The Reality Behind “Noah”

“Drowning itself is quick and silent, although it may be preceded by distress which is more visible. A person drowning is unable to shout or call for help, or seek attention, as they cannot obtain enough air. The instinctive drowning response is the final set of autonomic reactions in the 20 – 60 seconds before sinking underwater, and to the untrained eye can look similar to calm safe behavior.  Lifeguards and other persons trained in rescue learn to recognize drowning people by watching for these instinctive movements.”

—Wikipedia, “Drowning”

Judging by all the criticism coming from conservative Christians regarding the latest superhero movie, Noah, anything short of a Children’s Bible version of the story of Noah and the Ark would be unacceptable.

Locally, a man named Ronald Cansler, a conservative Christian who used to pastor the First United Methodist Church in Joplin but now shepherds students through Missouri Southern State University’s English department, said the following in the local newspaper the other day:

Some guy named Noah, a lot of water and a bunch of animals on a boat are the only similarities between the movie “Noah” and the account in Genesis 6:9.

Pastor/Professor Cansler is worried that “one aspect of the movie greatly offends against the biblical account.” He is referring to the movie supposedly misrepresenting “God’s plan,” which, according to Bible believers, involved Noah’s three sons and their wives dutifully bonking each other in order to “replenish the earth” after the flood.

As the makers of Noah are finding out, there simply is no pleasing biblical fundamentalists, although the attempts to try—the worst example being the attempt to appease Glenn Beck—indicate that this movie, for all the high-brow claims of its creators, is at least partially designed to get Bible-believing Christians interested enough to spend their money on the film ($44 million opening weekend in America, but no numbers on how many were true believers).

That is why, despite the fact that livelier Babylonian accounts of a destructive flood by vindictive gods are available for movie-making, the biblical version of the Noah-flood story is the basis of the latest Hollywood blockbuster. I suppose there just aren’t enough Babylonians around these days from whom a big-time movie studio can extract a buck or two.

Now, let me declare that I haven’t seen the movie and have no plans to do so. I know there are reportedly some so-called progressive themes running through it, especially involving how we treat our environment and the other creatures we share it with, but this piece of criticism you are reading isn’t about the movie per se.

Nor is this about the absurdly unscientific story upon which Noah is based—come on, people, the Genesis account says that Noah was “six hundred years old when the floodwaters came on the earth” and that “and all the high mountains under the entire heavens were covered” with water for nearly a year and that the implausible ark housed “two of all living creatures” and that after Noah and his family and the animals were all safely inside the large vessel, the “the Lord” closed the doors!

No, this piece isn’t about all that. It is about the lack of attention that movie reviewers are paying to the apparently acceptable premise of the movie: that it was okay for an angry and disappointed God to destroy the face of the earth and everything living on it—babies and young children, included—save for Noah and a few family members that the Bible quite arbitrarily considered “righteous.” Such a stunningly immoral premise needs examination, if only because some people take all this quite seriously and most of those who do would never raise a moral objection to the purported actions of God, a being they claim is unquestionably good and just. We cringe today at any display of murderous human rage, so why isn’t everyone cringing at the disturbing display of murderous divine rage that serves as the background for the movie Noah?

Our local movie reviewer, Mr. Cansler, who despite his theological objections found the movie “a fun two-plus hours,” said that its presentation of God’s purpose for the flood—“that only the innocent animals are to ‘be fruitful and multiply,’ while the family of zookeepers will be a dead end for humankind”—made the God of the Bible “appear bloodily anti-human, a misanthropic hyper-Malthusian.” Those of us familiar with the Old Testament know that the God of the Bible doesn’t need any help from filmmakers in order to make him appear like a human-hating brute. Just read the book, especially the entire biblical account of the flood.

Just before we are introduced to the non-Hollywood Noah in the Book of Genesis, we find this declaration:

When God created mankind, he made them in the likeness of God.

