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.

Reading Has Its Benefits

The following is actually a prelude to something else I’m cogitating over.

In one of his Jeeves & Wooster novels (actually, if I remember aright, more than one) PG Wodehouse has Bertie say that Aunt Agatha “came down like the wolf on the fold.”  Now, that’s a clever enough turn of phrase that the reader who doesn’t know where it’s from will possibly chuckle anyway.  Said reader may even figure that it’s from a poem.

But the reader who knows Byron knows that it’s from “The Destruction of Sennacherib”, thus:

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.

Like the leaves of the forest when Summer is green,
That host with their banners at sunset were seen:
Like the leaves of the forest when Autumn hath blown,
That host on the morrow lay wither’d and strown.

For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast,
And breathed in the face of the foe as he pass’d;
And the eyes of the sleepers wax’d deadly and chill,
And their hearts but once heaved, and for ever grew still!

And there lay the steed with his nostril all wide,
But through it there roll’d not the breath of his pride:
and the foam of his gasping lay white on the turf,
And cold as the spray of the rock-beating surf.

And there lay the rider distorted and pale,
With the dew on his brow and the rust on his mail;
And the tents were all silent, the banners alone,
The lances unlifted, the trumpet unblown.

And the widows of Ashur are loud in the wail,
And the idols are broke in the temple of Baal;
And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword,
Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord!

This is a vivid poem, called forth by Wodehouse to do service in the army of humour.  Wodehouse’s allusion, of course, is merely to make the point about Aunt Agatha being like a wolf.  She is not to be considered the Assyrian army of which 185 000 will lie dead by the end of the poem.

Wait!  185 000, you say?  Well, Lord Byron tells me not of this.

And thus we go a further step back in our journey into intertextuality, allusion, and the benefits of reading a lot.

The Assyrian of the first line of the poem is Sennacherib.  If you grab my book The Cradle of Civilization, you will doubtless learn a lot about this Assyrian emperor.  However, Byron doesn’t get the material for his poem from cuneiform tablets in the ancient libraries of Mesopotamia.  His text is an entirely different one from the ancient Near East:

The Bible.

The entire saga of Sennacherib’s assault on Judah during the reign of Hezekiah can be found in 2 Kings 18:13-19:37 and Isaiah 36 and 37.  If you don’t feel up to reading 3 or 4 chapters of the Bible, the relevant portions are 2 Kings 19:35 (or all of chapter 19) and Isaiah 37:36-37 (or all of chapter 37).

Thematically, the passages and the poem are very much the same.  The might of Yahweh, God of Judah, destroying the might of Sennacherib, King of Assyria, in one fell swoop.  However, the might of Yahweh in the Biblical passages is demonstrated chiefly through prophetic discussions of who God is and what He shall do.  In Byron, it is found in the descriptions of the dead, who get only a verse in the Bible.

But if you didn’t know the Bible, Byron’s poem would hold less meaning.  And if you didn’t know Byron, PG Wodehouse’s allusion would be less amusing.  And if you don’t know PG Wodehouse, God help you.