A different way to read the Bible
In the third century, Callimachus was tasked with the classification of all texts housed in the Library of Alexandria. This meant not only allocating these texts to the pinakes (tables) assigned to each grouping, it also required the creation of these categories – Herodotus only fell under the heading of “history” once the genre had been conceived and separated from, for instance, “law”. Callimachus managed this task with the concision of a minimalist poet, creating perhaps as few as six genres to describe every great work housed in the library. This economy might be a gift for sensing the essential or a failure of imagination; a bookseller in a Hay-on-Wye store I once visited had anticipated bibliophiles seeking “Non-fiction: early twentieth-century: east Berlin – limericks”. The fact that our universe can only continue to make sense if this was the result of a dare or prank does not diminish my point that a Borgesian classification system of near infinity is conceivable.
Besides acting as a compass through bookstores, however, the usefulness of genre is questionable. Books are at least as large as Walt Whitman – they “contain multitudes”. Or to borrow from the anonymous author of John’s gospel, “the world itself could not contain the books that should be written”. Infinite potential books each with infinite potential. The greatest books contain these multitudinous multitudes, some of their layers only discovered with changes in culture, adapting to radically new needs and interpretations. The cautionary tale of hubris and scientific folly in Frankenstein takes on fresh life and new urgency after the invention of nuclear weapons; Dracula was not the same after Freudian analysis entered literary criticism; the outrage of a straight, black man writing a gay, white man (Baldwin with Giovanni’s Room) becomes something more nuanced in today’s conversations about cultural appropriation. “A classic,” Calvino tells us, “is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.”
So what does it say of a culture that reduces literature to unary interpretations? What is lost when we strip a text of its pluralism to leave only one reading, like Jefferson’s Bible, stripped of the miraculous and supernatural, reduced from a dense book to a limp document? As it has now come up twice, let’s look at these questions with reference to the Bible.
“My Father’s house has many rooms ...”
Many intuitively feel they know what is meant by “the Bible”: It’s the book that starts with the stuff atheists like to criticise and ends with the stuff apocalyptic Evangelicals love to proselytise. From outside the contextual confines of any particular religious sect, however, there is no definitive Bible. The Hebrew Bible or Tanakh contains (with a different internal structure) the 24 books that make up what Christians call the Old Testament. After the new religious order appropriated the Jewish scriptures and added the New Testament, it fractured, giving us a variety of collections of books, each deemed sacred and canonical. The Protestant canon contains 66 books, the Catholic Bible insists on 73, and the Eastern Orthodox Bible lands on 78 books for inclusion.
Before we have even cracked the spine of “The Book of Books”, we are confronted with a diversity sometimes polyphonic, often cacophonic, and always resistant to “strait and narrow” interpretation. But as the clash of cultures around faith continues, the fight marginalises this variety to amplify the collective voices for and against a single, literalist view of the Bible. To the extent that anyone I meet actually advocates for a fundamentalist faith (and especially when they hold social sway or political influence) I always think it worth sending a volley of my own refutations against such nonsense. That is not a dispute worth ignoring simply because it can become tedious. But one method often overlooked for undermining this reductivism is to refuse its central premise that there is only one book worth reading and one way to read it. To this end, it is worth understanding where Biblical literalism – or “uncritical reading”, as it might be thought of – came from.
The cultural moment in which we find ourselves – besieged by creationists telling us their book is scientific and “new atheists” criticising the book for not being scientific enough – is the result of an intersection between three historical elements. First, the Gutenberg printing press gave us the book, an object of intrinsic worth. This was followed by Martin Luther’s (widely printed and distributed) insistence on sola Scriptura (rephrased by the fanatic William Chillingworth as, “The BIBLE, I say, the BIBLE only, is the religion of Protestants!”). The Protestant Reformation channelled zeal for books into devotion to one specific book. Today, the encroaching threat of religious radicalism combined with the twentieth-century invention of young-earth creationism (the reductio ad absurdum of Biblical literalism) has inspired a movement of socially and politically active atheists. This group of “new atheists” engages in a pitched battle in courtrooms and popular media to fight for control of classroom territory. We are told that the Bible is the only book that matters or that it doesn’t matter at all – take it to heart or take it for toilet paper. In this way, polyphony within the Bible has been reduced to a dissonant duet around it.
