Thursday, 17 December 2020

The Man from Two Places

Imagine you were tasked with writing the definitive version of the gospel. You have some version of the Book of Mark available for a large chunk of the narrative, but it doesn’t include all of the new stories that have been floating around, such as Jesus’s post-resurrection appearances, and it also says nothing about his birth.

What’s more, despite the fact that Jesus is said to come from Nazareth in Galilee, there’s another tradition that says he was born in Bethlehem in Judaea. So, how can you incorporate this new tradition into the story and write the narrative of his birth in Bethlehem without contradicting the fact that he came from Nazareth?

Well, if you’re the author of Luke, you begin with Jesus’s parents living in Nazareth but invent a scenario that forces his mother to give birth in Bethlehem and return to Nazareth to raise him. On the other hand, if you’re the author of Matthew, you begin with the couple living in Bethlehem but invent a scenario that forces them to move to Nazareth after he’s born.

Luke's Nativity

The Gospel of Luke tells the story of a girl called Mary living in Nazareth who was betrothed to a man named Joseph. God sent an angel named Gabriel to tell her that she’d give birth to a son despite being a virgin.

Some time after this, the Romans decided to conduct a census, but for some strange reason, they told everyone to return to the town of their ancestors to register. Now, Joseph, the man to whom Mary was engaged, was a descendant of King David who was born in Bethlehem, so he took his pregnant wife and went to Bethlehem to register for the census.

Unfortunately, they couldn’t find a room for the night, and even more unfortunately, Mary went into labour, and thus, Jesus was born in Bethlehem, possibly in a stable (although it doesn’t explicitly say this), and placed in a manger where he was adored by some local shepherds.

After they’d waited a week for Mary to no longer be ‘ceremonially unclean’ from giving birth, they went to Jerusalem to offer a sacrifice, and on the eighth day, the baby was circumcised. After this, they returned to Nazareth.

Matthew's Nativity

Now, the author of Matthew came up with another way to resolve the issue. His story doesn’t mention Mary and Joseph living in Nazareth before Jesus’s birth. The first mention of a location is in Matthew 2:1 where it says that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, Judaea, so it’s reasonable to assume that in Matthew’s version, Joseph and Mary were living there to begin with.

Matthew’s account begins by saying that Joseph and Mary were pledged to be married, but when she became inexplicably pregnant, Joseph decided to divorce her. However, an angel visited him and assured him that the child was conceived via the Holy Spirit.

Some time after the child was born, some unspecified number of magi from the east turned up looking for the Messiah, and they inadvertently tipped off King Herod that a new king had been born. The magi visited Jesus and brought him gifts. Meanwhile, Herod, fearing that the newborn king would usurp his throne, sent his men out to kill all the boys aged two and under. Luckily, Joseph was warned about this in a dream, so he and Mary took the baby and fled to Egypt.

Once Herod was dead, an angel came to Joseph in a dream and told him the coast was clear. However, Herod’s son Archelaus was now king, and Joseph was afraid to return to Bethlehem, so, instead, he, his wife, and his son settled outside of Judaea in Nazareth, Galilee.

Bringing them together

These two authors found very different ways to reconcile the conflicting traditions and came up with unique stories. However, both accounts made it into the Bible and have added elements to the Nativity story.

So, the combined version of the story begins in Luke with Mary being visited by Gabriel and being told she’d have a baby. The narrative then switches over to Joseph’s angelic visitation in Matthew. As no location is mentioned at this point in the story, you can claim this took place in Nazareth so as not to contradict Luke. Turning back to Luke, the Roman census brings the couple down to Bethlehem where Mary gives birth in a stable, and the shepherds turn up to adore the baby.

Jumping back to Matthew, some magi from the east come searching for the newborn king, tip off Herod, and then bring the baby gifts of gold, myrrh, and frankincense. In modern retellings of the Nativity, the number of magi is usually given as three because they had three gifts, and they are called either wise men or kings. Also, their visitation is often depicted as concurrent with the shepherds’.

