Is the Bible Special?

I love the bible, particularly the New Testament. I love it in the way I love my slide-rule: I’ve had it for a long time; I enjoy playing with it; I enjoy knowing stuff about it; I like the connection it gives me to an earlier time; and I like the look of it on my shelf.

I don’t, however, think it is very useful. At least, for any particular problem I can imagine it solving, I can think of many other resources that would be better suited to the task. It is a beloved curiosity.

The bible, I think, is a religious book of its time and context. Just a religious book of its time and context. It is no more special in its time and context than the book of Mormon is in its, or the writings of Baha’u’llah, Gurdjieff, or LRH; the Bagavad Gita, the Analects or the Qur’an.

All of which may be deeply profound to some, but all of which would be utterly pointless reads to the average reader arriving at the text unprimed.

The point is, if you actually read the bible without being primed to think it is holy, True (in some sense), important, or special, the text is simply not very impressive. It is tedious, tribal, occasionally uplifting, ludicrous, far fetched, even more tedious, and alienating.

It takes hard work, perhaps sustained by naive enthusiasm, to get much out of the bible. But the same is true of any work of literature, spiritual or fictional or both. If I went back 30 years now, to talk to my former self about what to spend my life studying, I’d be hard pressed to give good reasons to choose the bible over Shakespeare, say, or Bach, or any other cultural artefact. At least those alternatives are easier to derive pleasure from, on a shallow level. I don’t regret the choice I made, I just don’t think I somehow picked perfectly.

Even most Christians barely, if ever, read it of their own volition. Unless guilted into a daily ‘quiet time’, or in the context of a church bible study (and even then it is usually cut into tiny edifying pieces, provided with ample ‘correct answers’ for why they are to find it profound). Most Christians don’t read it because they don’t enjoy it or get much out of it.

Of course there might be a small proportion of exceptions. But if you’ve spent any time with Shakespeare scholars, or (especially perhaps) fans of Joyce, you’ll see the same passion for the subtleties, the same willingness to be moved by the deeper interpretations.

The average person would simply not make it through the bible, and most of the few who did would be utterly baffled at what the fuss is about.

I think those people who claim the bible is some ultimately wonderful book, chock full of important truth and unique in human history are either deluding themselves, or have never seriously read one of its competitors.

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56 Comments

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56 responses to “Is the Bible Special?

  1. Agree. I wrote something similar a while ago, “The Bible is not Great Literature
    Lots of disagreement on that thread, of course. Yawn!
    Well put here, Ian.
    Did this come up at Sunday School?

  2. arcseconds

    Well, clearly what you should have been reading was Plato…

    Let’s say an alien literature fiend from Andromeda came to Earth. Would you recommend the Bible to them? Perhaps not as a great piece of literature in its own right (it doesn’t keep up a particularly good average). But if they’re to understand Shakespeare, Bach, or Joyce, then they’re going to have to learn about Christianity. Someone with no idea of the Gospels can’t very well understand what’s going on with St. Matthews’ Passion.

    It is unique in its cultural impact on Western culture (and therefore on world culture), and it is also unusual (but not unique) in the respect that its constituents are drawn from such a long period of time, and from a culture that has considerable right to claim cultural continuity over that time.

  3. Ian

    @sabio – you’ve got a more steady stream of believers through your blog, I think. It came up on an unrelated blog. “Sunday School” for adults is a curiously US phenomenon, incidentally. Not something I’ve come across in the UK.

    @arc – definitely. I would say it has to be in the alien library. And I would agree that, along with works like Plato, it has to be understood as a cornerstone of western culture. I don’t, however, think it i needs to be read! And this is what I mean by the slide rule analogy. So if you read, in MacBeth, say “Except they meant to bathe in reeking wounds, Or memorise another Golgotha”, and you have not read the bible, how best should you understand it? To read the bible, or to look up the word “Golgotha” and find it was a place of execution? Would reading the whole passion narrative add anything truly significant to the Seargeant’s speech? If instead, the passage were “I pull in resolution, and begin To doubt the equivocation of the fiend That lies like truth.” Do you need the bible’s take on the devil then, or the theological devil of Catholic history? Would reading the bible help? I don’t think so. You might find the odd passage that helps, but it is theological, not biblical, understanding you need. I think we overestimate the impact that biblical literacy has on cultural understanding.

