Why read the Bible? Unspiritual Reason #1: Books

From AD 381 to some point in the Renaissance or Enlightenment, the Western world was ostensibly Christian.  And as the pagans were converted, the only non-Christians left were Jews.  The Jewish holy book forms the bulk of the Christian holy book, and the Christian holy book was the foundational text for Western culture.  Knowing the Bible, then, means knowing your own culture better and being better equipped to understand the thought-patterns of those who come before you.  And their allusions.  And what exactly is going on in their art.  And, understanding your heritage and culture, you can begin to fulfil the Delphic Oracle’s command: ΓΝΩΘΙ ΣΑΥΤΟΝ· KNOW THYSELF.  We shall begin with literature.

The PG Wodehouse post demonstrates the first unspiritual reason to read the Bible: the biblically illiterate simply will not enjoy literature as much.  Byron’s “The Destruction of Sennacherib” means less to those who don’t know the Bible.  CS Lewis’ The Last Battle loses much meaning without the book of Revelation.  There is other literature directly inspired or based upon the Bible: Paradise Lost by John Milton, Ben-Hur by Lew Wallace, Many Waters by Madeleine L’Engle, The Red Tent by Anita Diamant, to name a few.  Knowing the Biblical story and how it unfolds adds a deeper layer of meaning as you read literature that plays off it.  The intensity of Many Waters was deep for me, as I knew how the story worked out in the Bible — so how would the twists of this plot dovetail with the Bible?  And I saw characters whom I knew from Genesis characterised and enfleshed by L’Engle.  My familiarity with Genesis increased my enjoyment of the novel.

Other literature is explicitly Christian, even if not directly inspired by the Bible, and an understanding of the Bible will help understand it.  This is the case with Helena by Evelyn Waugh, The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, and Godric by Frederick Buechner.  Some literature by Christians is not explicitly Christian; nonetheless, an understanding of the Bible still helps you understand the literature.  We see this in The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, and Father Brown stories by GK Chesterton (although these are at times quite explicitly Christian).

How do you expect to delve into the depths of the riches of John Donne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, George Herbert, Edmund Spenser, TS Eliot, Prudentius, et al., if you have not investigated the Book that is the foundation of their hearts, minds, souls — yea, their very lives!  Take “Prayer (I)” by Herbert (chosen at random from a selection of Herbert’s poems).  Ideas/allusions that, from my vantage point, clearly originate from Scripture: “Gods breath in man returning to his birth,” “Christ-side-piercing spear,” “The six-daies world-transposing in an houre,” “Exalted Manna”.  Four in three stanzas, and one could argue for a biblical theology surrounding the rest of the poem.  If you seek to woo a poet, get to know his or her holy book and worldview.

Not that this use of the Bible is restricted only to Christian writers.  The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, an atheist, displays a notable intimacy with the Bible, including controversy surrounding interpretations of some of Jesus’ sayings.  The very deaths that propel the plot are fixed around the book of Revelation as a core, and many biblical ideas flow in and out of the conversations had by the monks through the course of the book.  His novel Foucault’s Pendulum also shows a knowledge of the Bible.

Now I must sleep.  My message is: Cure your biblical illiteracy!  Read the Bible!  It can only do you good.

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6 thoughts on “Why read the Bible? Unspiritual Reason #1: Books

  1. I agree. I think the primary reason I had a much easier time with English classes (and other subjects within the arts spectrum) than many of my peers was that I grew up surrounded by Biblical, literary, and mythological allusions. It was therefore astonishingly simple to write an essay or do a presentation about a book, since all I had to do was collect the familiar references. Even when I was in school, though, this was not the standard practice, but while students may have been baffled or resentful, teachers were terribly impressed, which worked out nicely. I remember in my OAC year, I decided to compare “The Pilgrim’s Progress” with (then new) Timothy Findley’s “Pilgrim” – since no secondary sources had been written about the latter yet, I used the Bible as a point of reference between the two works. The only criticism my teacher had? That my final product was “too advanced” and perhaps I should simplify it. Hah! Stay in school, kids!

    Ego-stroking aside, I really do think familiarizing oneself with the cornerstones of the western canon is academically useful in most fields. History. Law. Anthropology. Literature. Music. Art. Theatre. I would put forward a strong case for the sciences, too – since if you want to know where your western science came from, you should know the philosophies and beliefs those scientists lived with. I do also get irritable, however, that western canon is not even being pushed out by a different cultural perspective – I think it’s high time, in fact, that the English literature classes (and history, law, music, etc etc) noticed that there’s a bit more available than strictly British-colonial culture, nowadays. Instead, it seems to be an attempt to escape cultural references altogether, and commit our brains to computer programming, office skills, and business degrees. And that is a sorry state of affairs.

  2. Indeed, the biblically literate person has an advantage over others when it comes to seeing connections and discussing books. I’m amused that you’re insights were “too advanced.” Sadly, I never had that problem in high school. I think my goals were too advanced, so I never achieved the heights I dreamed of.

    I agree also about the loss of the Western Canon. These posts on the Bible, along with the one about the Iliad (it will have friends soon, the Bible just crept up on me the other day and postponed the others) are part of hopefully engendering a love of classical reading (not just ancient Classics, though) in the few people who stumble on my blog. If we don’t put roots down somewhere, our rootless culture will wither and die.

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