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Interview: James Morrow on “Bible Stories for Adults, No. 37: The Jawbone”

Author photo of James MorrowF&SF: How do you describe this story to people?

JM: Samson and Delilah, Cecil B. DeMille’s loopy and somewhat disingenuous 1949 movie adaptation of the famous Bible story, will always enjoy a warm spot in my heart and a soft spot in my head. With “The Jawbone” I tried to give readers something like the opposite of a guilty pleasure—call it a rollicking discomfort. It’s all about the depressing historical continuity between Samson’s consecrated jawbone and Wayne LaPierre’s sanctified assault rifles.

F&SF: You wrote several Bible Stories for Adults back in the late ’80s and early ’90s. What made you decide to return to the series now, more than twenty-five years later?

JM: During the interval since I published my last adult Bible story, “The Soap Opera” of 1992 (the subject was Job’s ordeal), the world’s power elites exploited the planet’s sacred texts as never before. Their slogan seems to be “better living through theocracy.”

I’m thinking of the ascent of Islamic fundamentalism, Vladimir Putin’s exploitation of the Orthodox Church’s proclivity for bigotry, and, of course, the enthusiasm of American evangelicals for the Republican Party’s bottomless malice. So I decided to reboot my Bible stories project. It can’t be said too often: our holy books are wholly human, and it’s utter folly to privilege them in our efforts to forge a more just society. You can’t argue with revelation, of course, but I’m going to try anyway

Also, there were certain Bible stories that I couldn’t get an angle on 28 years ago, but now I think I have.

F&SF: Calling these “Bible Stories for Adults” is deliberately provocative. What kind of reaction are you trying to provoke in readers?

JM: There must be a thousand books out there that employ bowdlerization and mendacity in the name of making Bible stories accessible to children. The joke is that, when it comes to issues of morality, decency, and knowledge, many of these narratives are already about as childish as you can imagine.

It’s worth remembering, for example, that the run-up to the Good Samaritan (which certainly has a noble sentiment at its core) finds Jesus pronouncing a fiery and murderous curse on the supposedly irredeemable towns of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum. While the Gospels have much to offer, I would argue that the personality of their protagonist seems pretty unstable.

It occurs to me that all of my adult Bible stories turn on a challenge to myself. Show me a narrative from Scripture, and I’ll retell it in a way that either foregrounds its puerility or maps it onto some contemporary fashion in cruelty.

F&SF: What were the challenges of writing “The Jawbone”?

JM: The same challenges that confront me whenever I start grinding my ax on the theme of reason versus revelation. How do I stay ahead of an audience that already more-or-less agrees with me? How can I get this thought experiment to yield genuine surprises, as opposed to the superficial satisfactions of watching straw men disintegrate? How do I keep the reader from saying, “Hey, Jim, maybe it’s time to leave God alone”?

When I sat down to write “The Jawbone,” all I had in mind was deconstructing the Samson story, drawing largely on the nonfictional comeuppance he receives in Steve Allen on the Bible, Religion, and Morality. I assumed I would simply foreground the atrocities and absurdities in which Samson indulges.

But then I realized the hero’s cudgel could be used to satirize America’s gun fetish, and I was home free. The challenge was to keep the thing from becoming on the nose, as they say in Hollywood. Whenever I hit on a conceit like “the National Retailers of Assbones,” I made a point of throwing the gag away and not repeating it.

F&SF: Can you talk a bit about your writing process in general?

JM: For all the unsavory dimensions of Western civilization, I’m always prepared to celebrate the 18th-century Enlightenment’s insistence on unfettered, open-ended discussion when it comes to religious, political, and scientific matters. As a philosopher remarks in my as-yet-unpublished novel, Lazarus is Waiting, “I never met an idea I didn’t like.” She hastens to add that she’s met many ideas she detested—but each nevertheless helped her to hone her intellect.

I feel privileged that the gods have let me work within the medium of science fiction, the literature of ideas. I love taking grand philosophical and scientific speculations and reimagining them as fictive thought experiments.

F&SF: What are you working on now?

JM: A new Bible story, of course!

I’ve always been bothered by the incoherence of the Sodom and Gomorrah narrative. Yahweh in his generosity has promised Abraham that the presence of only ten righteous people in Sodom would deter him from exterminating the entire population. But we never see the deity or the patriarch actually performing the calculation.

Instead, the rest of the negotiations happen offstage, if they happen at all, and a great opportunity for suspense is wasted. My version, I hope, will give the situation its due. My working title is “Bible Stories for Adults, No. 24: the Twin Cities.”

You can find James Morrow at these places…

Twitter: @jimmorrow11

“Bible Stories for Adults, No. 37: The Jawbone” appears in the July/August 2020 issue of F&SF.

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