  4. Wait, Ian, I thought you went to a Bible Study at your local church.

    Concerning Arc’s literary claim:

    To understand Indian Literature would be impossible without reading the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. To approach Chinese literature without background in Confucianism would be naive. So if you are REALLY interested in understanding the world and human thought, then damn, you’ve got lots of reading to do.

    Instead, I agree with Ian. Some Spark Notes, would largely do the trick — to read the originals is enriching but far from necessary to enjoy and learn.

    I watch my kids watch movies and see tons of allusions go right past them, yet they enjoy: allusions to the Bible, to American History, to past Pop Culture and much more. Yet they still love the stuff.

  5. sorry, keep forgetting for follow — I blame Disqus

  6. arcseconds

    You definitely need to understand the Gospel story to have a hope of understanding quite a lot of Western literature. There are Messiah figures everywhere! Just looking at fairly recent films, there’s Gandalf and Neo, Harry Potter, and of course The Lion, the Witch and the Wadrobe includes a pretty blatant reskinned passion narrative. Plus, of course, you’re not going to get most of the jokes in The Life of Brian if you don’t know the story of Jesus!

    I don’t know why, therefore, the advice wouldn’t be to just read the Gospels. They’re not all that long, and they’re among the better parts of the Bible. You do have to read the same story four times, but that has its own literary novelty (or didn’t you like Rashomon?)

    Again, Genesis is referenced and pastiched all over the show. How many things start off “In the beginning … “? Or reference ‘let there be light’?

    (How else are you going to get Lem’s hilarious “and fashioned an electrostatic spirit to move across the surface of the simulated waters” (not an exact quote) ?)

    Perhaps the entire Bible doesn’t get you enough literary understanding to be worth the effort, but Genesis, Exodus (perhaps you can skip most of the regulations), and the Gospels certainly seem worth it. Parts of Judges, Kings and Chronicles too. They’re at least as good as any comparable myths, and referenced heavily, and have sunken deep into our culture.

    I agree that you need to also know quite a bit of extra-biblical Christian myth to understand quite a lot of Western literature and other parts of the culture, especially references to Satan and Hell. There are plenty of other things you’d have to know, too — I’m not saying that reading the Bible is sufficient to understand Western culture!

    And, yes, sure, Sabio, you need to read other things to understand other cultures. And, yes, you don’t need to read the originals, you can get by with crib notes, or even just let the references go over your head in blissful ignorance. My discussion was predicated on someone wanting to understand Western culture, especially literature, fairly thoroughly, and such a person obviously would want to understand references, and do more than just scrape by.

  7. Yeah, arc.
    Understanding those things can help to understand much of Western Lit. But understanding much of Greek lit use to be needed to understand everything prior to the 1900s too. Now that is almost gone. Likewise, the Bible is fading. Besides, there is tons of stuff you don’t need to understand Bible or the Odyssey to enjoy and still have a great time. And folks are makin’ more and more of it. Things die and pass away, as they should. Classicist want people to study old stuff, while creators keep burying the classics and creating new icons. And heck, that is just the West.

    It all depends on your goals. There are not musts, or shoulds. Well, unless you are in charge of the curriculum in a school. Yawn!

    The world is huge and moving — we are infinitely ignorant of each other. What we think we know and understand is laughable — how’s your Tamil literature?

  8. PS arc,
    If it is literary allusions to spec Bible stories, then that is like trivia and unimportant.
    If it is allusions to deep principles like sacrifice, love, forgiveness, treachery and much more, the Bible has nothing unique. All that can be done and has been done in future literature without the horribly written Bible. And besides, Bible writers borrowed it from somewhere else. Everything is recycled, everyone is recycled.

  9. Ian

    I was talking to my wife about this tonight. She’s a former english lit teacher.

