2021/03/30

Podcast Notes: OMGWTFBIBLE

This is a bit of an unusual post for this blog. Regularly scheduled content will resume at some point.

I'm a sucker for ambitious projects. OMGWTFBIBLE is as ambitious as it gets.

In a monthly (hah!) podcast, David Tuchman translates the Torah into modern English and makes jokes about it. You might think people would be upset, but it turns out no, it seems to be fine. The translation might be irreverent, but it's also respectful... and respectable scholarship.

And now it's over (for now). The last episode was posted on March 14th. Here's an interview from 2013, for additional context.

It's a huge amount of effort for a fairly obscure project. It's a hard sell. "Want to listen to the whole Bible?" "No." "Fair enough."

There's also a potential level of awkwardness. "Is it OK to laugh at this? Is this for me?" All I can say is give it a listen and find out.
If you find it heinously controversial, leave me out of it. Go directly to the source.
 

Pseudosocial Relationships

One basic podcast formula (among many) is the Sage and the Muddler (the analyst and the colour commentator), who are Friends. If the podcast is interview-focused, the Muddler is the host and the Sage is the guest. In a recurring podcast, the Muddler and the Sage have ongoing explanatory banter.

The audience is invited to be a silent Friend, sitting on the couch nearby, laughing at the witty remarks without having to perform any social obligations. They are drawn into a warm, happy space where their friendship is secure and does not need to be actively maintained.

Podcasts often give their followers a special name. The PeanutPals. The Bearcubs. The Ahistorical Legion. Listeners are invited to an inner ring, a secret club, a collective fandom. It's not evil or wrong, it's just really common.

OMGWTFBIBLE doesn't do any of that. The audience is kept at arms length. Guest readers are sometimes scholars who run rings around Tuchman, sometimes muddlers of the highest order who, faced with an unexpected biblical name, pause, grin, and try their best.

It's refreshing. The parasocial relationship, and the podcast itself, is secondary to The Work.
 

The Work

Translation is difficult. Translating the bible is proverbially difficult. Some people... don't try to do their best. This list of issues with the NIV translation is well worth reading. Anyone saying "this is what the Bible actually says" should be treated with suspicion. That's a degree of confidence bordering on insanity. Literalism is impossible. The text is a mess. Footnotes and parentheticals are pretty much mandatory.
 
Tuchman insists his version is a "loose translation" and it definitely is... in a sense. Sure, Tuchman plays with word order and punctuation, and deliberately substitutes synonyms where it be funny, but the substitutions and changes are revealing. They highlight the ambiguous bits and the weird edges of stitched narratives. They're scholarship. It's presented as humour, but it's not lazy humour.

There's beauty. There's truth. There's personal growth. And there's a lot of really weird stuff.

In the final episode, Rabbi Sam Reinstein says "I just love that you made this your own. We're not trained to do this [...] to own the texts, not to just learn it as something somebody else wrote or was given to you."
 

In interviews and in the translation itself, Tuchman charges straight at the Big Capital Letter Issues... and sometimes rebounds off with a chorus of shrugs and sighs, but hey, an attempt was made. Conversations with guests are often deeply personal. The interview style isn't polished or pablum. The questions mean something because the host is genuinely interested in the answers; the guests offer unpolished answers. It's never confrontational. There are no "gotcha" interview questions, but there are questions that make the guests think.

Sometimes there are stories of extraordinary adventures and good works. Sometimes its just people being people, thinking about their lives, trying to make sense of the world.
 

Selected Episodes

Listening to the podcast in order (or just the Bible bits) is probably the best plan, but if you feel like listening to a sample episode before committing:


Chapter and Verse

The Bible can feel like a series of disconnected statements. Numbering verses doesn't help. How many other books do you read where every line is punctuated with a number, and every story split into arbitrary chapters after it was written? Reading Bibles are handy. These days, with word processors and free texts, you can make your own at home.

OMGWTFBIBLE is an unabridged translation. Tuchman had to translate, and someone had to read, the whole thing. A lot of Bible-related works rely on greatest hits, selected sections, or summaries. This doesn't, and it's what originally drew me to the podcast. It doesn't take the easy road.

The Future

Tuchman says he's taking a break from translation for an indefinite period, and I can't blame him.

