Faith Once Delivered: Jesse Ancona's Articles: The Bible, A Great Book to Read
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There are More than Religious Reasons to Read the Bible

      I have loved the Bible all my life, and still love it as a book. Even the times I rejected Christianity, even when I was a Wiccan, even when I was an atheist, I still loved the Bible as a book, and read it more than many religious people. It was only a very corrupt church than managed to spoil the Bible for me, and make me afraid to read it, because of all the horrible memories attached to it, but I thank God he has healed me from that terrible wound.

      Frankly, I always found the Bible easier to read when I wasn’t a believer than when I was…go figure. It is actually a very entertaining and excellent library of books. My favorite authors? Solomon, Paul, Isaiah, and John. My favorite books? Genesis, Ecclesiastes, The Song of Solomon, Daniel, Luke, Romans, Philemon, and the Revelation. Theologically, I am aware, this is a weird mix.

      I read the other authors and books, and learn from them, knowing the Author Who is behind them all, but yes, I have favorites. I wonder how many believers honestly even like the Bible, just as a good read? Can they be entertained and moved by it?

      Who can forget the Classical Tragedy of David’s cry, "Absolom! Absolom! My son, my son!" Who ever wrote such beautiful erotica as the Song of Solomon? What Existentialist ever nailed it down so well as "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity"? What sci-fi writer wrote anything weirder than the prophets did?

      The French Revolution was a mere shadow of Judges. In France, "Who was king? Who was not king?" was the saying; in Judges, the damning sentence, "there was no king in Israel, and each man did that which was right in his own eyes." Oh, man, and that poor gang-raped and dismembered concubine! Even Edgar Allan Poe never seared my brain with such a horrible image! Even Jeffrey Daumer didn’t mail parts of his victims around the country!

      No, the Bible is life, uglier, more terrible, sweeter, and more sublime, than the narrow little band of ordinariness we imagine, and I give credit for my noticing that fact to a schoolteacher of mine who, after saying he "used to be a Christian," (a concept that fried my brain at the time), went on to chronicle most people’s view of reality, which was a narrow band around the midpoint between good and evil. Then he said the Christian viewpoint was able to imagine much greater good and much greater evil, and he drew a scale from one end to the other. I have found his explanation to remain essentially true.

      The Bible just reads like a true story. As someone who has read a lot of fiction, and a lot of true stories, there is a difference. True stories have weird things in them that authors would never dream up, and they are generally less believable, because authors are normally careful not to include anything too extreme or too hard to believe, but life doesn’t have any such constraints. Truth is stranger than fiction, and the Bible just reads like true stories. It reads more like true crime than a mystery, more like the newspaper than a short story, more like someone’s diary of struggle than like a prettified little testimony for the ladies’ church monthly. And the main characters, the heroes, say and do things that no fictional account would have them do, because those things make them look bad. Many biblical accounts wouldn’t get past a modern PR man!

      Now, of course, this in itself doesn’t prove anything, but my point is far more modest than apologetics: I’m not trying to prove the Bible is true, or that you should believe it. I’m simply saying it is the best book in the language, and one that not only shouldn’t be neglected, but one that is fascinating to read.

      Even with all the inroads secular humanism has made into our thinking, the Bible still gives a needed context to our culture. I found Shakespeare easier to understand than most, because I understood the Biblical context. No one else could explain why Hamlet was so unsure of listening to his father’s ghost, but of course, I knew that there were lying spirits. It even helped me, somewhat, with art history, though I got the prophet wrong whose lips were cleansed with a hot coal: I said the biblical Habakkuk, but it was a different prophet, according to "The Golden Legend," the true bible of Catholic painters from the Middle Ages on down. Still, much of the iconography, where it related to actual Biblical stories, and Biblical scenes, were much easier. People who thought Van Meergeren’s fantasy of an early Vermeer was a "Last Supper" with too many people missing, I knew instantly as a "Christ at Emmaus."

      Again, this proves nothing of truth or falsity, but there is a slander about that Bible believers are ignorant bumpkins, and the fact is, as Paul Bunyan said, "The Bible is an education in itself." And it is. Knowing the Bible is a short cut to an inside familiarity with many aspects of western culture that Biblical illiterates have to sweat to learn the hard way, and still, they never "get it."

      One of the most valuable things I got from my early reading of the Bible (I loved it as a book of antiquity, and very early on learned it wasn’t a particularly "religious" book, which is a good thing to keep in mind) was an inoculation against "the tyranny of the present." When you are steeped in the Bible, if nothing else, you have learned to think within a framework outside that of our modern day and its assumptions, and that is tantamount to a fish learning it is wet. This is the kind of perspective many people never learn.

      It is a pity that many Bible believers then become alien to their own modern culture, so cannot communicate simply with ordinary people outside their own circle. Ideally, knowledge of the Bible should lead to a broadening of the ability to understand different points of view. We know the Bible does not condone false gods or mixtures of true and false practices (known by the fancy name of syncretism), but it doesn’t hurt to understand another point of view. If nothing else, knowing more about other religions and philosophies can help one to understand one’s own, and be a good preventive against heresy…not to mention being a valuable tool to "being all things to all men," that is, being able to speak with people from their own frame of reference, so you don’t sound like someone from another planet.

      The Bible, particularly the King James Bible, is also good for honing one’s writing skills. All good English teachers know that you learn to write by speaking and reading. The better things you read, the better you write. The Bible is like Shakespeare in being good for one’s style, but the Bible is, in my estimation, far superior. Shakespeare has a very large vocabulary, and to express himself, he actually created a number of new words, so Shakespeare is quite hard to read. What he has in common with the King James Version, though, besides the time of writing (or translation), is his use of the active voice, and vigorous phrasing. From both Shakespeare and the Bible, one learns to write with Subjects and Verbs doing interesting things, unlike much modern writing, where abstract nouns float around in a passive sea of being or seeming, or awaiting some ill-defined event or action.

