Unspiritual Reason to Read the Bible #2: Everything Other Than Books

We have seen how reading the Bible, which is one of the foundational documents of western culture, helps you understand books here. It’s helpful for pretty much everything else as well, you know.

Films: The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, The Robe, Prince of Egypt, The Passion of the Christ, The Mission, Godspell, Into Great Silence, and others I can’t think of because I’m not a big enough film buff.  There are doubtless lots of movies that play on biblical ideas, stories, and morals.

Art: Michelangelo, Raphael, Byzantine & Russian Icons, Mediaeval manuscripts, Bernini, Jerome Bosch, El Greco, Rembrandt, et al.

Music: Haydn’s Creation, Handel’s Messiah, Bach’s St. John Passion, Christian rock, some stuff by Creed, some Scandinavian Power Metal from the ’80s, some stuff by Lifehouse, Strauss’ Salome, hymns, Christmas carols.

Morals & Ethics: Most of these, at least the traditional ones (not counting individuality) are based in the values upheld by the biblical narrative.  If you want to get to the heart of how our society operates, you must get to the heart of the Bible.  And once you’ve got the heart of the Bible, you see how short our society falls and has fallen from the ideals that helped guide it to where it is.

I believe that the Bible helps with the understanding of all of these things.  It will also help make sense of a lot of specifically Christian things, like the liturgy and why your neighbour may engage in certain practices.  Missing out on the Bible misses out on these things, though.  So it’s worth a read.

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.

irrelevant.

I’m thinking of changing the title of this blog to “irrelevant”, maybe even “irrelevant magazine” as a bit of a jibe at Relevant Magazine (“God, Life, and Progressive Culture — Classicists, stay out, you are not “progressive”, nor are you “relevant”!!).*  This thought was brought on by one of the most heart-seizing paragraphs I have read as I observe the cultural illiteracy of the world around me.  In the Afterword to her fantastic and beautiful novel Lavinia, Ursula K. LeGuin pens the following:

For a long time anybody in Europe and the Americas who had much education at all knew Aeneas’ story: his travels from Troy, his love affair with the African queen Dido, his visit to the underworld were shared, familiar references and story sources for poets, painters, opera composers.  From the Middle Ages on, the so-called dead language Latin was, through its literature, intensely alive, active, and influential.  That’s no longer true.  During the last century, the teaching and learning of Latin began to wither away into a scholarly specialty.  So, with the true death of his language, Vergil’s voice will be silenced at last.  This is an awful pity, because he is one of the great poets of the world. (p. 273)

This is a paragraph of soul-wrenching sorrow.  I am a Classicist, a lover of the Latin language, who fell for Publius Vergilius Maro at first sight.  That first sight was not Arma virumque cano of Aeneid I but Book II:

Conticuere omnes intentique ora tenebant
inde toro pater Aeneas sic orsus ab alto:

Infandum, regina, iubes renouare dolorem . . .

They all fell silent and held their mouths, intent.  Then father Aeneas thus rose from his high couch, “Queen, you command me to renew unspeakable sorrow . . .”

Book II recounts the fall of Troy, Trojan Horse and all (“I fear Greeks, even bearing gifts!”).  How appropriate that I would fall for a poet through this tragic destruction and choose to immerse myself in a field that has been called “elitist” by scholarship committees, a field that has been swept aside into the dusty corner of irrelevancy, a field that is the very foundation of the ground upon which we stand, a field that a mere century ago (!!) people were at least moderately acquainted with.

But my Troy has fallen to the oh-so-relevant modernists and postmodernists.  It is aflame as the gods of the age stand tall and proud over it, provoking the “elitist” comments and the comments of, “You know, if you were Chinese, classics would mean . . .”  Well I’m not Chinese!  So leave it alone!  I am a Scots-Canadian, and these are my Classics, overproud PC fool!

Google “Canadian coat of arms”.  What do you see in the top four quadrants?  England, Scotland, Ireland, France.  These are those who founded this nation.  We are a Western nation.  Our laws find their roots in the Forum Romanum (the Roman Forum, for all you non-elitist berks).  Our democratic ideals find their roots in the ἀγορὰ Ἀθηνῶν (OK, so Greek text is wankerish of me — that’s the Athenian Agora).  Our poetry, drama, art, stories, and so much more find their road, one way or another, back to the ancient poets, to Homer, Virgil, Hesiod, Ovid, Sophocles, Seneca, Euripides, Horace.  And I think it’s overstating the case, but I saw a book once that claimed that all of philosophy is a footnote to Plato.  And, though it be different today, the writing of history sprang forth from Herodotus, Livy, Thucydides, Tacitus.

All of this — beauty, wonder, grandeur, excellence, cleverness, the very foundations of what we think, what we say, what we do, what we write — has been swept aside to be the specialty of scholars in favour of “relevance”, in favour of . . .  I don’t even know why the Classics were cast rudely aside.  But they were.

And with that sounded the first death toll of Western culture.

Having abandoned our roots, we are rootless, drifting, dying.  A plant with no roots has no nutrients.  We shall wither and die.  We just don’t realise it yet, because we are revelling in our decadence.

*That’s a lot of punctuation.