Now, here comes the tricky part. In Luke, the couple observed the ritual purification week, had Jesus circumcised on the eighth day, and then returned home to Nazareth, but in Matthew, they went to Egypt once the magi had left, and it was only after Herod died that they settled in Nazareth. The easiest way to resolve this contradiction is to ignore it by including only one of the endings or leaving them off completely. I mean, it’s much more pleasant to end with the happy couple being brought gifts than it is to have them fleeing from an infanticidal killing spree, right?

Saturday, 29 February 2020

God Doesn't Send People to Hell... People Do

I’ve never understood the Christian argument that God doesn’t send people to Hell, you send yourself there, as though this means God has no hand in it. Bear in mind I don’t believe in God nor Hell, I am merely addressing the argument.

To me, the idea is analogous to a mugger saying, ‘Give me your wallet, or I’ll shoot you,’ the victim refusing to give him his wallet, and the mugger shooting him and saying, ‘It’s your fault that I shot you.’ For the record, I’m not the first person to draw this analogy.

So, when a Christian has made the argument to me that people send themselves to Hell, I have often responded, ‘But God created Hell,’ or, ‘But isn’t Hell supposed to be the punishment that God set up for sinners?’ And often the Christian will reply, ‘He created Hell for Satan and/or his demons.’

If that’s the case, why do people end up there? Surely, it would still mean that God sends people there even if it wasn’t his original intention to do so. Even then, if he is unchanging, how could he change his mind about the purpose of Hell? And if he is omniscient, how could he create Hell without knowing he would eventually intend for sinners to go there?

Are they suggesting that it is Satan or some other force that takes people to Hell? If so, and it isn’t God’s intention for people to go there, why would he allow it? No matter what the cause, if an omnipotent god disagreed with people going to Hell, it would be within his power to prevent it.

So, the question is, why is your god okay with people going to Hell?

Saturday, 25 January 2020

Reconciling the Stations of the Exodus

My stories began as standalone narratives, which I was writing as longer versions of my joke Twitter verses. When I decided to turn them into books, I had to consider the overarching narrative and ensure that the stories fit together cohesively. For ‘The MisreadBible: Genesis’, this wasn’t much of a problem because the Book of Genesis consists mostly of narratives, which are in more or less chronological order.

My next book (tentatively titled ‘The MisreadBible: Exodus’), will cover the Books of Exodus to Deuteronomy. Turning this particular collection of stories into a long narrative hasn’t been an easy task.

For a start, there are lots of non-narrative chapters covering laws and the bizarre blood rituals the Israelites performed for everything from atoning for sins to curing leprosy. They seem to have been scattered willy-nilly throughout the books, sometimes right in the middle of stories. My solution? Put them to one side and keep only the narratives. I am considering having a section at the back of the book where I’ll parody them in a different way.

The next issue was that the main narratives are found in Exodus to Numbers, and Deuteronomy, for the most part, just glosses over the stories, sometimes with additional or contradictory details. My solution? Base the narratives on Exodus to Numbers and use Deuteronomy as a supplementary source.

I often use spreadsheets to lay out ideas because I find it easier to process information in table form. I created a spreadsheet, listed the main narratives from Exodus to Numbers in one column, put the corresponding passage references in the next, and marked which of them I had written. Each time I write a new story, I replace the traditional narrative name with my own title.

After a while, it occurred to me that this whole narrative is about a journey, and while I had been including the names of various places in the stories, I was ignoring the fact that the Israelites were moving from place to place.

Numbers 33 contains a passage known as the Stations of the Exodus, a list of the various locations (or stations) that the Israelites visited on their journey. I made another table based on this list and tried to match the locations mentioned in Exodus to Numbers against it. I did the same thing with Deuteronomy. Ah! There’s an issue. Each list contained places that weren’t in the others.

‘Okay,’ I thought to myself. ‘Maybe some helpful Christian has sat and made a list of all of these locations in order, or maybe they’ve made a map.’

I looked for lists of all of the places mentioned, but I was unable to find one. I also looked at several different ‘Route of the Exodus’ maps, but no two were the same.

