by Bill Moyers
Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden . . . Noah and the Flood . . . God's call to Abraham . . . Jacob wrestling with the angel . . . Joseph in exile in Egypt. The stories found in the Book of Genesis captured our ancestors' imaginations more than three thousand years ago--and they hold us today. What explains their power and endurance?
For one thing, to millions of people they are more than stories, they are sacred texts, sanctified over time by so many communities of faith that they resonate with a power and knowledge beyond our own.
They also challenge. These stories do not all have happy endings. They offer no easy answers to hard questions. They can leave us puzzled, forcing us to confront our own quandaries without pat solutions. Reading the story of Noah and the Flood, I am haunted by the ordeal of the survivor. I find Noah after the Flood both mystifying and troubling: God had spared him because he was a man "righteous in his generation," but he hardly behaves the way we'd expect a model of righteousness to behave. His story is full of contradictions and divine mystery--just like most of the stories in Genesis, just like our own.
But these stories also speak to us today because they are so starkly human. The people in Genesis rage at one another and at God; they struggle with temptation; they are jealous, grief-stricken, patient, conniving, loving, and hateful. And the dilemmas they face are ours: sibling rivalry and family violence; infertility and surrogate parenting; parents who play favorites; husbands who fail their wives; parents who grow old and frail and children who are coming of age. Because their emotions and struggles are so real, the people of Genesis come to life in every generation, and their stories live on.
Furthermore, because the action can spill across generations, the resulting space in the stories gives us room to read ourselves into them. We begin to connect to past generations and to better understand our lives and our relationships, to one another and to the Creator.
Of course, our very different readings of the Bible have too often set us at odds with one another, but the potential is still there, as we discovered in taping our PBS series, for the stories of Genesis to provide us a starting place in a common discussion about life on this planet. We asked Muslims to participate in our discussions because, although this is not their book, it seemed important for Christians, Jews, and Muslims to address ways that our stories, which started in the same place with Abraham, went in very different directions. The stories of Genesis recall that common origin, summon from us a more powerful empathy, and enable us--even late in life--to find new paths to wisdom despite our differences.
It has now been more than five years since I had the chance to sit in on the extraordinary conversation that reconfirmed for me the power of the Genesis stories to draw people together and inspired me to do this series. Although I had studied the Bible in seminary and re-read it over the years, I have never seen anything like Rabbi Burton Visotzky's Genesis discussion group at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York City. The evening I visited, I watched in amazement as a group of novelists, poets, screenwriters, literary critics, and Bible scholars--Christians and Jews--engaged in one of the liveliest, most provocative discussions I have ever heard on the Bible.
I had expected the Genesis group to be passionate about the Bible and the power of ideas--and they were. But I had not imagined that I would actually be able to see one person learn from another or that I would find so many smart, funny people--believers and nonbelievers alike--who were willing to challenge conventional opinion and one another, suggesting new ways to look at the text. I left the Seminary that night committed to trying to capture on camera what I had experienced firsthand, so that a far larger audience could experience it, too.
There are many reasons why I wanted to make this series. I hoped that it would serve to introduce (or reintroduce) many people to these stories and the role they have played in shaping our culture and our consciousness. I hoped that by watching a diverse group of interesting people wrestle with their own beliefs, with one another, and with some of the critical issues we face today, the rest of us might be moved to engage in the same struggle. I hoped that by showing people of different backgrounds and beliefs learning from one another, the series would inspire us to listen to other people's stories and try to see the world through different eyes, to reach for what novelist Alice Walker has called "the unifying theme through immense diversity . . . of growth, of search, of looking, that enlarges the private and the public world."
And, frankly, I hoped to demonstrate that a different kind of religious discourse is taking place in this country beyond the politicized rhetoric about God that has made it so difficult for us to hear one another. Yes, believers are also citizens who should take sides on issues important to their families, communities, and consciences. But an arrogance is abroad in the land about who has a lock on God, a partisan spirit permeates the dialogue, and we are talking at, not with, each other. In one of her poems Kathleen Norris acknowledges that "we are God's chosen now," but goes on to pray "God help us" because of it. The call is to responsibility, not privilege, to humility instead of pride. This spirit prevailed in the discussions for our series, as participants of different faiths listened closely and respectfully to others and even bowed occasionally to the democratic necessity of deferring to the knowledge and opinions of other people.
A television program can introduce ideas, but only people can make things happen. What can you do? I hope you will form your own Genesis group. You can ask family, friends, coworkers, or members of your church, synagogue, or mosque to join you. There is no "right way" to do it--these stories may be old and familiar or brand-new to you; you may have had years of religious education or none at all; you may come as a believer or as a doubter. But come for the adventure. Having lived the experience for the past year, I can tell you that I don't know of a more exciting way to discover--or rediscover--the significance of the Bible for our times. If you stick with it, there is no method of Bible study that is more stimulating, more eye-opening, more rewarding. Even if you wind up in the same place at the end of the journey, with precisely the same beliefs that you started out with, you will not be the same person. As you read and think and talk about these stories, you will learn new things about yourself and the world. This matters. The more each of us knows and understands, the better our chances for living purposeful lives, creating strong families, building solid communities, and forging a more tolerant and vibrant democracy . . . together.