December 21st, 2006
What if The Bible were happening right now? That's the question Douglas Rushkoff has been trying to grapple with in Testament, a series of graphic novels that transpose Biblical stories into contemporary narratives. The series, created in collaboration with artist Liam Sharp flashes back and forth between contemporary and Biblical times, portraying struggles between total control freaks and revolutionaries. Various gods and goddesses form a sort of Greek Chorus — philosophizing and commenting on the action. The "Testament" series is a startling attempt to bring Biblical mythology back to life.
The first five editions of Testament were gathered together in a paperback edition titled Testament: Akedah. [Update: The second paperback edition, Testament Vol. 2: West of Eden was released January, 2007, followed by Testament: Babel - Volume 3 and then Testament Volume 4: Exodus in August of 2008.]
I interviewed Rushkoff by email.
RU SIRIUS: Let's start off talking about the medium itself, the graphic novel. It seems like the graphic novel became a repository for stories with mythic resonances and heroism in the Joseph Campbell sense, since that kind of storytelling was marginalized by the modern and then the post-modern novel. Would you agree? And who in this genre has inspired you?
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: I think novels lost a bit of their dimension as readers demanded narrators they could "trust," and perspectives with which they could identify. In some ways, the novel — and most textual narrative — became awfully realistic. The post-modernist experiments were mostly being conducted in other forms, like poetry, and only "kids" novels or series attempted fantasy or mythology in any real way.
The graphic novel and comic book have strong traditions in mythology — or even just in telling stories more on the periphery of consciousness. Superman and other American superheroes were really exploring the unspoken immigrant experience; Japanese manga became a forum to consider the cultural and psychological effects of nuclear war; and, of course, Maus and other contemporary graphic novels became the place to confront the issues and ideas we haven't fully integrated into our conversations or consciousness.
There are very few media that give us the chance to explore and continue the grand myths — the kind that Campbell was looking at. The Bible is now "locked down," so to speak — and there are very few places to engage in open discussion about its mythology. Too many people are depending on the Bible to serve as fact — whether it's for a Middle East land claim or the security of believing in a Creator with a Plan. And too many writers and artists have given up on the mythological tradition — seeing it as the province of fundamentalists or, worse, hopelessly "New Age."
But it's in the early New Age, the pre-New Age, really, that we find the foundations for some of the best comics traditions. For me, it was Jack Kirby and his Eternals. That series was what originally interested me in writing comics. My "master plan," so to speak, was to get asked to bring that series back. But it was DC who noticed my work, and "Eternals" was a Marvel comic. By that point I had spent more time working and thinking about the Bible, anyway, so I figured if I was willing to tackle Kirby's universe of gods, why not the Bible's? Why not start with the richest set of mythologies out there? Richest, at least, for a Western audience, in that these are our foundation stories.
As for other influences and inspirations in the genre, I guess I'm inspired by the obvious ones: Grant Morrison, Alan Moore, Dan Clowes. And I'm enjoying Godland by Joe Casey right now.
RU: As someone who has never read the Bible, and who has found myself bored by every attempt that I've made to do so, let me ask you — why do you think this is such a powerful book?
DR: Well, I think the reason you get stuck is because you're not the original intended hearer. I mean, if you're not from that time and place, it's really hard to get the jokes. Or the sense.
That's why so many religious people are confused. They look at the stories literally, without realizing that each of Jacob's sons is meant more as a satirical embodiment of one of the tribes. Today's readers think of it like these guys are really the patriarchs of each of these tribes, rather than story devices.
Plus, if you don't know all the Egyptian customs, then all the stuff that the Israelites do differently doesn't come through. In one section they build a big arc but don't put a god on the top. To a hearer of that era, they'd know this was radical — because all the Egyptian arcs had gods on top. Or they'd know that slaying a calf in April is a really big deal, because that was the Egyptian New Year's month when the calf was to be revered.
On a deeper level, the Bible works because it's very gently trying to break the bad news: that our relationship to God has changed from that of believing children to that of lonely adults. It's telling the story of how a civilization grows up, and learns (or doesn't learn) to take of itself with no parent telling it what to do. It's about how to stop engaging in child sacrifice; how to develop legal and monetary systems that don't exploit people. And, most of all, it's about how to stay alive and conscious in a society that's trying to make you dead and asleep.