‘Okay,’ I thought to myself again. ‘Maybe people have worked out where some of these places are, and I can make my own map in order to work out the order.’

It turns out that only a handful of places have been identified, lots more have multiple proposed locations, and most are completely unknown. Even Mount Sinai is hypothesised to be in several distinct locations.

‘Bugger!’ I thought.

I put in hours of work trying to make the three sources fit together, so much time, in fact, that I hadn’t spent any writing new stories. My book was stagnating.

Then a realisation hit me: I am writing a book of fiction. Books of fiction don’t have to be accurate in every detail. Besides, making fun of the contradictions in the Bible is something that I do in my stories all the time.

So, at the end of all this, I do have a crude list of places the Israelites visited. It might not be completely accurate, but I can use it as a rough guide.

The lesson from all of this is that the Pentateuch (that is the first five books of the Bible) is a patchwork of multiple sources that were never intended to be combined. The source documents were composed of stories that were cobbled together into longer narratives, and these documents were combined despite the fact that they contradict each other. Trying to get a literal or even coherent picture from them is a fool’s errand.

My job as a satirist and an author is to accentuate the absurdities, poke fun at the contradictions, but at the end of the day, tell an entertaining story. If, when I release my next book, you think that I’ve got the places in the wrong order, kindly write down the order in which you think they should appear, put the list into an envelope, and shove it all the way up your arse.

Sunday, 22 December 2019

War on Christmas

According to certain American conservative Christians, we atheists are waging a war on Christmas. Apparently, nobody deemed it necessary to tell me this when I went through atheist boot camp. Although this fear that Christmas is somehow under attack seems to be a uniquely American phenomenon, and I’m British and therefore unqualified to comment, I thought I’d weigh in on the issue anyway.

Both the UK and US have a predominantly Christian populace, and, as a result, Christmas has become part of the culture. However, in both nations, there are people who follow other religions with their own festivals, and people who are non-religious.

Here in the UK, that’s not really a problem. Christmas is the most popular festival, so people generally wish each other a merry Christmas, even if they don’t know which festival the other person celebrates, and this greeting is well received, because it’s understood that Christmas is what most people celebrate.

In the US, people also wish each other merry Christmas, but some people opt to say ‘happy holidays’ instead, as they are aware that Christmas isn’t the only holiday celebrated at this time of year. That seems reasonable, right? In a country that was built on immigration by people who came from all corners of the globe (side note: American globes are actually cube-shaped), using a more inclusive greeting seems very fitting.

WRONG! You see, even though wishing somebody happy holidays is a sentiment that translates to, ‘I hope that you enjoy whichever festival you celebrate; I don’t want to assume, but I wish you well anyway’, according to some people, not specifically using the word ‘Christmas’ at the time when they celebrate Christmas is like taking a huge dump on their face, the faces of their children, their sincerely held Christian beliefs, the American flag, and blue-eyed white American Jesus!

Some even go as far as to claim that people are trying to ‘take the Christ out of Christmas’ in the same way that not displaying the Ten Commandments (laws from Judaism and Christianity) in schools and other public buildings is, in some way that nobody can quite explain, evicting the omnipresent God from those places. I bet it never occurred to you that if even one person gives a festive greeting to a Christian that doesn’t include the word ‘Christmas’, they are forced to take down all of their decorations, the Christmas ham is ripped from their mouths, and all of their gifts are confiscated and burned on a pyre built out of the branches of their Christmas tree. Well, you know now, you inconsiderate prick!

The fact of the matter is Christmas, as it’s celebrated today, has little to do with the birth of Christ. The nativity story doesn’t include a scene where Santa flies in with his reindeer, and there were no decorated conifers in the manger. Jesus wasn’t even born in winter, and even if he had been, it’s unlikely that the land would have been covered in snow. And when the magi decided to bring Jesus gifts, it wasn’t after spending several gruelling hours in a department store fighting off other shoppers as they tried to procure the last bottle of myrrh.