“There are, it may be, so many kinds of voices in the world, and none of them is without signification.”
In his introduction to The Good Book: Writers Reflect on Favourite Bible Passages, Adam Gopnik writes:
“The Bible remains an essential part of the education of what used to be called the well-furnished mind. ... Most of what we value in our art and architecture, our music and poetry ... is entangled with these old books and ancient texts.”
This principle extends beyond Biblical allusions in Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! or Steinbeck’s East of Eden. The Christian scriptures led early scientists to expect the laws of nature to be “the same yesterday, and today, and forever”; it also informed authoritarian family structures with men at the head of the table and women – in the same language used to legally segregate races – “separate but equal”. We hear the Bible resonating in the rhetoric of the great Martin Luther King, who used the Bible selectively. Anyone not wishing to diminish the grandeur of King’s appeal to the “mountaintop” and “promised land” from the book of Exodus are advised not to turn a few pages to Exodus chapter 21; these sections on God-endorsed slavery (only Jewish males are permitted to go free in the seventh year – women and the “heathen” slaves see no such leniency) have seen much citation from those with the whip in hand, with recourse also to Genesis, Leviticus, and Ephesians. “Let my people go” must be balanced against “slaves, obey your masters” in the same way “an eye for an eye” must contend with “turn the other cheek”. While some of these are sources of genuine conflict, others work dialectically to create syntheses of new ideas.
So it is undeniable that much of our history is better understood in the light of an acquaintance with the Christian scriptures. This itself is a compelling reason to glance at the CliffsNotes for the major themes and stories in the Bible, but it can relegate those stories to a safe distance in the past, keeping them frozen in historical moments rather than “born again” for today. Does the Bible matter today beyond describing how we got here? I think so, and quote Gopnik again to explain why:
“To say that the Bible’s stories are good stories is to say that they are sustaining stories: tales we tell ourselves in order to live.”
Richard Holloway hones in on the way these stories help us to live. In his masterclass in exegetical reading and brevity, How to Read the Bible, Holloway discusses taking the view that we “breathed life” into God to fashion an explanation for existence. On this view, he writes, “God is the way we talk about the mysteries of our own nature, so our interrogation of the Bible is a form of self-analysis.” By way of example, let’s take a look at two different readings (not the only readings, certainly) that can be made of the story of The Fall.
“When you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like gods, knowing good and evil.”
Genesis tells us that Adam and Eve, honeymooners in the paradise-on-Earth of Eden, are permitted to “eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden” except for the tree of knowledge, which will teach them good and evil. A serpent (commonly thought of as Satan, though the text never says this) tells Eve (this is a garden of talking snakes and vegetarian lions) that God lied when he said they would die if they ate this fruit. Eve eats and sees the world as it is for the first time; Adam is quick to taste this wisdom for himself. For their disobedience, the couple are forced to leave the garden, which is forever lost.
This is a story of the way totalitarianism relies on an arbitrary nature underlying the mandates of the dictator. This is not the most obvious takeaway of a story set in paradise, but this setting too is descriptive of the essence of authoritarian states – each must make some claim to perfection in its leadership and constitution. If the land and its laws are perfect, to transgress them is to admit only your own flaws. Eden fell apart not because its creator built into its centre an enticing self-destruct button, the collapse of the centre and unleashing of mere anarchy was caused by the little man not following orders.
And what of the inclusion of the tree itself? “The essence of tyranny is not iron law,” Christopher Hitchens wrote, “it is capricious law.” Tyranny needs to be trivial and unpredictable to maintain itself. Humans tend to resist constriction of freedom and often uncover loopholes. Make your rules subjective and their application random and logic will have no foothold, reason cannot break through. The fruit imparts knowledge of good and evil, meaning before they ate it, Adam and Eve could not have known it was good to obey God or evil to disobey. They were moral infants and it makes no more sense to hold them accountable for eating the fruit than it does to lock up a child for soiling itself. In our reading here of God as despot, he judges them simply because he can, an exercise of his freedom that narrows the freedom of his creatures, the prerogative of the tyrant.