That is a reaffirmation of Genesis 1:27:

So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

But just what is that image? Is it an image of one seeking ultimate vengeance? Of one using violence to squash perceived enemies or rectify one’s mistakes?

After strangely informing us in Genesis Chapter 6 that humans were increasing in population and that divine beings called “the sons of God” were having sex with “the daughters of humans,” (and after introducing the Nephilim, a race of “giants” who may have been the offspring of fallen angels and humans!), the Bible tells us:

The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. So the Lord said, “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground—for I regret that I have made them.

Ignoring the theologically untenable claim that an all-knowing God had “regrets,” or the morally untenable assertion that a just God took his unlovely wrath out on all living things, guilty or not, here we see that God’s anger with mankind was stirred by “the thoughts of the human heart,” which were “only evil all the time.” Did little babies, who also perished in the flood, have evil thoughts in their hearts? All the time? How about four-year-olds? Teenagers? Shriveled-up old folks?

And even if one granted that all humans in Noah’s days, no matter their age or station, did have such evil thoughts in their hearts all the time, from where could they have obtained such thoughts? Or,  from whom could they have obtained them? Is it true that all of those whom God decided to murder with a mountain-topping deluge were created in his image, too? Yes. Of course. The Bible says so. But not in the way I was taught in Sunday school. The clues that reveal the nature of that imaging are in the reason given in the Bible for God’s drowning his image-bearers and the subsequent record of behavior of those post-flood folks God would bless with his army-conquering presence.

I suggest to you that, to the extent one takes the Bible’s claims seriously, those evil thoughts that God found so offensive were frequently manifested in much of the rest of the Hebrew Bible, substantiating that well-known “God created mankind in his own image” claim in Genesis. In other words, those evil human beings whom God regretted making and then whom he murdered by drowning, actually reflected, quite accurately, the image of God we find in the Old Testament and, to some degree, in the New. That is why some critics claim that it appears the God of the Bible was actually created in man’s image.

Just read Joshua 6, for instance, where the conquering Israelites not only knocked down the walls of Jericho with trumpet blasts, but,

They devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.

Like father, like son. That matches nicely with 1 Samuel 15, where God tells Saul and the Israelites to, “kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.” 

And it matches with other events recorded in the Old Testament. Long after the great flood in which God left no human survivors, except for Noah and his family, an Amorite king named Sihon would not let the ancient Israelites, who after escaping Egypt were on their wilderness-wandering way to the Promised Land, pass through his territory. Too bad for the king. God wasn’t in the mood to negotiate. According to Deuteronomy:

When Sihon and all his army came out to meet us in battle at Jahaz, the Lord our God delivered him over to us and we struck him down, together with his sons and his whole army. At that time we took all his towns and completely destroyed them—men, women and children. We left no survivors. 

We left no survivors. The Israelites even murdered the children. Sort of like God did in the flood. Created in his image, indeed.

All of this is not to deny the existence of God. I have no idea whether there is a God or whether we are winging it as human beings. But I do say that those who claim that the God presented to us in the Bible is a good and decent and moral being whom we should emulate have to explain why he cold-bloodedly slaughters the innocent people he creates and encourages or supports others who cold-bloodedly slaughter them. And if the movie Noah has any redeeming value, it will be found not in providing us “a fun two-plus hours,” but in forcing some people to come to terms with the ugly and disturbing picture of divinity imprinted on the pages of their holy book.

22 Comments

  1. On reading the initial reviews of the movie and hearing of Christian displeasure, I too had the thought that it was likely caused by trying to depict the absurdities of the Genesis account as real. Reality and the bible simply don’t equate and you have done a good job here in laying out the contradictions. It is impossible for me to read Genesis and not feel that humanity is something like an “ant farm” that God uses for amusement and upon which he occasionally vents his frustrations.

    Hmm. If many conservatives are right and “global warming” is not man-made, perhaps it is just one more devine temper tantrum?