It's really a collection of stories that mean to address the new challenges of the Axial Age — and foretelling some of the dangers of evolving into an agricultural society. The Bible works because it attempts to tackle the underlying dynamic between models of scarcity and models of abundance.
For my purposes, it's interesting because it has become so much more relevant today — as society is again falling under the spell of a reality template as extreme and limited as the mental slavery of Biblical Egypt.
RU: Can we really generalize about such a diffuse, decentralized and dissipated culture and say that it's comparable to the mental slavery of Biblical Egypt?
DR: Unfortunately, we can. Certainly as much as we can generalize about Biblical Egypt. There were Egyptians who saved Jewish babies like Moses, remember — so there are exceptions to every rule.
But I'd argue that we are currently living in something beyond a fascist's wildest dream. And it's not just political. Bush and co. may have done us wrong, but the landscape and environment permitting their misdeeds is more to blame than any "neo-con" ideology. And this is the landscape of corporatism — a game in which non-player characters rule the day.
Our values have been completely penetrated by a market model, sold to us through propaganda since about the time that Ed Bernays turned his back on government and became the first real PR man for corporate America. Everything from World's Fairs to public schools were developed to promote the corporate agenda and ideology. So now we live in a world where we see corporations and currency as pre-existing conditions — laws of nature; a part of creation.
We may feel decentralized, but we still don't know how to create value for one another that doesn't involve central authority. The kids on YouTube still want to get picked up by a TV network. And you can't sell me a DVD without involving the Fed's money.
RU: Let's move directly on to some of the material in the comics. In Chapter One of "West of Eden" (#6 of the series), an invisible narrator is quoted saying, "Each story is only as true as the number and intensity of those who believe." I wonder if this speaks for you, and if you mean this in a literal sense — in a Heisenbergian sense. In other words, do observers create reality; or do observers create reality within certain limits?
DR: Well, it's certainly true in the world of the comic — and I'd think it's at least somewhat true in the world we live in. As far as the comic, I'm kind of giving the whole thing away in that little section. Number 6 (the first chapter of the second collection coming out in January) was an opportunity to start over, and help new readers catch up with the world of the story. Likewise, of course, the creation story in Genesis was written and added to the text much later than the stuff that follows.
Basically, when the Israelites were under attack, they decided that rather than just having the best and most powerful god, they had the only god (what historians call the "one God, alone" cult). So they needed their own creation story. They cobbled together some of the best ones, gave them a decidedly Jewish context (the spoken word itself has creative power) and put it at the front.
I did the same thing, showing the "good" gods writing their creation story while "bad" gods each take individual credit for creation of the world. But the gods do understand that their power — their authority to declare responsibility for creation — is really dependent on the number and faith of their believers. In essence, I'm saying that the gods are really created by people. They exist, but only insofar as people are willing to believe in them. They're emergent phenomena.
As far as real reality, I think there's a whole lot of stuff we accept as given circumstances that are actually social convention — belief systems. Not the sum total of reality — like rocks and planets and physics — but certainly the nature of power, money, relationship. The way we interact is guided as much by our beliefs as our nature. And our perceptions of the world are, as Robert Anton Wilson would say, just reality tunnels.
RU: Why did you choose an artificial life program as a sort of creation myth?
DR: Well, the creation story is largely about the difference between nature and human-made life. When Cain is punished, he is to become a "builder of cities" — meaning artificial colonies rather than natural ones (to put it really briefly). In the comic, it's our modern Adam who takes the dangerous step of launching his AI lifeform out onto the greater networks; and that's my modern allegory for tasting of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. He's taken the power of creation into his own hands.
The AI becomes a real character as the story develops, though. It's the operating system for a new kind of global currency. In the Bible, Pharaoh basically loses his free will. God "hardens his heart," which — to me, anyway — has less to do with God wanting a good enemy than it has to do with Pharaoh's addiction to power. The Bible is repeatedly telling the lesson that we have to respect life; disrespect for life pushes a person further from the living. So as our story's antagonists show more allegiance to currency than they do to people, they end up increasingly ruled by an AI.
RU: Talk about the centrality of currency in this story. How does it relate to Biblical mythology and why is it important now?
DR: Well, it was Joseph — one of the Bible's heroes — who is somewhat responsible in the story for giving the Pharaoh the idea to take in all the grain when it was plentiful, and then to create indentured servants out of everyone when they couldn't get any grain during the famine. It could even be argued that they created an artificial scarcity in order to gain power.