    She made the excellent point that there is actually very little biblical allusion in Shakespeare and prior literature. Because biblical literacy was just about non-existent, not only because literacy was low, but because the bible was simply not preached in English. Art on the walls of the church could teach you some of the story, but you’d be as likely to see apocryphal imagery as biblical images.

    So she (a Christian) was under the impression the whole ‘you have to understand the bible to get western culture’ is nonsense.

    @arc, I don’t get why you think that the bible is at all important for understanding The Matrix, Harry Potter, or Gandalf. Sure, if you happen to already know the gospel you can draw parallels with other myths. But then you can with anything, surely. But there’s no sense in which those stories only make sense in the light of biblical knowledge.

    Perhaps you’re setting an odd bar at “will spot the biblical allusions”, in which case reading the bible is tautologically necessary, surely. Its quite a different thing to argue that one needs it to “understand Shakespeare, Bach, or Joyce”. I can’t think of a single passage in Shakespeare or Joyce that requires more than a word-lookup of a proper name from the bible. Can you?

  10. Well, Ian, how are we going to do the numbers.
    Western lit begins when?
    What counts as Western?
    Or can we only count English lit?
    If English lit, there wasn’t a significant amount prior to 1600, was there.
    1200-1600 compared to 1600-2000
    Gets complicated to make empirical claim, eh?
    But fascinating point.
    Guttenburg was 1450.
    Hmmmm.
    Sounds like an Ian task to quantify!!

    Personally, I think around 3020, if you haven’t read Triangulations, you won’t understand any of late 2000’s literature. Just sayin’….

  11. Ian

    @sabio – not sure what in my comment lead to the request for numbers. She was talking specifically about Shakespeare and prior literature.

    Of course by the time you get to the great awakenings you have people consuming the bible for themselves, and there is a lot of literature after that. But I think she was reacting against the idea that this thread of biblical dependency goes back through the development of western culture. Rather than it being a non-conformist trend of the last 250 years. That’s an argument I’ve not come across, though I confess up to now I haven’t been taking good stock of the details.

    I confess also that, up until recently, my gut reaction would probably have been that the bible stories were important for understanding western culture. Its just, when I come to actually find examples (at least, better examples than The Life of Brian), I can’t.

  12. Ian

    @sabio – as for where, and in what language. Definitely English bias. In fact beyond perhaps Dante and Goethe, I’m struggling to think of pre-C20 non-English literature than the average English person would even come across. Though there I may be missing something.

    Visual art is very different, of course, and less boundaried. But that is something I and Mel have much less experience of. Though I suspect a better case could be made for it, given that so much of it was explicitly religious.

    [edit: Cervantes’ Don Quixote to add another to the list, removed Erasmus, as he’s really mainly known for his bible work and a prominent exchange program among EU universities!]

  13. Nah, don’t get me wrong – I liked your wive’s point a lot.
    It just made me think of all those other questions.
    I tell ya — reading and hearing the Ramayana and Mahabharata over and over is the *only* way to *truly* understand Indian Literature.
    that was sarcasm — I don’t think it is the “only” nor is there a “true” way to understand stuff.
    Heck, it is debatable if it is more valuable to understand Greek classics or Bible to understand most of the allusions in Western lit that uses that sort of stuff. Anyway, Both are fading, as they should.
    To hell with prescriptionists

  14. Should we judge the value of the Bible as a literary work by its usefulness?

    Also, should we judge based on the tastes and interests of the average person?

  15. Ian

    No, and no. But perhaps instead of rhetorical questions you could try making a particular case for the value of the bible, and see how it goes?

  16. The simple answer: It is aesthetically interesting, it has a lot of thematic depth, and is extremely influential on later art.

    I will be happy to elaborate on any of those points if you so desire.

    Does one have to read the Bible to understand later literary works? No. However, it certainly increases one’s understanding of the artistry of an author and the ideas the author is exploring when they make a Biblical allusion or the structure of a work when it models itself off a biblical story.

