John R. Coats holds his master’s degrees from Virginia Theological Seminary and Bennington College Writing Seminars. A former Episcopal priest, he was a principal speaker and seminar leader for the More To Life training program in the United States, Great Britain, and South Africa and an independent management consultant. He lives with his wife in Houston, Texas.
What inspired you to write a book based on the book of Genesis?
John: I wanted to do something different, to write a commentary on Genesis that took the conversation above the tiresomeness of the “is too,” “is not” squabble over whether the Bible is history. And I wanted to speak to both sides of that debate. The method I chose, learned some forty years ago, is not the usual extraction of a religious cum doctrinal lesson from the text, but that of mining the text for the human issues at its center, asking questions such as, “How are they like me, like us?” “If I dig around in their stories, will I see my own, something I need to see, however painful or pleasant?” “Might I understand more about me, about us, about being human?” I have a hunch that the book had been writing itself for decades, waiting for me to notice. It was Phillip Lopate, my teacher during my last semester at The Bennington Writing Seminars, who suggested that I draw from my biblical-theological background. When I’d written two essays, parts of which are in the book, he encouraged me to write a book. Three and a half years later, Original Sinners was published.
After reading Original Sinners, people unfamiliar or new to the stories of Genesis might acquire an opinion far from a major consensus. Could you describe an argument that might arise from an encounter between these two perspectives?
John: Let’s say the reader in question is a single young woman raised in a “Bible-believing” family in a mid-sized American city. Taking a new job, she moves to a large city where she acquires a new, more cosmopolitan circle of friends. Their attitude toward religion and the Bible, while it is shocking to her, does lead her to question what she’d always assumed, to open up. She likes the freedom of it—a lot. But let it all go? Why the limited choices? One day she picks up a copy of my book and is surprised to discover that there is a tradition that offers a third choice. A few days later, she arrives at an event attended by her parents and several of her most vocal friends. She makes the introductions, and as she opens her briefcase to retrieve something, one of her friends spots the book, grabs it, and says, “You’re reading about Genesis?” Her parents, fearing their daughter had gone astray, say, “You’re reading about Genesis?”
She’s in a very tough position. The rise of religious fundamentalism with its denial of science and inherent threat to free thought and expression has spawned a pro-science, anti-Bible, and very expressive counter-movement in the “New Atheists.” The players on both sides of this game have little, if any, room for those who disagree with the “correct” position.
Are you ever surprised by the types of readers you find enjoying Original Sinners?
John: I think my primary audience is the curious reader who is interested neither in being saved by religion nor in being saved from it, who, on seeing the word “Genesis” in the book’s title, will not assume to “know”, without further inquiry, what he or she will find between its covers. I thought the book would find an audience among readers who considered themselves “searchers,” “thinkers,” people who, at most, would likely never be more than marginally involved in religion but, nevertheless, might be curious about finding a way into the biblical material that did not require them to believe this or that. And it has. Where I’ve been surprised is hearing from conservative Christians who’ve found it useful. And there’ve been a few biblical scholars who’ve liked it, and others with advanced degrees as well as readers, men and women I know from my consulting days, others, whose lack of formal education past, say, high school has not in the least hampered their curiosity.
What kind of research did you have to undergo for this book? What fascinated you the most?
John: Lots of research, more than I’d imagined, and it was all fascinating. But then, I’m one of those odd ducks who loves spending day after day digging through obscure tomes. Still it had been decades since I’d done any kind of serious biblical studies, so I had some catching up to do. I decided to focus primarily on the Jewish scholars and, one by one, discovered the likes of James Kugel, Tamara Cohn Eskanazi, Robert Alter, Richard Elliott Friedman, Ellen Frankl, Everett Fox, and others. Their scholarship is unparalleled, they are very good writers and never suggest that I believe this or that.
However, I’d have to say that what fascinated me the most was the relationship I formed with the text, itself. I once heard a young man tell of his experience with a T’ai Chi master in Beijing, how it had taken three years of showing up most every morning, whatever the weather, before the master would regard him as a serious student. The old rabbis spoke of their experience with the Torah in the same light—Prove yourself willing to return and, in time, it will begin to reveal its secrets. That may sound strange, as if the “it” I’m referring to is a living thing, yet my experience of returning day after day for more than three years revealed a Genesis I’d never known, one that is alive with subtle meanings.
[amazonify]1439102090[/amazonify]Do you have any projects lined up for the near future?
John: I now have a blog in the Religion section of the Huffington Post. I’ve been asked to post at least once a week. And I’m laying the groundwork for a book, this one on Exodus. Also, I’ve been making notes for several essays I have in mind. And I have a couple of short stories and a completed novella that I’d like to go back and polish, but that’s for another time.
What would you like your readers to take with them after reading this book?
John: A new method of interpretation, not the usual non-scholar’s method of extracting a religious cum doctrinal lesson from the text, but a way of mining the text for the human issues at its core.