Book Review: Mark Twain’s Letters from the Earth


While browsing on twitter today, I came across a popular new trending topic: #dontyouloveGod. This generally consists of inane babble along the lines of why believers are so personally thankful for their god, and all that he supposedly does for them. It is always startling to come across this kind of piffle; to realize that these people are sincere in these expressions. Here are some examples, verbatim, that I collected from this topic just now:

#dontyouloveGOD for his forgivness and never judging us!

#dontyouloveGOD when he gives us pretty rainbows?

#dontyouloveGOD because He only gives us what He feels we can handle?

#dontyouloveGOD when he saves a premature baby?

#dontyouloveGOD b/c He considered you worthy enough of a saviour?

#dontyouloveGOD for helping me realize that my circumstances could always be worse. I am so thankful

#dontyouloveGOD for always being there when you need Him. Amen he is a PRESENT HELP!!!!

#dontyouloveGOD LOVES you despite of your WRONGs!

#dontyouloveGOD is a Jealous God, remember to keep him 1st!

#dontyouloveGOD for being such an amazing provider! He gives us just what we need when we need it!

You get the idea. Someone needs to get these people a copy of Voltaire’s Candide. Or better yet, since they might not understand how that story relates to them, Mark Twain’s far more direct assault on the Christian version of the “Best Of All Possible Worlds” dementia: his little-known Letters from the Earth.

Letters from the Earth is a brief, witty, and remarkable funny series of reports from Satan about certain behaviors of man (and God) that he has been observing over time. Because it isn’t very long, it is generally published together with other short, irreverent writings from Twain (often including the equally hilarious Diaries of Adam and Eve). The version I own is part of a book entitled The Bible According To Mark Twain, edited by Howard G. Baetzhold and Joseph B. McCullough. I cannot recommend this volume highly enough.

Letters from the Earth begins with a short introduction of how the Creator fashioned the universe out of nothing. A conversation then follows between Michael, Gabriel, and (the then still heaven-dwelling and angelic) Satan, about what it all might mean; this new place where new living beings are being introduced. They have only been informed that it is meant to be some kind of experiment.

Satan shortly finds himself banished to the earth, as punishment for making snide remarks about the character and actions of the human race he has been watching with growing interest. He’s especially interested in how the Creator has instilled in them an entire spectrum of inconsistent traits. And once on earth, he begins to write letters back to his archangel friends, and these notes comprise the bulk of the book.

All throughout, Twain deftly satirizes both God and Man simultaneously, such as in this excerpt describing their dysfunctional relationship:

He requires his children to deal justly—and gently—with offenders, and forgive them seventy-and-seven times; whereas he deals neither justly nor gently with any one, and he did not forgive the ignorant and thoughtless first pair of juveniles even their first small offense… He elected to punish their children, all through the ages to the end of time… He is punishing them yet. In mild ways? No, in atrocious ones. You would not suppose that this kind of Being gets many compliments. Undeceive yourself: the world calls him the All-Just, the All-Righteous, the All-Good, the All-Merciful, the All-Forgiving, the All-Truthful, the All-Loving, the Source of All Morality. These sarcasms are uttered daily, all over the world. But not as conscious sarcasms. No, they are meant seriously; they are uttered without a smile.

What I find so striking about the book is the clarity with which Twain seems to see the inhumanity and idiocy of Christian Bible, and the ease with which he exposes it. It is satire writ very large, lean, and focused.

A considerable portion of Letters from the Earth is devoted to details of the flood story that, not surprisingly, never found their way into scripture. Since every Christian, from childhood, has been immersed in images of pairs of giraffes, zebras, and lions striding majestically up the boarding plank, Satan narrates instead how special lodgings were arranged (within the bodies of the humans on board) to house the multitudes of sundry parasitic, microbial, and viral species: those essential organisms needed to propagate all the terrible diseases (that God so carefully created) into the post-diluvian world. Detailed arrangements were also made for flies, including one that was forgotten and required a voyage of sixteen days to retrieve. We learn that this vector of so many diseases is indeed God’s favorite pet; his darling.

The book builds to its final crescendo with a scathing attack on another portion of the old testament: specifically, the some of the horrific abuses recounted in the book of Numbers. His take on the story that begins Numbers 25:

“And Israel abode in Shittim, and the people began to commit whoredom with the daughters of Moab.

And the Lord said unto Moses, Take all the heads of the people, and hang them up before the Lord against the sun, that the fierce anger of the Lord may be turned away from Israel.”

Does that look fair to you? It does not appear that the “heads of the people” got any of the adultery, yet it is they that are hanged…

Very well then, we must believe that if the people of New York should begin to commit whoredom with the daughters of New Jersey, it would be fair and right to set up a gallows in front of city hall and hang the mayor and the sheriff and the judges… It does not look right to me.

From here Twain moves on to the infamous genocide of the Midianites from Numbers 31, and begins to work himself into a bit of a rage. The book ends suddenly and with little warning. One gets the impression that Twain is so angry at this point that he cannot stand to consider the matter any further. And that would certainly be understandable. Sometimes we seem to have grown so familiar with the stories, and numb to the nonsense, that it almost seems… normal. The gift that Letters from the Earth offers is that it so effortlessly exposes contradictions at the core of Christianity. The sudden ending is necessary, because any more would be redundant. But despite the fact that you can practically see the old master’s formidable eyebrows scrunching down in an ever fiercer scowl as you go on, what I always think of with this book is how much it made me laugh. Make room on your freethinking bookshelf for this one; you will enjoy many times. I promise.


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