By Brian Martin | Graphic/Novels Editor Published: 08/05/2013 10:00 am EST
Publish date: August 6, 2013 Publisher: Top Shelf Productions | Buy Book
No book in our history has been politicized, amended, and employed as a means to incite everything from war to pacification quite like the Bible. Unsurprisingly, no book has endured in quite the way the Bible has, either. And yet, for something so ubiquitous, it’s almost impossible to find any two people who agree on it. Stories are told or discussed in slightly different ways, events are given a modern spin to make the content more “relevant”, and evangelists cherry-pick passages to suit whatever message they want to espouse, then send their flocks forth to minister the same. With all of the contrasting viewpoints, it can be hard to discern a consistent message in the Good Book short of “God loves us and wants us to be happy.” What author Mark Russell attempts to do in God Is Disappointed in You is boil the entire tome down to its utmost core in an effort to expose what the Bible is really about.
Russell’s book manages to condense the Bible down to about 200 pages, while covering every significant beat in the original text. Russell has left no major stone unturned; Moses leads his people out of Egypt, David confronts Goliath, Jesus is betrayed by Judas, and David offers Saul 200 Philistine foreskins as a dowry for his daughter. Events are summarized, but you’ll likely find whatever story you’re looking for in these pages. The abbreviated nature of most of the stories only adds to the humor, as some of the more shocking or head-scratching moments are introduced without preface and quickly dismissed.
In his introduction, Russell claims his book is neither pro- nor anti-Bible, but it’s hard to ignore his diction, style, and tone, which often serve to accentuate the archaic absurdity of many of these stories. It’s precisely this, however, that allows Russell to ultimately succeed, as the humor contrasts nicely with the Bible’s ideals. Behind all the absurdity, there are still real, valuable lessons to be learned from this book. On every page, it feels like Russell is laughing along with us, saying, “Yes, yes, it’s all pretty crazy, but the message is sound enough.” While its tone is decidedly tongue-in-cheek, God Is Disappointed in You is never mean-spirited. It never goes overboard with the humor (although I suppose that might depend on who you ask).
As the title might imply, the overriding theme of this book is not necessarily the Christian ideal of God’s love for humanity—at least, it’s certainly not that simple. Yes, Russell’s God loves us, but not in an unconditional way, and surely not selflessly. God comes across as a grumpy parent who would rather just be friends with His children, but can’t understand why they’re so bent on disappointing Him. When His friends make him happy, he worries they are being insincere. When they anger Him (and this happens a lot—hence the title of the book), He kicks their town over. The God of the Old Testament is often described as “vengeful”, but under Russell’s pen perhaps a better adjective would be “petulant”. Nevertheless, like a wounded partner in a painful relationship, God always gives His chosen people another chance.
Even with all of its humor and quirky characterizations, Russell’s book is surprisingly straightforward, which is at times a bit detrimental. While many of the more repetitive parts of the Bible have been significantly condensed, many stories still manage to barely differentiate themselves from one another. The most substantial creative license is taken with the “Wisdom and Poetry” section, particularly the Book of Psalms and the Song of Solomon. Psalms is presented in a style akin to a “Greatest Hits” commercial, featuring the most successful selections from “folk legend” David’s repertoire, including “Satisfy Me (With Your Finest Wheat)” and “You’re Gonna Be Eaten by Dogs”. For Solomon, Russell decided (an “artistic choice”, he says in his prefatory notes) to write the entire book from the female point of view. These two chapters allow Russell to flex his creative muscles more than any others (still, never losing the intent of the original work), and unsurprisingly are two of the more engaging and hilarious entries in the book. Frankly, the book could have done with a bit more of this, just to break up the monotony of some sections. The letters of Paul are also of particular interest, as the apostle, suffering years of imprisonment, seems to go increasingly mad (and become lonelier) as he writes letter after letter to his followers on the outside.
The spot illustrations of cartoonist Shannon Wheeler are frequently clever, and sometimes riotously funny. As boiled down as Russell’s take on the Bible is, Wheeler cuts even deeper to the core, illustrating moments both actual and merely implied in a way that is profound and utterly ridiculous. It’s hard not to see the influence of Gary Larson’s classic portrayal of God in these pages (which is so well-known, particularly as cartoonists go, that such comparisons are inescapable). The only real complaint here is that Wheeler’s style shifts sporadically throughout the book, from simplistic cartoons to more detailed illustrations, which lends itself to a small degree of visual inconsistency.
With its near-constant commentary on economic inequality and the plight of the poor in the face of an oppressive upper class, God Is Disappointed in You is certainly timely, with lessons that feel more relevant today that at any other time in recent memory. But then, that’s one of the reasons the Bible endures. Its messages always feel relevant, as though they were crafted with this specific moment in mind. The Bible itself may be timeless, but, with its playful ribbing and wit, God Is Disappointed in You is most certainly a book made for this moment.
Brian L. Martin is an educator, writer, and amateur curmudgeon. An avid fan of novels, movies, and beer, he would much rather spend his time reading comics, a lifelong love since receiving a copy of The Amazing Spider-Man # 242 from Spider-Man himself in 1983. His favorite books include The Grapes of Wrath, Siddhartha, and The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, which is heavy enough to be considered the only real defense weapon he has in his home. He currently lives with his wife in Uppsala, Sweden.