The majority of the traditions we associate with Christmas are a product of the cultures that celebrate it, either as continuations of pre-Christian practices or later secular additions. But none of these non-Christian trappings prevent the religious from celebrating Christmas as a religious festival. Churches still have midnight mass, shops still sell manger scenes, and you can still crack open your Bible and read both of the nativity narratives. You can even do all of the secular things and pretend that they have something to do with the birth of Jesus if you like! None of us atheists will hold you at gunpoint and force you to stop, I swear!

I know I’ve treated this topic with my usual sarcastic and cynical tone, but in all honesty, I quite enjoy Christmas. I love spending time with my family, indulging in a bit of gluttony, and giving people presents with the hopes that it will bring them some joy.

No matter what you celebrate this time of year, or even if you don’t celebrate anything, I wish you happiness, religious liberty, and a credit card bill that you can easily afford to pay off in January.

Wednesday, 20 November 2019

Wouldn't You Prefer to Believe?

Before we get into the post, I’d like to announce that Courtney Heard, who writes the Godless Mom blog, is doing a giveaway of my books. Visit Enter to Win These Hilarious Books About The Bible to enter. And check out her blog; it's awesome.

I’ve had a pretty shit month. My grandmother died a few weeks ago, and this past weekend my dog had to be put down. I wrote a blog post about the passing of my grandmother where I discussed how I as a non-religious person deal with death, but there are still some points to address.

One point is in relation to something that was said to me several times in the past few weeks: ‘Wouldn’t you prefer to believe that your grandma is in Heaven?’ It’s quite an odd question. I’m sure that the people who said it were trying to console me, but I found it pretty irritating.

Have you ever tried to believe something? Have you ever managed to convince yourself that something you don’t believe is actually true? I spent the last years of being religious trying to believe things that no longer made sense to me and found the whole process agonising. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t escape the fact that I honestly didn’t believe anymore.

If we were able to force ourselves to believe things, there are lots of things I’d like to believe. I’d like to believe that there are no kids dying of starvation. I’d like to believe that crime only happens in TV police dramas. Hell, I’d like to believe the adverts that say that single women in my area are eagerly awaiting my phone call because I’m such a super stud.

I’d love to believe that death isn’t the end and I could be reunited with my loved ones in some paradisiacal afterlife, but I don’t. Maybe the idea would bring me comfort and I’d mourn less; I don’t know.

The fact of the matter is life isn’t always pleasant. Pretending that everything is fine doesn’t change that. In fact, I think that we have to acknowledge the negative aspects of life in order to strive to make things better. If you know that there are hungry people out there, you can donate food to a local food bank. If you know that crimes happen, you can do your best to secure your house. And if you know that life comes to an end, you can do your best to make the most of the time you have and value the people you love. The time you have with them is precious. Treat them well, not because you think there’s a reward in it for you like some mythical afterlife; do it because it’s the only time you have with them.

Monday, 7 October 2019

My Grandmother

My 83-year-old grandmother is dying. The news came unexpectedly. She hasn’t been ill, she hasn’t been slowing down, she was fairly healthy and active for her age. Last week, she went to visit my uncle down south. While she was there, she took a tumble down the stairs and had a brain haemorrhage. The doctors have said that she won’t survive.

There’s nothing that can be done now apart from making her comfortable until she finally slips away. I’m not in a position where I can be there to say goodbye, and I’m not really sure what I would say if I were.

It’s not a pleasant thing to be faced with. No matter what your views on death are, it’s difficult.

Some people believe that death is not the end, and that people will continue on in one form or another. Admittedly, the idea that our loved ones are not truly gone is appealing, and it brings some measure of comfort to those who believe in it. I would dearly love to believe that this isn’t the end for her. I would love to believe that she is going somewhere happy and peaceful and that we’ll meet up again someday. However, I don’t believe in an afterlife and I cannot force myself to believe in one even for the sake of finding solace about my grandmother’s death.