  17. Ian

    Thanks Drkshadow. I would appreciate some elaboration yes, in particular some concrete examples. Remember the question is not whether the bible is interesting but whether it is special, and in the latter case (particularly in terms of its cultural influence) is it the bible that is special or is it Christian theology?

    So yes, can you put more flesh on the idea that the bible is special when it comes to understanding the artistry of later authors. Which authors particularly, and which bits of which works? Are you thinking of Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens, Woolf, Joyce, Atwood?

    The reason I’m pushing the point is that I would have said what you are saying. Because it is what I’d heard other people say. But now I come to actually mentally work through great english literature I can’t find some substantial body of biblical reworking or allusion. There are a couple of poets who explicitly reference the bible, but the so-called biblical allusions in Shakespeare, for example, are very dubious.

  18. Well, what do you mean by special exactly? Unique? Something else?

    St. Augustine’s Confessions is bursting with allusions to the Bible (anywhere from 2 – 5 per a page). Beowulf (the beginning on English Literature) has at least two allusions to the Bible. The monster Grendel is a descendant of Cain and the story is mentioned explicitly. If I remember correctly Beowulf gives one of the chieftains a sword from the time of the giants and the fall of the fiends (Genesis 6) and from the time of the Great Flood (Noah story). “Dream of the Rood” is a well-known Old English poem told from the perspective of Christ’s cross, hence given the content it automatically alludes to the crucifixion narrative in the Gospels. “The Song of the Roland” the twelve peers are symbolic for twelve apostles, which can be seen as an allusion to the Gospels, while the “Muslim” saracens three pagan deities are a play on the trinity. Erec and Enide by Chretein de Troyes is an Arthurian legend that mentions a fortress from the time of Adam. The Medieval Mystery and Miracle Plays cover episodes through the entire Bible. In The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer, “The Monk’s Tale” in particular has quite a few biblical allusions if I remember correctly.
    I know I’m not giving as concrete details, exploring how they use these allusions, and such, but that would be a lot of works to close-read and comment upon. I just wanted to point out that the Middles Ages, the period between the pagan Greek and Roman Literatures, contained quite a bit of literature that makes allusions to the Bible. Not an exhaustive list either. This brings us up to the Renaissance.

    So why do you find the biblical allusions in Shakespeare dubious exactly?

  19. The Christian stuff in Beowulf are inserted by Christians — if I understand correctly.

    DarkShadow: Do you think that Iliad, Odyssey and Plato are equally useful as the Bible. I think the West could go on without any of those and do just fine — although the classicist would scream while throwing ashes over their heads.

  20. Ian

    Special just in the regular sense of the word. There are a lot of other texts: the scriptures of every other religion, the myths of every culture, classic literature itself. If the bible is special in terms of its literary impact, one assumes it should display something beyond its competitors in at least some area. Otherwise it is, as I say above, just one among others.

    Thanks for the examples. Some I think are cases where the bible is useful to understand. The Confessions, for example, clearly you need some biblical understanding! Others seem a bit weaker, even the Canterbury tales, it is hardly central to understanding the text, I think, though you’re right it is more important than I gave credit for in my dismissal. Then others are areas where Christian theology is useful (there is no trinity in the bible, or rather, the trinity in the bible is rather different from the trinity of Christianity). And others are a mention of a name, which I think is more of a dictionary job. You’ll find all sorts of name-dropping in literature, and I’m not sure you have to do more than find out “Adam was the first man, in the Jewish creation myth” to understand the text.

    But I realise I’m starting to split hairs, and I don’t want to frustrate you by moving the goalposts, since I wasn’t clear (even in my own mind) where they started out!

    I’ll let your examples stand as is. I can see your point, I guess, I’m not sure I agree!

    The last question. After only being able to think of a couple of direct references, I went looking for catalogues of the allusions. Most were the vaguest parallelism, or just made general references to God. I couldn’t find any that depended on an understanding of the bible beyond, say, looking up Golgotha.

    [Edit: added more analysis in the middle]

  21. @ Sabio
    If you mean that these elements were grafted onto an already existing text by a later Christian, as far as I know we only have the “post-Christian” writer text and it dates to the Middle Ages. Most scholars if I remember correctly date the text to the Christianization of England. So I think you’re raising a false distinction.