      But the Bible does this with a very meagre vocabulary. This may seem a detriment, but it not only makes it easy to read and understand, but acts as a verbal discipline, not only towards simplicity, but also towards poetic figures of speech. There are essentially two ways to express a complex thought: using a live metaphor or a dead one. With a small vocabulary, things are compared with each other vividly. With a large one, big words are used, and these words are the empty shell of something that used to be a metaphor, but is no longer so clearly understood (I owe C. S. Lewis for pointing this out in one of his articles).

      It is for this reason that Spencer is reported to have said, "A thorough knowledge of the Bible will keep a poet from barbarity in point of style," though the quote may be apocryphal. Whether it is or not, it is true.

      This is my main objection to modern translations. I have nothing against them as vehicles for literal understanding, but none of them rises above mere translation like the KJV – this version, on the other hand, reaches the point of being, in itself, the best example of English literature ever seen! What an amazing feat for a translation, and more so, when you realize that this translation is better written than the original words of the men who translated it.

      So, of course, read modern translations for new insights and understanding, and by all means, a very good translation is the Jewish Publication Society’s Tenach, for the Old Testament, even though they may have been unduly impressed with a few variant texts, it is still fresher than the English Bibles that have followed the same translation tradition that came down from Wycliffe and Tyndale: a good tradition, but leading to similar results.

      And if you want to be an artist in any form, visual or verbal, the Bible is one big set of crib notes. One day, I would like to compile a list of plays, poems, and novels whose titles are Biblical quotations: one obscure one is a relatively modern play, "The Words of My Roaring," which I’m sure most of the audience never guessed had a Biblical origin.

      At this point in our history, many things are based on Biblical themes without our being aware of it. Almost the entire Science Fiction genre is based on imagery and concepts from the prophets, and, if you include Utopias and Dystopias, from Genesis and Revelation, as well. One sci-fi Lit class at our local university includes the Bible as required reading, just because of the many ways this entire branch of literature has grown from Biblical roots.

      I know many Bible believers who dislike Science Fiction, because they recognize the strange twists that the authors put on ethics, morals, or Biblical-seeming events: I understand their feelings – sci-fi writing often seems like a travesty of the Bible. On the other hand, as one recent commentator said, people don’t read their Bibles anymore, and Star Trek is their new mythology.

      I wouldn’t go this far, but I would say that modern media, from Noir films, to old and new TV shows, to movies, to – yes – Star Trek, and Star Wars, and so on, are the myths, legends and stories modern people relate to. But many of these stories do have Biblical roots, and pointing this out in a constructive way can be the beginning of a dialogue, a common ground.

      But whether you believe it or not, a thorough knowledge of the Bible can only help a person to understand western culture, and can protect them from manipulations that claim to be based on accepted religion. So many things people try to sucker you into are claimed to be Biblical: it helps to know well enough what the Bible says to be protected from such hucksters.

      But when all is said and done, no matter where you open it up, there is something of interest in the Bible. Even the genealogies come alive if you diagram them, and the "taches of the tabernacle" yield up some insights if you stick with them, as do the laws of leprosy. Most passages are way more immediate than this, and feel incredibly modern.

      If you like books, love to read, or are interested in people, and how they behave, and what drives them, the Bible is full of stories of a wide variety of characters – much more evil than one normally sees, and much more virtuous than is the norm, as well – which puts our view of "normal people" into a more balanced context than we are used to: this is another way we escape "the tyranny of the present."

      And also, if you are interested in history at all, a knowledge of the Bible will inform you about the mindsets of various people through time, as touching on the people and the religion of the span of the Bible, which is quite a large one.

      Not to mention the information about health laws (various, particularly Leviticus), bodymind connections and good practical advice (often in Proverbs), and the basis for a legal system far superior to the one touted by the secular world, the Law of Hammurabi, where property was still more important than human life, and there were many inequities, but at least the importance of the person was beginning to be recognized, though to nowhere the extent as in the Bible. The Bible is interested in ecology (not cutting down trees in war, not taking a bird with the eggs in a nest, the condemnation on those who "destroy the earth" in Revelation), modern greedy real-estate developers ("who divide the land until there is not any place), and even genetic engineering, in principle (not mixing different fabrics), modern astronomy (Psalms, the earth is a jewel hanging on nothing).

      To understand how Biblical principles can be used as a practical form of criminal and especially civil law, Jewish sources are the best, since Jewish scholars have taken this aspect of the Bible seriously for millennia.

      What is left? Almost every subject of interest – particularly human stories – is contained in the Bible, and the approach is invariably ahead of its time, and often ahead of our time. Victims’ groups are still fighting for recompense from criminals who have harmed them, and if this is ever codified, it will be absolutely modern, but fully anticipated in the Bible, of course. The modern movement towards mediation is similar to how judges dealt with complainants in Biblical times.

      Far from being a book of "merely" antiquarian interest (not that there’s anything "mere" about antiquarian interest!), the Bible is a fascinating look at a wide range of human situations in various places and times, given with enough insight that we can recognize the people as being like ourselves, unlike many historical and archaeological studies of historical and pre-historical times, which seem to postulate beings unlike any humans we are familiar with.

      So, when you get tired of that mystery or that romance or thriller, give yourself a break. Pick up a really great book, and give it a read.

©2001, Jesse Ancona. All rights reserved. For permission to copy or use any material on this page, please email Jesse Ancona at No permission is required for fair use, which includes short quotations in other work with citation. For information on citation of Internet sources using the Harvard System, see Library - BRIDGES: Harvard System - Electronic Material.

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