Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Scripture as Red Herring: The Bible and "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo"

As a part-time, tongue-in-cheek Bible commentator, I don't have many chances to do spoiler alerts. With the Good Book, the juicy material has been out on the table for more than two millennia.

Eden spoiler alert: Eve eats the fruit.

Genesis spoiler alert: Lot sleeps with his daughters.

Genesis spoiler alert 2: Judah sleeps with his daughter-in law.

Judges rhyming spoiler alert: Jephthah slaughters his daughter.

Gospel of Mark spoiler alert: Jesus dies. (Twist: Jesus comes back.)

Apocalypse of John spoiler alert: There's an apocalypse. (No twist: The world actually ends.)

But today, I'm writing about Biblical allusions in Stieg Larsson's summer must-read, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and I will give away the ending ... so, um, spoiler alert! For real!

Tattoo follows an unlikely pair of Swedish detectives--Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist--as they track down a murderous member of one of the country's leading industrial families. As the bodies pile up, Salander and Blomkvist discover that the killer seems to follow a Biblical logic when choosing his victims, eliminating those who transgress Levitical law.

Hence, the investigators assume that a woman found stabbed to death next to a slaughtered cow ran afoul of Leviticus 20:16: "If a woman approaches any beast and lies with it, you shall kill the woman and the beast; they shall be put to death, their blood is upon them."

And a fortune-teller whose head is bashed in with a rock appears to have broken Leviticus 20:27: "A man or a woman who is a medium or a wizard shall be put to death; they shall be stoned with stones."

A cryptic diary entry confirms a few more of these connections.

But as the plot thickens, this easy correlation falls apart, and it turns out that the father-and-son serial-killing team--indeed, there are two--are just sadistic freaks. The Bible is an arcane standard arbitrarily applied to the occasional victim, likely to throw law enforcement off the track. For the police and for the reader, scripture is a red herring.

Having had a little bit of time to digest the novel--which, though entertaining, does not deserve all the superlatives thrown at it--I admit that I'm bothered by this false lead.

First, I'm troubled by Larsson's unsubtle implication that Torah law, if strictly applied, would be deeply, violently misogynistic.
Larsson's probably not wrong; nonetheless, I don't appreciate his gruesome demonstration of the discovery. (The novel's murders sadly recall scenes from Afghanistan and North Africa where conservative Islam's version of sharia is applied to women in similarly frightening ways.)

But I'm more troubled by the fact that Larsson is careless in his treatment of such grave Biblical themes. Scripture's blood need not be hastily multiplied, and Larsson lets it flow. And whether you're a believer or a non-believer, the Bible deserves a modicum of respect; Larsson gives it none.

Having solved the case, Salander and Blomkvist reflect on the killers' motives: "There's some sort of Biblical gibberish that a psychiatrist might be able to figure out, something to do with punishment and purification in a figurative sense. It doesn't matter what it was."

Biblical gibberish? Leviticus is the foundation of Judaism; how can Larsson be so flippant? And why is a psychiatrist best suited to plumb the depths of religious thought--even perverse religious thought? Have we dispensed with priests and rabbis, only to hand spirituality over to the other men in white coats? (It's worth noting that the novel's other religious emissary--an aging pastor--is a barely coherent defender of the faith.)

Further, how is it that such material "doesn't matter"? The purifying power of violence is heavy, complex, and yes, troubling stuff. But Larsson's casual dismissal of his own conceit suggests that it is not the "Biblical gibberish" that doesn't matter, but his own treatment of it.

Now don't get me wrong: I don't mind authors--even mystery novelists--working with the dark parts of religious and Biblical history. Umberto Eco does so gorgeously in The Name of the Rose. But to do so as Larsson does, with a glib smattering of keyboard strokes, smacks of opportunism. His treatment of the Bible seems carefully prepared to take advantage of the often unreflective atheism of the European left and the book-buying public's disturbing taste for the macabre. It's a disconcerting combination.

Now, I probably shouldn't lay into Larsson, who's been dead for nearly six years. Nonetheless, I do want to take issue with the critics who call Tattoo "super-smart" (Fresh Air), "meticulous" (The Boston Globe), and "intricately plotted" (The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette). It's not. It's a shallow, dark page-turner that will keep you reading--but not thinking.

11 comments:

  1. Your opinions don't mean a thing. The Bible is bullshit anyway

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    1. This applies to you as well, your opinion does not mean a thing. It is obvious you have spent a lot of time and research coming to very well spoken opinion. You will convince many people with your very educated response

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  2. Christianity is bullshit

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    1. Those who are full of BS understand BS the best. Thank you for enlightening us.

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  3. This book is awesome. Unlike you and your blog.

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  4. Nice insight ....however think all the comments above are slightly un-necessary as everyone in entitled to there opinion. I thought the Larsson books were enticingly good however i do agree that he was rather flippant and generally quite ignorant to the depth of what he had started as a interesting correlation to how it turned out to be.

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  5. I just watched the movie now but have not read the book. I agree with Joshua's article. Leviticus was dismissed quickly and not given enough thought.
    The Leviticus law and commandments dont apply to people under the new covenant but should be taken into consideration out of trembling respect to the Lord.

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  6. It always amuses me tha those who choose to defend the bible insist that it shouldn't be taken litrally. All Larsson does is quote the bible, he doesn't mess with it. You're doing that!

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  7. Hopefully you haters come around... Some day maybe.

    But seriously whoever is the computer tough guy knocking my religion, you need to take it down a notch.

    You got it all figured out. That's good for you. Don't be a hate monger.

    Movie is pretty good.

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  8. I question why the bible deserves any more respect than your average book.

    It's not as though any of the stories could possibly be true- and if they ever were they're frightfully distorted by time and bad translations. It's about as accurate as Grimm's fairy tales. And holds about as much merit, both factually and morally. A book is a book is a book, and just because you respect it doesn't mean other have to.

    "Biblical gibberish? Leviticus is the foundation of Judaism; how can Larsson be so flippant? And why is a psychiatrist best suited to plumb the depths of religious thought--even perverse religious thought? Have we dispensed with priests and rabbis, only to hand spirituality over to the other men in white coats?"

    First- you're confusing author and character. Just because he's written as a generally good guy doesn't mean that Larsson would agree with everything his character said. Again, a book is a book is a book.

    Second- a priest or rabi understands their religion. They do not understand how people's minds work, or at least, it's not a requirement of the job. Figuring out what the bible verses meant to a pair of crazy murderers is the job of a psychiatrist. Mostly because it's their job to deal with every kind of crazy. Yes, including the kind that stems from taking a book a bit too literally.

    Third-Spirituality is not solely the realm of priests and rabis. Neither do I think they are necessarily the best ones to go to. But insofar as there is a master of spirituality, I don't think anyone would say that title had passed to science. Science makes a rather large point of keeping spirituality out of the discussion.

    Lastly, on your whole point- I'm not impressed by your statement that it's shallow. I can't be, because I know you're heavily biased by the fact that some of the content offends you. You haven't given a shred of evidence that it was a poorly written work, just that you were insulted by a reference to the bible. I'm not likely ever to read 'the lion, the witch and the wardrobe', because it's blatant religious propaganda... but I don't go about saying it's poorly written. Please stop throwing about criticisms just because it hurt your feelings that some people aren't as impressed by religion as you'd like them to be. But if you'd really like to pick at the book, try actually justifying your claims.

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