Saturday, January 30, 2010

Review: Original Sinners by John R. Coats

coats_original sinners

I just finished reading Original Sinners: A New Interpretation of Genesis by John R. Coats. (I received a review copy in mid-December from Free Press--see full disclosure text below).

I have to admit that I had low expectations when I started. It's a popular book on the Bible written by a non-scholar claiming a "new interpretation." We all know "there is nothing new under the sun" (Ecclesiastes 1:9). What could I have to learn about the Bible from a former Episcopalian priest?

You might be surprised. I know I was. While Coats hasn't really offered a wholly new interpretation, he's provided a refreshingly relevant reading of Genesis that brings the ancient characters alive, emphasizing their humanity - their flaws and feelings - in the midst of the extraordinary circumstances of their lives.

For the faithful, Coats's perspective on Genesis as story and metaphor over history and fact may at first seem sacrilegious and threatening. However, it allows him to read Genesis in a fresh way, putting himself in the character's shoes and attempting to understand their motivation, their decisions, and their actions. His perspective helped me to see the very familiar stories of Genesis in an entirely new way as I attempted to follow the human side of the story instead of reading solely for the theological significance of divine revelation.

One of the most original features of the book is the way Coats weaves together his discussion of Genesis with stories from his own life that illustrate the attitudes and interactions he's finding in the biblical text. Coats is a masterful storyteller and I enjoyed learning more about the author through his account of his life experience.

The insights he brings to Genesis emphasize the flawed humanity of the characters using his knowledge of biblical studies, psychology, and ministry. While some might characterize his interpretation as heavily "reader-response", he is aware of the danger of reading too much of his own "conditioning" into his interpretation. His seminary training exposed him to the perspectives of critical scholarship on the Bible, and he makes use of that with frequent reference to some of the more accessible popular Bible interpreters such as Robert Alter and James Kugel.

If Coats set out to write a book challenging the ways the average reader approaches Genesis, then he succeeded. If he intended to challenge their assumptions and push them to read Genesis in a new way, inserting themselves into the story and finding new levels of contemporary relevance for these ancient texts, then he succeeded there as well. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and I recommend it for anyone looking for a fresh perspective on the Book of Genesis.

Disclosure Text : I have a material connection because I received a review copy (book, CD, software, etc.), or an item of nominal value that I can keep for consideration in preparing to write this content.

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