I’ve heard some religious people argue that without the hope of an afterlife, atheists’ lives must feel pointless and joyless. While I can’t say that my current situation is a picnic, and I have had loved ones die before and most likely will again, my life isn’t defined by death.

Life is a mixed bag; we have good times and bad times. We form bonds with people around us, we spend time with them creating new memories, and we try to have as many positive experiences and as few negative experiences as possible. The fact that someday it will come to an end is no reason not to share this time with them and enjoy it now.

The religious will often talk about life having meaning and purpose as though it’s this mysterious gift bestowed upon us by an external being. It isn’t. The meaning and purpose we have in our lives are decided by ourselves. For me, the time I spend with loved ones is a big part of that purpose.

For a while, I’m going to feel pretty shit about the whole thing. In the long-term, I’m going to have a sense of loss and be aware of the empty space in my life that she used to occupy. But I’ll continue to live, I’ll continue to spend time with the people I care about, I’ll continue to have happy times as well as sad, and I’ll try to fill my life in the same way that I did before.

My grandmother’s life is valuable. It’s valuable to her and everyone who loves her. All the time I spent with her is precious and I have many happy memories of it. It was a privilege for me to know her and to have that time with her. As I continue to live my life, I will carry those memories with me. The impact we make on other people’s lives and its continued influence on them is the closest thing we have to an afterlife.

Saturday, 14 September 2019

Eight Bloody Pages!

I recently started the process of publishing my second book, A MisreadBible Christmas, which will be released on the 4th October.

Last year, I began writing short stories for my website. By the end of the year, I had decided to compile the stories into my first book, The MisreadBible: Genesis, so while I was still writing short stories to go on the website, I was also editing the manuscript of what would become the book. As Christmas approached, I decided to write the nativity story and publish it on my website.

Early this year, I worked hard to complete the first book, and I knew that I would write a sequel focusing on the Book of Exodus, possibly extending all the way to Deuteronomy. However, I knew it would take some time to complete the sequel, so I decided that first I’d turn my nativity stories into a book.

Unfortunately, the nativity story as a whole wasn’t very long, so I decided that I’d try to include other things to make the book worth the money. I’d written some parody Christmas carols, so I put them at the end of the book. I’d also written a parody of A Visit from St. Nicholas, so I included that too.

In the first book, I had included a story that wasn’t based on the Bible, but which was thematically linked. I thought it would be nice to do the same thing in this book. I considered a few different stories that I could parody, and at first, I intended to write a parody of It’s a Wonderful Life, but I couldn’t come up with an effective way to use it. I ended up settling on A Christmas Carol, a story which I’ve liked since childhood, and I thought it would be interesting to cast King Herod as Scrooge.

As you may know, the Bible’s portrayal of King Herod is pretty two-dimensional (though, admittedly, it portrayal of most people and situations can be) and the slaughter of the innocents is most likely a myth, so if I was going to write about Herod, I wanted to know more about the real historical figure. I incorporated a lot of facts in the story, but I included the premise of the slaughter of the innocents as a plot element. I also took creative licence with some things to fit it all together. When it comes to A Christmas Carol, I know the story well enough to tell it in my own words, but I wanted to capture the feel of the original, so I used a copy of A Christmas Carol the same way I would the Bible, in some cases, re-writing sentence by sentence, keeping any phrases that I liked, and in other places, just freewriting and seeing where it took me.

As with all of my writing, some jokes come out of the source material, but some come from me thinking, ‘It might be funny if this happens,’ and experimenting with the idea. I spend a lot of time working on dialogue because it’s a great way to illustrate two sides of the same issue. Sometimes the characters are essentially putting across my point of view.

I used to work as a copyeditor at a newspaper, and I am very critical of my own work. It’s taken years of practice to take off my editor hat in order to write without stopping to correct myself. I now divide my authoring into the writing stage, the editing stage, the reading my stuff to a friend or family member to see their reaction stage, the compiling stage, and the polishing stage. The compiling stage is essentially copying the text into the final manuscript, applying styles, and setting up the layout. The polishing stage is having a final read and edit to make sure that I’m happy with it.