    While those two references are the only ones I would consider a full-fledged allusion in Beowulf, the entire work is peppered with references to G-d and divine protection and criticisms of paganism.

    The Holy Trinity of Western Literary Studies is Greek Mythology, The Bible, and Shakespeare. I think they’re special in that most literary texts in the Western Canon make an allusion to at least one of these works and can help give us a deeper perspective on the works.

    Can we get along without The Iliad, the Bible, and Shakespeare sense? Sure, there would still be new art, cures for terrible diseases being discovered, and the trains would run almost on time. But I think we would be poorer for it in the arts.

  22. @ anybody,
    Posts that ask this sort of question about the Bible invite lots of motivations and preferences:
    (1) People who hold the Bible as sacred and must defend it.
    (2) Literary snobs or “classicists” who feel everyone should read what they read
    (3) People who just love debating and want to wresting over what terms mean
    (4) Cultural Provincialists: can’t see beyond their culture — of course, this could include all of 1,2 and 3

    Of course nothing General can be said about an anthology. So all of this just amounts to peoples’ tastes and agendas unless someone wants to make empirical claims that are testable — back to numbers.

    But people don’t want to do that. Instead, they want to use the topic to show their unbacked preferences.

    That is what all of us do in so many conversations. But with it makes the pretense of objectivity, I laugh.

    @ Darky
    (1) You shouldn’t link to your blog if it is protected: it makes others waste their time. Just a suggestion.

    (2) Even if Beowulf has any allusions to Christianity, it is totally immaterial and of no help understanding the text. Not knowing it, costs you nothing.

    (3) I am reading “The Accidental Species” by Henry Gee (just out) and there actually is a section of Beowulf.
    “This suggests that the poem started as oral tradition’ that there must have been a number of earlier written versions, all now lost; and that there might not have been a single, definitive, “official” version.
    The singe copy also shows signs of having been bowdlerized. The setting of the story is pagan, and concerns pagan values, but the copy we have was written many centuries after England had b een Christianized. It is possible that the several references to Christianity in the poem are later additions, either in the manuscript we have [and we only have one] — or in earlier versions, all now lost.”

    So maybe you are wrong about my raising a false distinction. But I shan’t research it more — the first comment I made covers why.

    Gee’s book is good at showing you why when it comes to Biology or Literature, your last paragraph appears naive — indeed Chapter 4 names it: “The Beowulf Effect”

  23. @ Saby!

    But I enjoy wasting your time! For someone who found our conversation about the Bible so yawn inducing the first time around (see link in your first comment) it’s amazing the amount of responses you gave me and how many times you posted in this thread on the same boring topic! If this topic bores you so much, you’re admitting that you could care less about hearing any views other than your own (with your condescending yawns), and you’re satisfied with the amount of research you’ve done on the topic of Beowulf’s composition by reading one book by a person in a completely unrelated field, then what more is there to say to such a person with such an attitude?

    Nevertheless, I will tackle a few other things you mentioned. I already made the point that, “Does one have to read the Bible to understand later literary works? No. However, it certainly increases one’s understanding of the artistry of an author and the ideas the author is exploring when they make a Biblical allusion or the structure of a work when it models itself off a biblical story.” However, since you want numbers, if you understand 98% of the work, and I understand 99% of the work because I get the allusions, I still understand it 1% better than you.

    Since one description of Beowulf might be: Germanic paganism seen through the eyes of the newly budding Christianity, I would imagine an allusion to Cain that involves the story mixing pagan elements (Grendel) with Christian elements directly pertains to understanding at least one of its major aesthetic points (the transitioning religious and cultural world of the poem, the old versus new, and its fusion).

    I’ll go into more details of works to see what an allusion/typology can do for the meaning of the work itself.

  24. Hey Ian,
    In my obsession on this topic, I mentioned this post in my review of an Indian movie today — if you are interested.

  25. @Ian

    As far as the “is it theology?” or “is it the Bible?” question.

