“Exodus”: My Disbelief

You may have already read here that, once upon a time, I was an atheist. You probably heard me say “I was a closet atheist.” In other words, it took some courage to come out, to admit to my family and my friends and anyone else who cared (and, boy, did many care) that I disbelieved God or didn’t believe in gods at all. Admittedly, I was young. At first I was anyway.

What you might want to know is actually I did believe in gods, and I came to believe in God. My Mom taught me to read, in English, at a very young age. And she’d read to my brothers and me anyway. She’d read us Edith Hamilton’s Mythology and Homer’s Odyssey in Alexander Pope’s (and William Broome’s and Elijah Fenton’s) English and in Richmond Lattimore’s English.

The point I’m coming to is that I always had, what Samuel T. Coleridge called, “Poetic Faith.” My belief in the gods was always my “transfer from [my] inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment.” Yep, I suspended my disbelief willingly, for the gods.

And then Mom, caring that I was an atheist who had come out of the closet, read to me “Exodus.” The history here is that we, many of us, had come out of South Vietnam. It was 1975, and there were many refugees. And my Dad was now away much of the time in Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, USA working with the exodus of peoples, many orphans like him, who were being processed through the desert into this land of more promise, this promised land. So, each day, in a little apartment in Fort Smith, Mom would read me Exodus from the Bible. To be precise, it was every other day that she read aloud. On the alternate days, she made me read aloud a chapter, from my little black-leather covered NRSV she’d given me as a present some 5 years and 6 months earlier. And so it went, that summer of 1975, for a total of 40 days.

(I do remember getting paid money to read, which Dad surely had to agree to, but it wasn’t anywhere near $40, of course. To get that kind of money — i.e. forty dollars — I needed to get it otherwise, presumably to borrow it, but I’d not yet been told to never borrow money needlessly.)

What I found was not money. Rather, what I found was myself coming out of my disbelief in God, as He (with a capital “H”) brought the children of Israel out of Egypt and into the desert for a total of 40 years. This prepared me for my adult human conversion to a new believing in God, a sort of “I can’t help but believe” God some time later. That’s another story that needs not be told here.

What I want to say is this reading of Exodus prepared me, really, to hear the poetic Larry Norman. So some time after the war and after the 1970s a bit, I met him after a concert in which he explained the last line of one of his songs. In the concert, he’d explained the first lines, “after 40 long years,” etc. And the lines were from his Sunday School in Corpus Christi, Texas, USA, growing up, before he’d taken off for the coasts of America to record and to tour. After Sunday School days, or during them perhaps, he’d heard a radio jingle when he was about 13 years old. (This was the age I was when Mom and I read Exodus, coincidentally.) At any rate, the jingle was for a financial institution called H. F. C., and went like this:

Never borrow money needlessly, just when you must, borrow from folks that you can trust.

It was a line about belief and trust, to get listeners to suspend their disbelief in financial institutions in general and this one would-be folksy institution in particular. It turned out to be Norman’s throwaway line, which nobody got in the end, and which he often had to explain, so it seems. But, Norman was singing about Moses here, and “Moses on the banks,” and there might have been some punny relationship between the two. There was a relationship between Moses and God in this version of Exodus. There was, to me at that time, a different sort of belief (but again that’s a different story altogether).

Since I can’t put all 40 episodes of Exodus in the NRSV in a single blogpost here, I thought you might like to hear Larry Norman. If you don’t like, please feel free to exodus now, to click away. Here’s “Moses in the Wilderness” from the album Upon this Rock; listen (“what a laugh”):

Moses tending sheep in the fields one day
he thought he heard a burning scrub-brush say
gotta free your people
from the Pharaoh’s hand
gotta take em all to the promised land

moses knew that God was taking to him
so he set off to Egypt with a vigor and vim
and moses bugged the Pharaoh – he bugged him
and he bugged him
till he got his people free

he used real bugs

yes indeed
he got his people freed

moses on banks of the wide red sea
stuck out a stick and one two three
the water rolled back and the people walked down
everybody knew they wouldn’t drown
Pharaoh told his army to bring em all back
and here comes the chariots clickety clack
why moses took his stick
and he closed up the water
and the Egyptians all took a bath

what a laugh
they all took a bath

dirty Egyptians

grab my foot take my hand
lead me on to the promised land
milk and honey milk and honey
milk and honey milk and honey

me and all my people is here
so keep on sending manna
from the atmosphere

milk and honey milk and honey
milk and honey milk and honey

after forty long years in the wilderness
they finally saw their potential metropolis
they all gave thanks
and they all praised the lord
even though it took time he kept his word
he grab their foot and he took their hand
and he brung em all over
to the promised land
but it seems to me
like an awful long time to be
looking for a home

a mighty long roam
looking for a home

never borrow money needlessly


6 responses to ““Exodus”: My Disbelief

  1. Another fabulous post Kurk – I didn’t know this poem at all and will certainly be forwarding your post to my former director of ordination training who now teaches at Penn State at the institute for the American Dream. I read exodus for two days solid with the group of 20 people I was studying with in Wittenberg – we did artwork, wrote stories had silent conversations around the text – it was wonderful. 6 weeks later teh Berlin wall came down … not exactly refugees but we all became people of passage in some way

    • Thank you, Jane, for your comment. Thanks especially for sharing your collaborative experience at Wittenberg. What a place to find Exodus reforming you, Ha! And, in the sequence of things, sounds a little like the book of Joshua, with the wall coming down. But what a difficult wall the one in Berlin was.

    • Excellent! Thanks for sharing this. The best lines:

      Let’s try to forget that the words “Call me Ishmael” mean anything, and think about how they sound.

      I encourage the translators of my books to take as much license as they feel that they need. This is not quite the heroic gesture it might seem, because I’ve learned, from working with translators over the years, that the original novel is, in a way, a translation itself.

      The translator, then, is simply moving the book another step along the translation continuum. The translator is translating a translation.… A translator is also translating a work in progress, one that has a beginning, middle and end but is not exactly finished, even though it’s being published. A novel, any novel, if it’s any good, is not only a slightly disappointing translation of the novelist’s grandest intentions, it is also the most finished draft he could come up with before he collapsed from exhaustion. It’s all I can do not to go from bookstore to bookstore with a pen, grabbing my books from the shelves, crossing out certain lines I’ve come to regret and inserting better ones. For many of us, there is not what you could call a “definitive text.”

      What the reader is doing, then, is translating the words on the pages into his or her own private, imaginary lexicon, according to his or her interests and needs and levels of comprehension.

      That is one of the reasons we, I mean we humans, are not only the creators, translators and consumers of literature, but also its subjects.

      Brilliant! I wish I’d written this piece.

  2. I’m liking that essay by Cunningham.

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