I read the Bible.
The entire Bible. Cover to cover. At least, the Protestant version. There are other versions, other Gospels, many of them relegated to what we call apocrypha. I did it because I set a New Year’s resolution in December of 2014, and that resolution was to study the sacred texts of the world (or “sacred texts” — I am after all an atheist). I set that resolution because what we as human beings have is our history, and the oldest writings which preserve history and myth do a great deal to inform much later writing.
Whether we like it or not, whether we’re believers or not, whether we want a secular world or not, art and literature throughout the planet and certainly the tradition we’ve inherited from the Renaissance and medieval times are imprinted with symbols from the stories of the Bible. Not to put too fine a point upon it, but history and literature are my life. I can’t imagine a life that’s not dedicated to a lot of backwards-gazing, a lot of thinking upon the struggles from one era to another.
Let me quote from Gregory Mobley (“The Return of the Chaos Monsters: and Other Backstories of the Bible”) —
“I am passionate about stories, and about the way that humans tell stories to themselves and each other in order to make sense of the chaos. There are stories that humans have been telling ever since they wandered off the savannas of the southern trough of the Great Rift Valley. There is something incredible about the Bible and those stories. About 3,500 years ago, the ancient Lebanese invented the alphabet, and within 500 years of that, this new technology had spread to Greece and Israel, cultures located on and next to the northern trough of the Great Rift Valley. And so we have from the dawn of literacy two big text witnesses, Homer and Bible, at this turning point, this axial age when the old world of orality gave way to the new world of literacy. Homer and Bible represent two huge arks just as the flood of alphabetic writing began to inundate the thousand and one stories of that preliterate world whose lifespan makes our mere three millennia of alphabetic literacy seem but as yesterday when it is past and like a watch in the night.
Onto the ark of Bible they come two by two: all the characters and stories of the old oral world. Adam and Eve and all the mythic wisdom and confusion about what it means to be gendered. Cain and Abel, the farmer and the cowman, and the perennial struggle between competing economies. Isaac and Ishmael, the smooth man and the hairy man, city mouse and country mouse. Samson and Delilah, representing impulse and cunning, their relationship and emblem of how vulnerable love makes us.
Every time I walk through the ark of Bible, I notice more of these primeval pairs lurking in the holds and wandering around on deck: serpents and rainbows, heroes who complete their odysseys home from war and heroes who do not, male heroes who get trapped in an underworld and the female heroes who rescue them, and the actors in all these role-reversal scenarios involving first and last, older and younger, Dives and Lazarus. Up the gangplank they come, the dragon of chaos, the natural man, the seven antediluvian sages who gave gifts of culture to humans, the seven heroes, the four demons. They bring with them their stories of the flood, of the plague, of the quest of combats and courtships, of Edens and Armageddons. The biblical writers shaped these characters and plots to fit into the peculiar shape of their ark, with its kosher fare, Hebrew idioms, and above all, its enigmatic, elusive Almighty, YHWH.”
Mobley’s enthusiasm for stories speaks to me. That said, as both a secular person and a modern person, I am not going to say that I don’t struggle with a great many things in the Bible, because I do. As a person who believes in the modern liberal concept of individual religion and the right to free practice, the Bible’s incessant drumbeat against idolatry and the worship of other gods caused a continual murmur of indignation in the back of my mind: “My God*, men! Live and let live!”
Although the voices of a great many authors and perspectives appear within the Bible, if there’s one strain of thought that continues almost unabated throughout these voices, it’s that of critique. Sheer, incessant critique. A determined insistence that other people are doing shit all wrong and they need to be told they’re doing it all wrong. And they are told this in language so visceral that my stomach knotted at points. (Hosea and Jeremiah, then the overwhelming brutality of Revelation.)
These writers were disgusted. They were outraged. But in this victor-written history, we are left wondering, was what was transpiring around them even remotely worth this disgust? Were they a bunch of assholes telling everyone else how shitty they were, or were the people around them indeed burning up kids on altars at the drop of a hat and ripping off the poor every which way you looked? We will likely never know for sure.
Looking back two thousand, or nearly three thousand years into the past, what as I as a modern person see in the psychology of these long-dead voices is the anxiety of life before nations, the indescribable feeling of identity within a relatively small grouping in the narrow Levant that is ever-precarious, ever-threatened by empires rising up on all sides. When Nebuchadnezzar, ruler of the neo-Babylonian empire, appears to destroy the last stronghold of Judah, blinding Zedekiah the king and taking the Jews into exile, it’s shocking.
In Psalms, the lamentations of the exiles echo forth from this desolate past: By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.
T.S. Eliot echoes these words in The Wasteland, lamenting the modern world:
III. THE FIRE SERMON
The river’s tent is broken: the last fingers of leaf
Clutch and sink into the wet bank. The wind
Crosses the brown land, unheard. The nymphs are departed.
175 Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song.
The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers,
Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends
Or other testimony of summer nights. The nymphs are departed.
And their friends, the loitering heirs of city directors;
180 Departed, have left no addresses.
By the waters of Leman I sat down and wept…
Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song,
Sweet Thames, run softly, for I speak not loud or long.
But at my back in a cold blast I hear
185 The rattle of the bones, and chuckle spread from ear to ear.
I always read several books at a time. I do that to keep my reading fresh. As I was reading the Bible, I was also reading the Jewish American author (and Nobel winner) Saul Bellow’s brilliant novel, The Adventures of Augie March, which critic Martin Amis has called The Great American Novel. Here, two-three thousand years later, in the landscape of America, these images and references still come tumbling forth: the Jewish mother whose kitchen magic and worries of everyday superstition are far removed from the great God of creation who parted the waters, the aunt who tells Augie fearfully of the tortures of Dinah, the metaphor of the confusion of Pisgah, and a modern American feeling unmoored by the specialization of trade, unable to fight the fearful Apollyon. Jewish communities in synagogues and Passover, bringing the inflections of Yiddish and Eastern European languages into the American patois.
Reading the Bible at the same time as I read what a Jewish American author (in a boldly American text, I might add: the novel opens with its titular character declaring himself an American) was able to do with these symbols, how he was able to transplant them into a modern context — I realized it was the perfect complement and perfectly encapsulated why I, though a non-believer, will forever read the stories that religions have imprinted onto the world.
*no pun intended. see, though? the language is all over our English idioms and expressions. still.