Now, you might be wondering why I named this blog post ‘Eight Bloody Pages!’ Well, after writing the book, I had to submit it for publication. I currently use Lulu and Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP). KDP is good because they are part of Amazon, which is one of the biggest online book providers nowadays. Lulu is good because they distribute to companies like Ingram, Google, and Apple.

So, anyway, I was busy uploading my manuscript for the paperback edition of my book to KDP, filling in all the necessary information in their wizard-like webforms, and at the end, there were two options: ‘Save draft’ and ‘Publish’. Even though I wasn’t ready to publish, as the release date is next month, I accidentally clicked ‘Publish’. Shit! KDP doesn’t have an option to halt the publication process once it starts, so I sent them an email. Apparently, they don’t have that option on their end either. Basically, I had to wait until the book was approved and essentially published, and click ‘Unpublish’ when the option became available.

The next day, I was checking my emails when I found one from KDP. My book had been rejected because it had writing on the spine, and they don’t allow writing on the spine of books shorter than a hundred pages. I had written 92. By the way, due to the way that modern books are produced, the number of pages in a manuscript has to be a multiple of four as one sheet of paper is folded in half to be bound creating four sides (which word processors call pages).

Anyway, due to my preference to start ‘chapters’ on odd-numbered pages, and the necessity for the total page number to be a multiple of four, I already had a few blank pages, so I didn’t want to just stick another eight at the end of the book. And, as I mentioned in the first part of this post, I had striven to pack the book with quality content, so I didn’t want to add anything that was just filler.

Well, it just so happened that when I told my friend Joshua Saxon that my book was close to publication, he said to me, ‘I guess that we’re going to need to make an audiobook of this one.’ Joshua had narrated my first book, but he works full-time, and he wasn’t sure if he could commit to narrating any other books, so I was surprised and delighted that he was willing to narrate this book for me. Anyway, when he told me he would narrate this book, I had started to produce a script for it.

There are certain things in a book that don’t translate well to an audiobook, for instance, I like to replace the long boring genealogies of the Bible with family tree diagrams, and you can’t really narrate one of those. So, again, in this book, I’d created a family tree diagram covering the genealogies of Matthew 1 and Luke 3. For the audiobook, I had started to turn this into a readable script. I decided that I liked the script version so much that I would include it in the book as well as the diagrams I’d drawn, so I completed the story, calling it ‘Plot Interrupting Genealogy’ (because the Bible authors have a habit of sticking their begat lists right in the middle of the narrative) and it gained me six pages.

Now, for the other two pages, I had come up with a few Christmas carol ideas that I either hadn’t started or hadn’t completed, so I decided to write those and add them to the book. I came up with three. Well, if you remember, the total page number has to be a multiple of four, and I had included a couple of blank pages for this reason, so an extra carol was easy to fit in.

Now that the book is finished, the table of contents reads as follows:

  • Preface
  • Acknowledgements
  • The Nativity
    • The Dumbfounding of a Religion
    • Holy Mother of Christ!
    • Prepare Ye the Way
    • Plot Interrupting Genealogy
    • What a Load of Non-census
    • Jesus Christ!
    • While Shepherds Got a Shock by Night
    • Wise Guys, Eh?
    • There Can Be Only One
  • Herod’s Christmas Carol
    • Stave 1: Humbug!
    • Stave 2: The Ghost of Herod’s Past
    • Stave 3: Horn of Plenty
    • Stave 4: What in the Fuck are You Pointing at?
    • The Final Stave: And this Time, It’s Stavier!
  • A Visit from St Anger
  • Carols
    • Away in a Saucepan
    • Frosty the Snowman
    • Hark! Harold the Angel Sings
    • I Saw Mommy Riding Santa Claus
    • Jesus Christ is Coming to Town
    • Jingle Bells (I’m going to Hell)
    • King Herod was a Mental Man
    • Cum, Got a Faceful
    • Randolph the Brown-nosed Reindeer
    • Soylent Night
  • A Christmas Tweet

If you’re interested in buying the book, visit