these abstractions fly over their heads. “Saved from what? Falling from where?”

Beyond the country crossroads where I grew up, throughout Europe and the Western Hemisphere, throughout large sections of Africa, throughout Australia and the Pacific, in Christian cultures across the world, we can refer to the Fall from Eden, to David and Goliath, to Daniel in the Lion’s Den, to Judas betraying Jesus, because we know the person we are talking to will recognize the reference, whether they have read it in the Bible or not. There are assorted images and stories from the Bible that are as familiar to us as a Rolling Stones song or a Clint Eastwood movie (both of which have references to the Bible). We might come across a pamphlet where kids are warned against biting the apple, during an abstinence campaign against underage sex. We might turn on the T.V. just when a local weatherman advises us jokingly to get ready to build an ark when an extended rainstorm is on the way. We may have seen a recent commercial for a famous delivery service where the diligent courier walks on the water to deliver his package. We get the reference. We get the humor.

We might remember the Last Supper scene with the surprise appearance of Leonardo Da Vinci in Mel Brook’s History of the World: Part I. We might recall the guys nailed on crosses singing, “always look on the bright side of life” in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. We laugh at these scenes—or are offended—but we respond. We automatically associate the title of this section, “in the beginning,” with the Bible. We grin if we get the connection made between the McIntosh apples of New England with the forbidden fruit of Eden and combine these with the computer byte that helps to produce knowledge and the biblical bite that produced too much knowledge in Eden. Where would the Apple brand be without the Bible?

These biblical references and images register little seismic activity at all on the Japanese cultural terrain. An apple is simply a fruit and, yes, an Apple is a computer, too. But here is where the association stops, long before reaching Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The book and film The Da Vinci Code and its sequel were widely seen in Japan because of all of the fuss over its premise in the States. Several Japanese acquaintances of mine saw the movie and wanted to know what all of the fuss was about. They simply did not get it.

In Christian cultures, to repent means something—a big something. We might talk about resurrecting an old idea. On any given night, we could find ourselves watching a feature film about the Old Testament, one that stars Charlton Heston as a Nordic Moses. We respond to the scene in which the waters are parted: we may be in awe of this wondrous miracle or we may scoff at the special effects and at people who believe in wondrous miracles. There is the controversy of the human Jesus in Martin Scorcese’s The Last Temptation of Christ and the controversial graphic torture of Jesus in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of The Christ. These feature films, in order to be controversial, require prior knowledge of their subject. They draw audiences who already know and feel something about Jesus. Whether we see the story as a miracle or a tall tale, we have already read or heard about Moses parting the waters. We are familiar with the problem of Jesus being both God and man, and we already know about the rough go of it Jesus had in the end. So many of us have feelings, strong feelings, about these stories, whether we believe them or not.

The average Japanese person would be familiar with the name, Jesus, and might be familiar with a few biblical references and images, maybe the ones mentioned above. A young person might run across a Bible reference in one of the many Manga, or comic books, that are popular in Japan. Sometimes the illustrators borrow images and names from the Bible to enhance a hero story. There is even a Bible in comic book form in Japan. According to several of my students, it is not the most popular comic on the shelf. References to the Bible do not have the penetration that they do in Christian culture. You would not likely hear two Japanese people, when talking to each another, echoing deeper religious thought with references to someone being crucified or someone who walks on water or someone having to repent for a sin or resurrecting an old idea.

You would not likely hear someone talk about the cross he has to bear or of a colleague being made a scapegoat. Making personal sacrifices and setting up an individual to take the fall for a larger group is common in Japan, but the language for these concepts is not drawn from the Bible. You would not hear a Japanese person talk about being thrown to the lions or tell another person to go to hell or curse about how crowded the goddamn subways are. They live outside the world of the book that teaches us how to talk this way, the book that teaches us how to curse.

There is no Last Supper in Japan. Knowledge about the Sacrifice of Isaac or the sounding of the final trumpets would be a rare find, and there is only a trace of the tale of a man swallowed by a big fish. The fish story draws some attention in Japan, given the never waning interest the Japanese have in fish. But the source of the story in the book of Jonah would rarely be recognized. You would have better luck with the Rolling Stones and Clint Eastwood.

Of course we are much more connected with the Bible in the Christianized world, but often we are connected in unconnected ways that we do not see or understand. Some of us might be so comfortable with biblical images and stories and ideas that we might be talked into teaching a basic class on the Bible to students who know little about the Bible. This was my case. I had regular and strong doses of the Bible from early childhood on, at least I thought I did, so, sure, I’ll take on that class on the Bible.

You might think, as I did, that teaching a beginner’s class on the Bible to people who do not know much about the Bible is light work and, for whatever reason, good work. But as it turned out, the responses and questions that my students have had about the Bible have been hard to handle. The work I did was not good, at least at first, because I really did not know the Bible. As a result, my students put me to shame, even caused hardship, including the hardship you feel when you repeatedly stumble in front of an audience.

I was arrogant about what I thought I knew about the Bible, and this arrogance was a religious arrogance born of the culture I was born to, an arrogance that I could not see in myself. This blindness might be the source of religious arrogance—the inability to look through the glass darkly and see. My case is the same for a number of people who were brought up in the world of this book that is at once so familiar and yet so unknown. While I am apologizing—we apologize a lot in Japan—I will also apologize for the fact that the strange view of the Bible that I see in Japan is sparked from detail, harsh detail—that place where the devil is. If you want to find your way through the looking glass with me to this raw and incomplete Bible of the other side, I am afraid I am like that fellow circling the lower regions with Dante, the pagan poet who could not take the Christian poet the distance. I can only take you so far.

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