    Northrop Frye describes the Bible as “the mythological framework . . . within which Western literature had operated down to the eighteenth century and is to a large extent still operating.” While I haven’t read the book (on my reading list in the future) and only listened to lectures about his ideas, I suspect he would subsume theology and the Bible under this larger idea. Even when writers aren’t making explicit allusions to the Bible, they are still working within that framework. Likewise, when they model themselves off Biblical genres or character types, without making explicit references, they are still in a sense being influenced. So I’m wondering if the idea of influence is being presented as too narrow.

    As for how important are these more explicit allusions.

    Well, as I pointed out in my response to Sabio, the Beowulf allusions do play a part in understanding the deeper issues Beowulf is exploring. I would agree that often you can get away with just reading a footnote or looking it up online. However, it seems to me this is really a matter of someone doing the work for you. If someone hadn’t taken the time to read the Bible and write an entry about Golgotha, then there would be no entry for someone to look up the reference, which ultimately points back to the fact that Biblical knowledge is useful for understanding what a particular writer meant or was attempting to do.

    You might be able to understand the Macbeth line by quickly looking up Golgotha, but it is going to be a more meaningful connection if you had actually read the Bible. In other words, I see a difference between experiencing a story firsthand that has become a part of your imaginative framework (your knowledge base if you prefer something less transcendental sounding) versus having a temporary intellectual footnote to get you through a particular passage.

    To take another example, in The Grapes of Wrath, Jim Casy is a Christ figure. He even shares Jesus Christ’s initials. He is a radical Christ interested in the plight of the poor and downtrodden, but differs from the Biblical one in “preaching” that heaven is to be found on earth and adopting socialist principles of cooperation as the greatest good. Like Jesus, he is sacrificed for the ideas he preaches when he gets his head busted in during a strike he’s leading against a farm paying unfair wages. After Casy dies, in continuing with the biblical model, Tom becomes a disciple to spread Jim Casy’s ideas of collectivism and the true source of evil in the world.

    In this second example, the allusion creates a dialectic. The author gives his character authority by connecting him with an ancient symbol, but also critiques implicitly some of that symbol’s ideas (preaching faith in an individual and that happiness is to be in heaven, not the material world) by reconfiguring the symbol in this new figure. In other words, a good allusion connects the old with the new, so we see a universality of certain general ideas and problems, but also reconfigures them so that old ideas are seen in a new context, but in familiar and satisfying roles.

  26. Generic motifs, tropes, archetypes, themes and such are present in all cultures through time == nothing new on the planet (as one non-Christian and possibly non-theist before his works were changed). Indeed the writers of Jesus stories absconded themes well before Jesus — themes that existed independently in other cultures too. The particulars are laughable. The themes are not.

    But it is obvious that I am not a scholar and that for much more quibbling on these points would take a lot of work. But to me it is clear, no Bible, no Mahabharata, no Shakespeare and we’d be just fine — the themes survive. Jesus, Rama and William did no create them: we did!

  27. Well, sure that is what makes them generic! I would agree we are interested in the larger themes because they relate to our concerns, whether we create them or that is just the way the world is or whatever, but it’s clever and creative authors who take our concerns and enlarge them for us and give us a new way of looking at those concerns.

    Shakespeare’s sonnets can be summed up as: beautiful people should procreate before they die, poetry can capture a love for all eternity, life is brief. The statements themselves aren’t really all that profound when stated this way. As you accurately point out many other poets express these same ideas. However, might I suggest it is HOW Shakespeare says it that breathes life into these themes, these ideas, concepts, and makes us see them in a new light and separates him from other poets. Or to put it another way it’s the particulars that make old ideas new.

    If the only point to reading a literary work was the themes, then you wouldn’t ever need to read a story. Just find a guru to tell you the deeper truths in as straight-forward a way as possible or a read only nonfiction.

    I already agreed with you that we would still be producing art without the Bible, Mahabharata, and Shakespeare. But when I said dialectic, I meant just that; it’s not solely about the themes, but it is an ongoing conversation about themes, archetypes, and other generic stuff. Without those works, perhaps many of the same themes, but a very different historical dialogue and very different ways of expressing ourselves.