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    • Jim,

      When I was growing up, a friend of mine lived down the street. One day I walked up on his porch and found him with a pocket knife chopping up ants on one of the posts that held up the porch. He was sitting there chopping them in half. I thought that was a weird thing to do and I ask him why he was doing such a thing. He told me that he enjoyed the fact that he had the power to do it.

      I share with you the notion that for the God of the Bible, presented to us by humans with a need to justify their rather bloody history, it appears he gets some sort of strange pleasure out of ranting and raving at his creatures and then, when they don’t respond properly, killing them.

      Duane

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      • Duane,

        On that point, I recalled a comment I make back in Jan. 2013, to one of your posts. Seems pertinent here: “Comedian Julia Sweeney (late of SNL) once pondered: ‘If God created us as imperfect beings, then why does he punish us for being imperfect?'”

        Herb

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        • Oddly, that is exactly what I used to ask myself whenever I read about all the judgments God made in the Bible. It is a very powerful argument that I have since used many times while arguing with evangelicals these days. The Apostle Paul’s weak response in Romans never ever satisfied me, even as a believer. There was a circularity to it that I could accept:

          What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? God forbid. For he saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion…Thou wilt say then unto me, Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will? Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour?

          In other words, “Shut up and don’t ask such questions because God is God and he can do whatever he wants!” Hardly an argument, even though it has shut up many people for a couple thousand years.

          Duane

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          • Duane,

            Funny you should mention Paul. I came across a book the other day called, “Christ’s Ventriloquists: The Event that Created Christianity,” by Eric Zuesse in 2012. Zuesse uses forensic techniques to show how it was actually St. Paul who created Christianity in Turkey around 49 or 50 CE, and how Paul’s beliefs about Jesus were imbedded in the Gospels. Mark, Matthew, Luke and John thereby became Paul’s “Ventriloquists.” James and Peter were cut out of the deal; not to mention Jesus himself!

            I should point out that some doctors believe Paul may have suffered from lateral lobe epilepsy. This form of epilepsy can cause hallucinations and other mind-altering visions that the sufferer may think is real. Consider ACTS 9, where Saul gets converted and becomes Paul.

            Anyway, this book looks like a good read for those interested in such stuff. I found it at,

            http://www.amazon.com/Christs-Ventriloquists-Event-Created-Christianity/dp/0615573010/ref=pd_rhf_pe_p_d_2

            Herb

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            • Interesting. “Christ’s Ventriloquists” appears consistent with what’s known of the chronology of the NT. It’s a rational explanation. Not only that, but it makes me think that the “butterfly effect” applies not just to weather but to theology too. Human’s have a need to find meaning in life just as cloud moisture needs ions around which to coalesce. If Paul and Mohammad hadn’t come along, others would have.

              Enjoyed your column in the Globe this morning, Herb. I can’t blame you for being fatalistic about the weather. Mark Twain, of course, got there long before us. 🙂

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            • Interesting topic. One of my favorites in this vein is Stephen Mitchell’s “The Gospel According to Jesus” — in the spirit of the Jefferson Bible. Opinionated? Yes, indeed, but certainly peels away those disappointing Pauline influences.

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            • Herb,

              Many, many years ago I undertook an investigation of my own into the origins of the documents that make up the New Testament (and thus represent the founding documents of Christianity). I came away from that investigation unconvinced by nearly almost all sides of the story, from true believers who believe that they knew for sure that, say, “Luke” wrote the Gospel bearing his name and the Acts, to skeptics who believe most of the New Testament was written much later than the conservatives suggest and by mostly unknown authors.

              While I haven’t read the book you reference (I find it an interesting theory), I am skeptical of anyone who claims that “modern legal/forensic” methods make it “possible to penetrate deeper,” to “reach the writer’s intent,” and “to identify when this intent is to deceive instead of to inform.” That sounds much too like F. Lee Bailey’s nearly religious faith in the lie detector for my tastes. The writer’s intent will always, I suspect, only be known to him and will ultimately be found imperfectly understood in the mind of the reader.