Of course, that's the way our economy works today. Our currency is centrally created, as if by fiat. There's no underlying value. And this sort of currency is very biased towards scarcity and central authority.
So many of our greatest challenges as a civilization still hearken back to our inability to operate an economy on a system other than the scarcity model. We could make enough energy or food. It's not a technological problem. It's an economic problem. An economy based on artificial scarcity — on the hoarding of resources and meting out of commodities — doesn't know how to cope with abundance. Or even sustainability. How do you maintain centralized authority if people aren't depending on the central authority for everything?
RU: Do you think open source is coming to the exchange of economic value? Is there anything in Biblical terms that points us that way?
DR: I have to believe that currency is moving towards an open source model. And that's why we're having such awful wars right now. As people come to recognize that money isn't real, the powers that be will have to invent a new method of social control.
Really — money began to replace religion as a means of central control back in the Renaissance. Until then, there were local currencies complementing centralized ones. People in towns could create value for one another without involving the central authority.
For the past several decades, many towns have attempted to develop their own currencies — but the problem has always been one of trust and accountability. Computers and networks really do solve this problem, so the tools to make currency for ourselves — to create alternative moneys that have different biases (not interest bearing; based in a real commodity, etc.) are here. The LETS system really does work, now.
It's a matter of seeing whether or not the spell can be broken, though. Whether people can come to see that the dollar isn't real. It's just one way of monetizing value, but we persist.
It may take someone else — maybe China, or the oil producers — to show us that our money is worthless — it's really just a matter of In God We Trust. But we'll be in for much less of a rude awakening if we can remember what the Bible was really telling us about our money, and take the Bible back from those who have used it to support its only true villain.
RU: In terms of mental slavery, you have this scene of trendy, sexy young people lining up to get "tagged" — which is some sort of digital upgrade implant. Is that how they get us, through the upgrades? Should I ditch my iPod and BlackBerry? And is there a Biblical backstory to this one?
DR: Well, being rich is considered cool, now. I mean, our heroes are "the man."
In the comic, I tried to make it appear that this new RFID-tag currency would give people power. By using what seems to be a totally decentralized, AI currency, people believe they can, like the ads in the comic, "Get Tagged and You're IT!" (Of course, the joke is that you get tagged and you're just an extension I.T., not *it*.) But the motivation is to be one with money, to have the money in you rather than depending on some external source for the money.
The Biblical reference (which will only get paid off later) is Manna. They called the currency Manna, but that hasn't really been explained yet. The idea is that in the Torah story, the Israelites don't trust that Manna will keep coming. So they hoard it. God gets pissed off and turns the stored Manna into worms. They're supposed to trust that new Manna is coming.
Do I think you have to give up your BlackBerry? Not necessarily, but I do think you have to understand its biases. You have to understand what it's doing to you and whether that's a good thing. I don't wear an iPod on the subway — I don't even own one — because I feel alienated and detached enough already. I want every opportunity I have in real and public spaces to engage with other real people.
RU: You've taking on a potentially controversial task — reworking Biblical myth. Say a little bit about any responses that you've had.
DR: So far it's been almost completely positive. The beauty about comics is that people don't take them as "seriously" as they do non-fiction. So while I've been blacklisted by various fundamentalist groups for my non-fiction book on Judaism, I've gotten almost no negative response for this treatment of Biblical myth — which would certainly be much more controversial.
I mean, my non-fiction work was based on history. This comic has a whole lot more conjecture — particularly in the way it draws parallels between, say, child sacrifice in the Bible and sending kids to Iraq today.
But the vast majority of responses — particularly from rabbis — has been positive. They've been looking for someone to tell Torah stories the way they actually appear in Torah — but to do so in a way that gives these horrific and sexy scenes some context. It's one thing for a layperson to blog the Torah on Slate, and it's quite another for a media scholar (if I'm allowed to call myself that) to do it in a fictional work with informed interpretation. That's another reason the rabbis like it, though — it's attempting to carry on the Midrashic tradition of Torah commentary in a contemporary medium, rather than around the table at the house of study.
The other great thing has been the responses from magick types and Crowley fans who really had no idea the Bible was filled with all this sex magick. They're now looking at Torah as source code rather than some enemy's dictates.
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