    Essentially you’re playing a “What If?” in history. Interesting thought experiment, but useless for describing reality as it actually unfolded since these works DID exist and they DID influence their respective cultural and literary traditions.

  28. People ignore the religious stuff and create without them. The more they ignore (like Greek literature or Egyptian or ….), the more they disappear. If we continue ignoring the Bible, it will go the way of Greek or Egyptian allusions — no big loss. Because we will keep creating. Someone finally gave up on Egyptian as required, demand to learn Greek and read the classics died, Latin has died as needed for a good education, and likewise, Bible literacy can fade without necessary loss.

    If it is special, it is special only in a very parochial, temporary, embattled manner — not an interesting sense. I say we need not worry of letting the enemy in. I am old enough to recall of the vain, pseudo-erudite lament at the loss of teaching and learning Latin. Ah, those were the good old days. Or imagine the battle among the French to keep the language pure. Or recent Mainland Chinese rulings against using Chinglish:
    http://www.ibtimes.com/chinglish-signs-be-wiped-out-ban-foreign-names-soon-go-effect-1419620

    Everyone is so desperate to preserve what was Special to Themselves.

  29. Well, the Rosetta Stone wasn’t translated until 1822. I would imagine not having access to Egyptian literature in any significant way would be the major reason for a lack of Egyptian allusions.

    Given the popularity of the Percy Jackson series among kids, how do you figure Greek Mythology has gone the way of the dodo? Likewise, the other day I was watching the show Revolution and one of the characters with doubts about his actions washed the blood off his hands, which was an allusion to the Bible. Could you understand the motivation of the character (or his mental turmoil and rationalization over his actions, which was the focus of the episode) without being aware of Pontius Pilate? Sure, but in this case it at least shows that writers are still using Biblical Allusions today.

    If it is special only “in a very parochial, temporary, embattled sense,” you seem to have a very different definition of temporary and parochial than I do! The work has been around for thousands of years and is still influencing artistic works. It even influenced a different culture’s literary tradition (the Koran!). So temporary or parochial?

  30. Ian

    Wow, good discussions, sorry its been a couple of days since I caught up.

    I have a problem with where the conversation is going. I think we aren’t arguing about the actual topic now, but about who’s definition of words is right. Because your observations, Drkshadow, I mostly agree with, but I don’t think that changes my conclusion. Similarly I agree with your points Sabio, and reach a similar conclusion to yours.

    Words we seem to be arguing about.

    1. Understanding. At what level do you need to understand something for my criteria to hold.

    For example I think our democracy is intrinsically linked to protestant theology. But do you ‘need to understand protestant theology to understand democracy’? At one level, yes (a level at which I do not understand, since I have only the vaguest grasp of the connection), at another level, clearly not, since all but a handful of the population function fine in the democracy without it. When I say ‘you have to know the bible to understand western literature’, the level of ‘understanding’ is important.

    It seems Sabio and I are basically arguing for a much weaker level of understanding than you are, Drk.

    2. Special. When does a text become ‘special’ enough to get a yes to the title of this post?

    Take just allusions, to try to clarify and quantify the question. Let’s say that to ‘understand’ (for some appropriate level of understanding) an allusion, you have to have read or experienced its source. We could then group source texts and make a list of the top-100 sources of allusion in western art and literature. So to have the maximum coverage of allusiory knowledge, one would start at the top of the list and work down.

    The question of being special would be: how many from the top of the list do we consider ‘special’? Is it the top one, or five? So if the bible is #2, and Greek mythology #1, is the bible special.

    Again, I seem to be arguing for a much more selective definition of ‘special’ than you, Drk.

    Just to clarify again, I suggest this top-100 list as a thought experiment to quantify the idea of ‘special’, not as a genuine suggestion of how we should decide the question.

    3. The Subject

    Who is the subject who may or may not need to read the bible? Is it culturally sophisticated aesthetes? The average person? Someone who is compiling the dictionary?