              Duane

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  2. Thanks, Duane. I’m sure I read some version of your essay in the Broadman Press’s Jr. High Sunday School quarterly half a century ago. Woops. Maybe not. But I wish I had. I remember taking issue with the some of my more biblically skeptical pals growing up. They were more encouraged to question than was I. I wasted a lot of time by NOT trying to sort through the myriad contradictions. And so, here we are today: watching our society drown in injustice and stupidity and greed while the sheep (most religion is impossible without lots and lots of obedient sheep) are led to exploitation and, finally, slaughter by the lords and high priests and legitimate rapists and corrupt judges too many lazily choose to follow. I fear you are preaching to the choir, but I mightily appreciate your good work.

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    • Thanks, my friend.

      I know what you mean by sheep. It is frustrating, believe me, to argue with folks who blindly buy into such self-refuting, immoral, and scientifically untenable things. But not all of the people who believe in those things are blind sheep. There have been some very smart people who believe such ridiculous things, some of them even writing articles and books defending them with the most technical logical arguments you have ever come across (Dr. William Lane Craig, Christian philosopher, for instance). That shows, though, that even the best minds can be co-opted by a desire for immortality and meaning and whatever else it is that this life fails to provide.
      I was lucky in that no matter how far into evangelical Christianity I went, I never abandoned the things I learned from science. I never believed, for instance, that there was a world-wide flood or that Noah put all the animals on a damn boat and floated around for a year. I had more nuanced interpretations of Genesis 6 than that. But I did take great pains, for a long, long time, to avoid criticizing the underlying morality of the whole flood story in the Bible. I, like so many others, just could not admit that the story said such awful things about the God I worshiped. It took a long time to get to the point where I could honestly and openly face things like that. And that is why I write so much about this stuff, because I came by it through some difficult intellectual wrestling matches.

      Thanks again for the kind words.

      Duane

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  3. troy graham

     /  April 3, 2014

    Right on my brotha!

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

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  4. Duane,

    Good wake up call to the Christian bible literalists, which will, of course, put them right back to sleep. I just have a few comments to underscore your well-crafted presentation – for whatever they are worth.

    Several years ago, I started a discussion group on Amazon.com called “A Retired Christian’s Conditions for the Existence of God.” Soon thereafter, I found myself engaged with a true, young-earth-creationist, evangelical fundamentalist. And naturally at one point the subject of the “Great Flood” came up – he believing every word of the Genesis story, me, not so much.

    I countered my born-again nemesis by quoting from an article by Robert A. Moore, “The Impossible Voyage of Noah’s Ark,” which appeared in the Winter, 1983, issue of the Creation Evolution Journal. He explains the absurdity much better than I ever could, writing:

    “It has by now become abundantly clear that the case for the ark utterly and completely fails. Despite the clever ingenuity of its proponents, nothing, from the trickiest problems to the tiniest details, can be salvaged without an unending resort to the supernatural. This includes so many pointless prodigies, so many inane interventions for no reason other than to save a literalistic Bible, that religion itself is cheapened in the process, not to mention the total abandonment of any semblance of science. No doubt in days to come some erstwhile archaeologists will concoct “solutions” to some of the difficulties we have raised, but no intellectually honest person can any longer pretend that the legend of Noah can possibly represent a historical occurrence.

    “It is also quite obvious that the creationists are not engaged in any meaningful search for the truth concerning origins. They are committed in advance to a particular creed, and the facts exist only to be explained away. Apparently they are not even sincerely curious about prehistory, since they maintain that Genesis contains all the information on this subject that we need to know. As Henry Morris writes, ‘If we are to know anything about the creation-when it was, what methods were used, what order of events occurred, or anything else-we must depend completely on divine revelation.’