This is also a story of the deep loss each of us carries within our beings, a sense of dissociation from the whole, the fracture at the core of our being. The expulsion of Adam and Eve is the severing of all people from the bliss and innocence of childhood, the separation of this couple from God a representation of the break between the self and the rest of the world. We learn early that in spite of all the connections we share with others, there is an ineffable loneliness inherent in each of our relationships. James Baldwin writes beautifully on this in Giovanni’s Room, describing how everyone has their own garden of Eden which they “have scarcely seen ... before they see the flaming sword”. In his view, though, this does not need to refer to childhood – it might be a lover, or a perfect summer spent with family, or some other defining period in one’s life.
After our eviction, we can either remember or forget, each bringing its own form of madness: Those who remember suffer “the pain of the perpetually recurring death of their innocence”, while those who forget suffer “the denial of pain and the hatred of innocence”. Heroes are those rare few who can do both, and the story of The Fall is a route towards that duality. It reminds us of what is always there, and yet it transforms that truth into fiction, a form of half-forgetting.
“I am made all things to all people ...”
Much of what I’ve written here is true of all great stories, from those in Homer’s works to Shakespeare’s plays to the creation myths of countless cultures. Why then, you might wonder, write at such length on the Bible if it is just like all those other stories? I single it out here because it is odd that it should be singled out by our society from this cultural stock. A common response to this is that no one attempts to legislate on the values espoused in Norse mythology or teach cosmology with Atlas at the centre and the sky on his shoulders. Well, all the more reason to reclaim the Bible as a set of mythologies, histories, and poems whose authority comes not from an extrinsic source (a god) but the intrinsic quality shared by all great literature, putting it on even footing with other texts.
The stories and insights in the Bible indicate who we are, where we have been, and where we might go, just as according to the Bible the stars are “for signs and for seasons, for days and for years”. The literary terrain opened up in the Bible by a curious, critical mindset is a “land of milk and honey” for those who seek paradox and nuance as catalysts for deep understanding. Just as it is always worth ignoring the sign labelling all the books on a shelf as a genre you rarely read, it is worth rejecting the reduction of the Bible to the new genres of “Strictly True” and “Strictly False”. We must find our own paths through the library.
Quotations and paraphrases:
• “the world itself could not contain the books that should be written”: John 21:25 (King James Version)
• “My Father’s house has many rooms ...”: John 14:2 (New International Version)
• “strait and narrow”: Matthew 7:13/14
• “There are, it may be, so many kinds of voices in the world, and none of them is without signification”: 1 Corinthians 14:10 (KJV)
• “the same yesterday, and today, and forever”: Hebrews 13:8 (NIV)
• “Let my people go”: Exodus 8:1 (NIV)
• “slaves, obey your masters”: Ephesians 6:5 (NIV)
• “an eye for an eye”: Exodus 21:23 (NIV)
• “turn the other cheek”: Matthew 5:38–39 (NIV)
• “When you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like gods, knowing good and evil”: Genesis 3:5
• “born again”: John 3:3 (NIV)
• “breathed life”: Genesis 2:7
• “eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden”: Genesis 3:2
• “I am made all things to all people ...”: 1 Corinthians 9:22 (NIV)
• “for signs and for seasons, for days and for years”: Genesis 1:14 (KJV)
• “land of milk and honey”: Exodus 3:8
• Italo Calvino, The Uses of Literature (1984)
• William Chillingworth, The Religion of Protestants: A Safe Way to Salvation (1637)
• Adam Gopnik, The Good Book: Writers Reflect on Favourite Bible Passages (2015)
• Richard Holloway, How to Read the Bible (2006)
• James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room (1956)