Bible Stories

JosephSay what you will about it, but the Bible has some great stories. Based on classical measures of what makes a good tale, the Bible ranks up there with Greek mythology and other ancient fiction that is meant to teach us about being human. Stories do teach, and literature is among the greatest of pedagogues. For the past two decades, Plays in the Park here in the New Brunswick area of New Jersey, has been putting on a post-Christmas, pre-New Year production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (indoors, due to the time of year). With the kinds of production values you expect of many off-Broadway venues, the show is exceptionally well done, and due to the local color, never too serious. And they play before a packed house. The reasonable prices, I’m sure, have something to do with it, but the fact is the story of Joseph is classic. Full of radical reversals, dreams that come true, and reconciliation, the Joseph novella is one of the great stories of humankind. Unlike many tales of Genesis, God is rather in the background here, perhaps overseeing the event, but not interfering in the human drama.

Although the musical, like most adaptations, takes liberties with the story, it remains fairly true to the Bible. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice also had success with Jesus Christ Superstar, showing that, despite its detractors, the Bible still has some appeal. Negative sentiment directed toward the Bible largely derives from the wooden insistence of literalists that everything must be taken at face value. The Bible isn’t allowed its symbolic resonance. Perhaps we can get beyond a worldview where the sun literally goes around the earth, and pay attention to the very human dimensions of the stories it tells. Truth may be of scientific nature, but it may also be—indeed, it must be—human. The very concept of verity is human. We are the ones making up the story.

Scholars point out that even the colored coat of Joseph is based on a translation decision in the Septuagint (the Greek Hebrew Bible). For many people, however, who’ve never read biblical scholars, the truths of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat as just as legitimate. The rivalry between siblings is something many of us have experienced firsthand. While not many of us get promoted from prison to vice-president, we still dream that our lives could get better. Our dreams could come true. The upbeat score, of course, helps to reinforce the message—one might say it makes the message believable. That doesn’t mean that the tale is not true. There was no historical Joseph. The colored coat may be a translation error. The story is nevertheless true. Doubters should watch the show. Next year in the State Theater in New Brunswick just after Christmas would be an excellent opportunity to do so.

Biblical New Brunswick

One of the true sadnesses of my life is that New Brunswick’s biggest institution, Rutgers University, couldn’t find a full-time place for a dreamer like me. Ever hopeful, I taught there for four years, counting on a miracle. Although I’ve got many good memories of my time at Rutgers, one of the side-benefits was getting to know New Brunswick a little bit. Probably not topping too many vacation must-see lists, New Brunswick, New Jersey nestles in the shadow of New York City and its train station is a place I’ve spent a bit of time. Last night I had occasion to stop in to get my bus pass so that I can start off the new year by going to work. As I climbed the stairs to the ticket window, I heard a street preacher holding forth. There he was, a young man, open Bible in hand, explaining to a mostly disinterested commuter crowd why they needed salvation. (If their experience on New Jersey Transit has been anything like mine, believe me, they already know.) Many of those in the waiting room are the homeless trying to get out of the cold for a while. New Brunswick has never struck me as a particularly religious town, although many of my students in my Rutgers days brought their religion to university with them. I didn’t have time for another conversion last night, however, as my family had another purpose for being in town.

A friend had kindly given my family tickets to Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the State Theater. Although put on by Plays-in-the-Park of Middlesex County, being in the shadow of New York City sets a very high bar for public performances. The show was excellent and energetic and I couldn’t help connecting the dots on how the Bible had played into the evening. Andrew Lloyd Webber long ago realized that even a very secular Britain had a hunger for biblical stories. Although I am biased, given my failed choice of profession, the story of Joseph is one of the great tales of all time. Although likely half the audience couldn’t say that the story occurs in Genesis, the rags-to-riches plot of betrayal and forgiveness is so deeply embedded in human dreams that even assigning it to the wrong testament would make no difference. As Lloyd Webber knows, we all want our dreams to come true. Joseph, certainly a flawed hero, does finally see himself as the second most powerful man in the fictional world of Moses’ Egypt. It’s difficult not to root for the guy.

Outside the temperature hasn’t managed to reach 40 degrees today. A few blocks away at the train station, some of those being force-fed the Gospel were almost certainly refugees from the cold. I’ve seen this every time I have to catch a train in Newark as well. The homeless know that at least they won’t freeze in the depot, even if they are chased off the seats by security. Moving from Joseph to James a moment, we hear “And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?” In other words, if you are offering the homeless words only, you’re not getting the point of the gospel at all. The homeless would benefit more from having a dream come true, I’m certain, than from having a message of salvation before being turned out to the cold for the night. The real salvation in New Brunswick is being offered at the State Theater tonight, but you do need a ticket to get inside.

Any dream will do

Any dream will do

Joseph Smith in the Spotlight

Mormons on Broadway? Well, not actual LDSers, but their famous founding document, The Book of Mormon, is now a Broadway show. While I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for The Quran to be produced, holy books have often been utilized by the media as rich venues for timeless tales. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Jesus Christ Superstar come to mind as Lloyd Webber adaptations. Godspell, while not as directly scriptural, drew its inspiration from the Gospels (particularly Matthew). Those who lose are those who resist the free press of popular culture.

At the risk of sounding Niebuhrian, the religion that refuses the blessing of society is the one that will fade away. Religions are human institutions, and as such, require human adherents. Critics often claim that popular adaptations of their sacred writ are making fun of the texts, but is not cultural adaptation all about celebrating a story that has won its way into the media and outside the confines of rigid orthodoxy? Which version can be said to be truly alive? This is not theology, it’s theater.

Working with students who have very little background in the Bible, I clearly see the wisdom of taking what are admittedly dry texts and bringing them to life. Religions often founder in the process of mistaking form for substance. Literalism has done more to damage religions that it has to keep them pure. Reviews from the Book of Mormon attest to its appeal, and in a country where the Latter Day Saints are generally considered the second-fastest growing church, the musical is a boon. Trey Parker and Matt Stone can hardly be accused of attempting to convert the heathen, but their show cannot but help to bring this particular denomination into the public eye nearly as much as Mitt Romney’s attempted candidacy will. That’s what I call rose-colored glasses!

You've seen the show, now why not read the book?