    “In fact, the real raison d’etre for the entire creationist movement has nothing to do with science at all; it is evangelism pure and simple. [Robert E.] Kofahl (a Christian fundamentalist writer) candidly confesses that ‘supposedly scientific theories such as evolution which contradict the Bible can cause some people to doubt the Bible and thus hinder them from coming in humble faith to Jesus Christ for salvation.’ In the specific instance of Noah’s ark, its ‘confirmed discovery . . . would open the door for witnessing to many people who may before have been indifferent’ and ‘our attention should then be focused on . . . our present day Ark of Salvation, Jesus Christ.’ Before our eyes, creationism – complete with seminars, debates, institutes, “technical” journals, and major campaigns to sabotage public education and scientific autonomy – dissolves into nothing more than a scheme to proselytize conversion to fundamentalism.”

    I just leave you with one last thought – from the irascible H. L. Mencken: “One of the most irrational of all the conventions of modern society is the one to the effect that religious opinions should be respected. …[This] convention protects them, and so they proceed with their blather unwhipped and almost unmolested, to the great damage of common sense and common decency. That they should have this immunity is an outrage. There is nothing in religious ideas, as a class, to lift them above other ideas. On the contrary, they are always dubious and often quite silly. Nor is there any visible intellectual dignity in theologians. Few of them know anything that is worth knowing, and not many of them are even honest.”

    Herb

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    • Yessir, spot on, as always. I think Mencken’s list would be more cerebral than mine, but to keep the discussion rolling, here are a few memorable theological scalawags: Pat Robertson, Jim and Tammy Baker, Oral Roberts, Ralph Reed, the Jerry’s Falwell (Jr. and Sr.), Elmer Gantry (fictional, but hey…), Franklin Graham, Joseph Smith, more Popes and Archbishops than we have room for, Paige Patterson and, of course, Mike Huckabee. I’m sure I’ve made some glaring omissions, but these are/were purveyors of petty piety to avoid at all costs.

      Like

      • I’m glad you included Paige Patterson because I almost forgot about him. He’s probably more responsible for the purging of sensible “moderates” from the evangelical church (in his case the Southern Baptists) than anyone else in history. Their conservative seminaries are now mostly just affirmation camps.

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    • Herb,

      Thanks for the Moore quote. 

      You know, even as a committed evangelical Christian I never believed in the literal flood story. I read lots and lots of creatively interesting material on the possible (rational) explanations for the account because as a believer I always tried very hard to harmonize my fondness for science with my fondness for scripture. It eventually came down to Moore’s “intellectually honest person” test. Even the most rational explanations for things like the flood story in the Bible would not come close to satisfying that test, at least for me.

      Moore makes an important point about the a priori nature of religious truth and it being different from other forms of explaining reality. That’s what makes the enterprise of so-called Christian philosophy so problematic. Philosophers are committed, or are at least supposed to be committed, to the idea that all things are in doubt until evidence-based argumentation can support them. Christian philosophers, though, are first committed to defending Christianity. For many or most of them, they start with Christianity and figure out clever ways to justify their beliefs. I doubt if too many of them began with pure philosophy and ended with Jesus.

      Finally, Mencken was right about the misplaced respectability for “religious opinions.” Many left-wingers are even extending such respectability to Pope Francis, simply because he has offered some astute criticisms of capitalism. While I am happy to promote what Francis has said about the poor and about the problems with capitalism (I hope he says more when he comes to the United States), I am careful not to place him where he doesn’t belong. He still represents one of the most reactionary institutions in the world, when it comes to reproductive rights for women and civil rights for gay folks, that reaction based at least partly on a strict-constructionist view of the Bible.

      Duane

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  5. For what it’s worth, there is a good Wikipedia page on numerous possible sources for the Flood Myth in the various cultures. For convenience, here are some salient paragraphs:

    Geologist Ward Sanford has proposed that the filling of the Persian Gulf after the last ice age could have been a catastrophic event giving rise to the flood stories. He proposes a silt dam near the Hormuz Strait which temporarily held back the rising sea levels. “If a breach in the dam was flowing at, say, 100 times the flow of the present-day Tigris and Euphrates, it would have taken several months for the Persian Gulf to fill – the exact sort of timing referred to by the flood account.”

