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Reasons to Read the Bible

Some of my friends have been surprised to find out that I’m still reading the Bible.  They thought I would be totally done with it after I left religion behind.   Actually, I now enjoy reading the Bible more than I ever did as a Christian since I no longer have to defend it.  Without the baggage of faith, it’s possible to appreciate the book with a little more objectivity.

Yes, I realize a lot of freethinkers are really put-off by anything having to do with the Bible, and I completely understand that.  The book has been a source of much human suffering,  and it has often served as a brake on the social evolution of our species.    But just because we may reject the metaphysical and magical claims of the Judeo-Christian tradition doesn’t mean the Bible isn’t worth reading. Here are a few reasons to pick it up.

  • Knowing some basics about the Bible will make your critique of religion more credible and might enable you to better engage theists in conversation about what they believe and why they believe it.  Heck, you’ll probably be able to point out a few things they didn’t know.
  • Whether we like it or not, the reality is that  biblical allusions and imagery pervade the music, art, and literature of Western civilization.  If you don’t know the Bible, you’ll miss a lot.
  • The Bible contains a lot of good literature.  The cycle of stories in the David narrative are gripping portrayals of the complexities of human nature.  I’d be willing to bet they provided at least some inspiration for “The Godfather.”  Paul’s famous chapter on love in 1 Corinthians 13 is sublime and is also, ironically,  entirely non-theistic. (Literary critic and non-theist Harold Bloom counts Paul as one of the one hundred “exemplary creative” literary geniuses of the Western world.  Yeah, I know Paul often sounds like a jerk, but it is possible to be a jerk and a genius at the same time. )
  • Knowing something about the Bible is often helpful when trying to complete The New York Times crossword puzzle.

Don’t get me wrong.  I am in no way suggesting that the Bible has any special authority or any wisdom about life that can’t be found elsewhere.   In fact I am totally confused by theists who claim to find some coherent set of  “biblical values.”   I spent twenty years trying to find coherence in the book.  None exists.

But sometimes it’s a heck of a good read.  And the portions of the Bible that actually are good literature present us with compelling and nuanced descriptions of human condition.  And so I wouldn’t want to live in a world without the Bible any more than I’d want to live in a world without The Iliad, The Divine Comedy, or Paradise Lost.

 

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  1. Andrew
    July 12, 2012 at 1:50 am

    I actually think the entire Pauline Epistles are the bizarre rantings of a depraved lunatic. It’s funny how people always cite 1 Corinthians 13, as if one good paragraph out of hundreds of bad ones somehow vindicates Paul. He fits the stereotype of the Jim Jones-style outlaw cult leader to a tee.

    As for the rest of the Bible, the Psalms are great poetry. The Book of Job is a lot of people’s favorite, since it reads like (and was inspired by?) a Socratic dialogue. The Major Prophets are certainly great ancient literature in many respects.

    The rest is only interesting if you’re into ancient mythology like the Iliad or Gilgamesh. The New Testament reads like a crude, amateurish imitation of the Major Prophets and Hellenistic adventure novels of the time.

    • July 12, 2012 at 2:55 am

      Andrew, your’re a great guy and take this in the spirit of friendship. I beg to disagree. Being dismissive of the Iliad misses the point. We ARE the Iliad. It says pretty much everything we need to know about human nature. Everything else is commentary. (Vietnam and the Iraq War come to mind.) Evolution hasn’t had enough time to alter who we fundamentally are. As E.O Wilson said so well in his latest book, “The Social Conquest of the Earth”: “We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and a god-like technology. We thrash about. We are terribly confused by the mere fact of our existence, and a danger to ourselves and to the rest of life.” (p. 7) Pretty much sums it up. And even confirming the Higgs boson doesn’t change a thing about human nature. We are Agamemnon and Achilles with nuclear weapons and computers. The technology has changed. The neuro-chemistry hasn’t.

  2. Andrew
    July 12, 2012 at 8:38 am

    Mike, sorry, I wrote that poorly — whenever I use “mythology,” I mean it as a compliment, in the older classical sense, not the modern sense. I would never dismiss the Iliad! Or indeed the Hebrew Bible. I wish that the older sense of the term hadn’t been lost.

    However, I feel quite comfortable dismissing the New Testament as a crude imitation of the real thing.

  3. adtz
    July 12, 2012 at 12:11 pm

    Actually, the New Testament is a good primer on how religions are created and grown. Paul beats the crap out of Jim Jones if for no other reason than he was successful. It’s very important to understand the roots of a thing if you want to deal with the thing itself. As literature though, I agree, meh.

  4. John Stutzer
    July 13, 2012 at 1:55 am

    Bible as comfort food – Old Testy for meat & potatoes, New Testy for carry-out. As a kid, I’d read the same damned adventure novels over & over – just because they were familiar. Knew ’em like the back of my hand I did. So I appreciate your visiting familiar fields – whatever the reason.

    It doesn’t matter to me that the Old Testy had better grammar, prose or continuity than New (and it did), they are now and always have served as propaganda tools. Important to understand yes – but to like? – Not even Psalms.

    But hey Mike, you once again hit the nail on the head in your reply where you quoted E. O. Wilson – we got us a six million dollar Man with Mr. Potato Head in charge. I can hear Tim The Tool Man giving one of his famous grunts even as I finish this.

  5. Katherine
    August 11, 2012 at 1:29 am

    I have found it to be quite common that theists have little idea what the Bible actually says. When I question a theist about why the believe something in the Bible that doesn’t make sense to me or is somehow confusing to me, I am accused of being against freedom of speech. Which is of course a technique to distract me from the issue at hand because who can be heard over all that screeching?

  6. August 16, 2012 at 2:54 pm

    My main frustration with reading the Bible now is that no matter how I interpret it, my interpretation is viewed as invalid, and I’m accused of quote-mining……when doing nothing different than 10yrs ago when I was a “believer.” http://emilyhasbooks.com/lost-in-transliteration/

    • August 16, 2012 at 9:52 pm

      I guess you could point out to those who accuse you of “quote-mining” that different groups of Christians can’t even agree among themselves on how to interpret the Bible. There is no consensus in the Christian world on almost anything having to do with the Bible: gifts of the Spirit, the nature of sacraments, the role of Peter–are just a few topics that come to mind. (I suppose that’s why some folks think it’s so hand to have a pope–a go-to guy who’s the final authority on scriptural interpretation.)

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