But if there's more OMGWTFBIBLE, I'd love to see Mordecai Lebowitz read Jonah. Or anyone, really. Jonah is great. So overdramatic.

I'd love to see Tuchman's translation of Ezekiel, the swearingest prophet who ever cursed a curse. Seriously, a potential translation of Ezekiel would turn the air blue and make Tarantino say "that's a bit much".

Side Note: Ezekiel bread. It's a thing you can buy. It's deliberately framed as a biblical health food... drawn from the prophetic performance art of Ezekiel. People who sell the bread mention Ezekiel 4:9. They don't mention Ezekiel 4:12, where God says to use human excrement as fuel. As Tuchman says, "Oh God, you are a nut." These days, the instructions would be "make a mash of all the old mouldy vegetables at the bottom of the fridge and cook it over a diesel fire." It's deliberately bad, weird, performance-art-as-shameful-prophecy food. Not health food. The opposite of health food. This is why context is important.

Or Ezra. That'll be an interesting ride, particularly if Tuchman goes straight into Malachi, and explores the antagonistic relationship between the two books. Or Job... in general.

Side Note: The canonical order(s) of the books in the Bible isn't nessesarily the only reading order. Starting in the garden and ending in Revelations is a sensible plan, but reading them in publication order (for lack of a better term) is interesting too. You get a sense of ideas developing and chronology shifting. I don't think Tuchman needs to stick to a strict book-by-book order for the future of this project (if there is one), especially for disconnected stories.

Or whatever the heck is going on with Shamgar the Last Action Hero.

Final Notes

OMGWTFBIBLE is, as far as I can tell, delightfully non-monetized. There are no ads, no patreon, no tiered subscriber list. Sponsorship of a long-form Bible translation podcast would be... tricky. "If Nadab and Abihu had used SkillShare, they would  have known not to offer a sacrifice with strange fire. Use the code MOLOCH for 15% off." Or maybe instead of Raid: Shadow Legends, it could be sponsored by Smite?

Yeah. I don't think that would work.

There was a crowdfunding campaign back in 2014 that raised $2,432. Split over 61 episodes and 9 years of work that's... not enough money.

There are vague hints of a potential dead tree form of the translation, so keep an eye out for that.

Otherwise, I don't know. The hardest part of any ambitious project is getting anyone to care.

Edit: 2021/04/09
"
I don’t really make OMGWTFBIBLE for anyone, it’s really just so that it exists in the world. So it’s incredible when someone out there totally gets what you’re doing." -David Tuchman

"
To elicit perfect comprehension is perhaps to be expected only once." -Barbara W. Tuchman, Preface to The Guns of August

4 comments:

  1. I just found a podcast called Apocrypals that is doing something similar. Two guys who were born into religious families, know the Bible well (one knows it really well) and are non-believers now, read the Bible chapter by chapter and comment on it (in a respectful way). I am really enjoying it.

    And now I have to check this one out too! An embarrassment of Biblical riches.

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    1. Yeah, I've been listening to them for a while. They're fun and all that, but they really follow the standard podcast formula described in this article. It's a very different kind of experience.

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  2. As a Christian and Dnd nerd myself, I do hope folks listen and try to understand the historical/ sociological context of individual "books" and such. I always say this anyone who is serious: "One thing we all have in common is that we are ALL going to die. If you truly believe that when you life ends, it's nothing but eternal nothingness . . . I feel sorry for you and I question as to whether or not you are daily being true to those beliefs. Do you really believe that there is nothing in the end and isn't life meaningful if so?"

    I could go on and on but you get it. The world we live in right now has no hope and we do not have a hopeful future. Technology is not going to save us and we're sure not going to save ourselves. We're too busy insulting one another to do that.

    Anyways, cool story. The Life of Brian was originally going to be a parody of the life of Jesus but when Monty Python actually got down and read the Gospels . . . they did not find anything to make fun about Jesus, his message, or his ministry. And so, they made a parody about a dude who was mistaken for Jesus.

    Hope you guys enjoy reading the story from Genesis to Revelation. It's about getting kicked out of the garden (Paradise Lost), the Creator going to the greatest length possible to save those kicked out of the Garden, and, in the end, those who turn back to their Creator getting to get back into the Garden . . . through grace! (Paradise regained).

    Happy Easter!

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