    Speculation regarding the Deucalion myth has also been introduced, whereby a large tsunami in the Mediterranean Sea, caused by the Thera eruption (with an approximate geological date of 1630–1600 BC), is the myth’s historical basis. Although the tsunami hit the South Aegean Sea and Crete it did not affect cities in the mainland of Greece, such as Mycenae, Athens, and Thebes, which continued to prosper, indicating that it had a local rather than a regionwide effect.

    Another hypothesis is that a meteor or comet crashed into the Indian Ocean around 3000–2800 BC, created the 30-kilometre (19 mi) undersea Burckle Crater, and generated a giant tsunami that flooded coastal lands.

    It has been postulated that the deluge myth in North America may be based on a sudden rise in sea levels caused by the rapid draining of prehistoric Lake Agassiz at the end of the last Ice Age, about 8,400 years ago.

    One of the latest, and quite controversial, hypotheses of long term flooding is the Black Sea deluge hypothesis, which argues for a catastrophic deluge about 5600 BC from the Mediterranean Sea into the Black Sea. This has been the subject of considerable discussion.

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    • Jim,

      Thanks for the excerpt on the possible sources for the flood myth, which undoubtedly has some ancient secret buried in it.

      I was very lucky when I was an evangelical Christian. I had an understanding of science and the scientific method, thus I never believed in the literal interpretation of the flood story. I sought out opinions that tried to harmonize science with scripture, including my first book on the subject written by the great old evangelical Christian, Bernard Ramm. I was a very young Christian (I think I was 22 or 23) when I encountered Ramm’s book (which I still have) called, “The Christian View of Science and Scripture.” I spent countless hours reading that book and thinking about these things. The book, first published way back in 1954, features a very long chapter on geology and goes into a lot of different explanations for events in the Bible in the light of what geologists actually know to be true. It was my first introduction to the idea that you could be a Christian and still not be an anti-science nut!

      Duane

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  6. I believe the Bible contains a lot of truth.

    But I don’t take all the stories literally.

    If you do, and you believe a GLOBAL food happened, here my question: where did the water go after the flood?

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    • Bruce,

      I asked that same question of a young-earth fundy a few years ago. The answer I got was very clever and I gave the guy an A+ for creativity.

      Before and during the flood, he said, the earth was relatively flat (but still spherical). So after the flood, God just crated the mountain ranges and hills and valleys, thereby creating our oceans and lakes and so forth. Same amount of water, just sitting on a different topography. Clever, no?

      Like

      • @ Herb,

        But, Herb, the question then becomes, “Where did the extra water come from?” Wait. I know, it was locked up in ice and God melted it with some global warming. Probably borrowed it from down below.

        Like

      • Herb,

        That “clever” response is, I believe, based on Psalms 104, which says in part:

        5 Who laid the foundations of the earth, that it should not be removed for ever.

        6 Thou coveredst it with the deep as with a garment: the waters stood above the mountains.

        7 At thy rebuke they fled; at the voice of thy thunder they hasted away.

        8 They go up by the mountains; they go down by the valleys unto the place which thou hast founded for them.

        9 Thou hast set a bound that they may not pass over; that they turn not again to cover the earth.

        That “bound” or boundary is the idea that God created the mountains and so on after the thing was over and in order to put the water in its proper place. The amount of water, as you point out, was the same before and after. The problem is that if you read the Psalm, you can see that it doesn’t really say that, except if you want it to say that (like so many other things in the Bible!).

        Duane

        Like

    • @ Bruce,

      Like the bible, the works of Shakespeare contain a lot of truth too. But Shakespeare is more consistent by far.

      Like

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