Pastor Nathan Roberts explores one central question in his new book of stories, Deserted. What would classic tales from the Old Testament be like if God just wasn’t there? In the hands of a gifted author, it can be quite the re-calibration of the American worldview.
Roberts opens his book talking about two storytelling traditions. The first is how oral retellings of the stories in the Old Testament often changed quite dramatically depending on the teller. There are versions of Adam’s origin where he is a giant for example, and the tendency to record these versions side by side is one of the reasons that so many things happen twice in the Bible. The second is DC Comics’ Elseworld tales, where superheroes are imagined in different ways. Any pastor who makes his point about how stories evolve by bringing up Superman: Red Son, where the Man of Steel grows up in Stalin’s Russia, should be listened to in my opinion.
What Roberts does is strip the magic (or divine intervention if you like) away from stories we all know like that of Noah or the Tenth Plague and see what is left over. The result is realist fan fiction, but religion has always been built on fan fiction and this is at least pretty good as far as the genre goes.
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My favorite of the tales is the one about Sodom and Gomorrah. In Robert’s version, the two cities are “sanctuary cities” where gender and sexual minorities flee to get away from their oppressive families. Lot is reimagined as a Fred Phelps character who spends his days in the streets screaming about perversion and getting his two young daughters to hold hateful signs as he does. One of the new arrivals, Isaac, is Lot’s nephew, who Lot immediately forces to leave and come back to their farm. Later, Lot and his family burn the city rather than God destroying it.
No story in the book better sums up what Roberts is trying to do with the collection. Gender and sexual minorities are long used to having the story of Sodom thrown in their faces as proof of divine judgment against them, but the turning it into the arson of pissed off zealots with little empathy reframes the classic cautionary tale as something we still live with today. In the introduction, Roberts quotes a friend from the Pokot tribe in Kenya, who says of stories it is the job of the elders to tell the version the current generation needs to hear rather than how they themselves heard it. I can think of no version of Sodom’s fall that rings more true than the smiting of the city just being the work of misguided monsters with cruelty in their hearts.
From the Great Flood to the Tower of Babel, Roberts makes us face the mists that these stories rose from in the depths of history and consider where they came from if they are not the direct hand of God. Whether you ascribe to God’s intervention in human affairs or not, it is helpful to remove Him from the equation from time to time if only to see what human failures might be using His shadow as a shield. For that reason most of all, I’d recommend spending the holidays contemplating what religious stories say about us through the lens of Robert’s extraordinary book.
Deserted is out now.