    Clearly someone needs to read the bible (and the 2000 years of Christian theology) to create the wikipedia entry for Golgotha.

    Drk seems to be arguing for a more restricted set of people than I or Sabio. He seems to be suggesting that, if we burned every last bible, we’d lose some valuable cultural information. I agree. But I think that 99% of the bibles in the world could be removed from existence, and there’d be no noticeable change to cultural understanding.

    So, I’m pessimistic that the conversation is going anywhere, which I think is my fault for not being clear about what question I was trying to ask in the first place.

    Having said that, the discussion is interesting. It has caused me to read up on Beowolf, for example. I have to say that I’ve never got much from the text’s biblical references, even knowing the biblical stories well. But having read some of the history of its composition, my understanding of Church history really does bring something new to it.

  31. Pingback: Is the Bible Special? | Beyond Assumptions

  32. Fair enough. I decided to re-open my blog to public view for now.

    I wrote my own post on this topic, which mentioned your post and some of the issues we discussed.

  33. Ian

    Thanks for that. And thanks for taking the conversation on.

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  35. I hope this quote should help summarize what Drk is hitting at: “I believe in Christianity (Bible) as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else” – CSLewis.

  36. Ian

    I’d be very surprised if that is what Drk was hitting at. He might agree with the sentiment, but it misses the point of the question, which was to consider the bible independent of a faithful appraisal.

  37. The Bible & the Christian Faith are not merely useful & helpful, but more importantly, they are TRUE, transcending the here and now into the after-life.

  38. Ian

    Exactly my point. Unless you have any basis for that which doesn’t involve your personal faith, then that is precisely what this post was excluding from the discussion.

    I’ve no doubt that, if you believe in the bible as holy or true, then it is by definition special. But that isn’t the basis of this discussion.

    If you’re fired up to respond here out of evangelical zeal, then this is not the right place for it, you’ll ultimately be disappointed. It may plump up your self-righteousness, but I’m not interested in being a foil for it unless you can actually listen and respond to the points others are making.

  39. By qualifying my faith as ‘personal’, you have let the cat out of it’s bag. The Christian Faith itself is true and not blind or subjective as you presume. Faith aka trust is the ethereal faculty in all human beings that God or for that matter anyone HIGHER-UP delights in when we exercise it. Sin has locked us into this life, which is merely temporal and kept out of the eternal–the jurisdiction of God, the Most High. And here is another big one: Humility–a sister faculty of Faith without which no HIGHER-UP will care two hoots for you. I hope you see where i am going. Soaked and entangled in democracy/egalitarianism/etc, you are merely looking at competing things that have value for the here and now (the horizontal plain) without recognizing the uncut-diamond for what it is worth in the coal mine of the Bible, valued in the vertical plain, the only thing that counts, ultimately. For, “all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in RIGHTEOUSNESS” (2Tim3:16). Thus, it dungs everything else in comparison. If there is any pain in the loss, it is but a prick of an injection that cures me of my ultimate pathogenic condition–sin– and delivers me safely out of this womb of time & space into the bosom of God.

    Since it is your turf, i will leave it there. God bless you!

  40. Ian

    Well, all you’ve done is demonstrate that the only way you could engage is by preaching, rather than listening. Not a single question. No attempt to discover what I think or why, or on what basis. No attempt to address the question in the post you’re responding to. Just the pathological desire to preach and then bugger off.

    We call it ‘drive by evangelism’: “I only commented because you’re wrong. I’m not going to listen to anything you say, I’m just going to tell you that you’re wrong, and then say that I’m leaving.”

    Fair enough. But what a thoroughly obnoxious way to be. Fortunately there are Christians who engage on this blog who are not such stereotypes.

    You’re always welcome here, to share your thoughts, beliefs and experiences. As long as you are interested in listening, you are able to understand context, and are willing to learn as well as teach. Otherwise, yes, please leave.

  41. What you are asking me to do is take every bylane that i come across and take the circuits that i know beforehand lead to nowhere. I did address where you are stumbling, namely that you are seeing in the Bible only the dark coal and not the diamond in it. Enough said. What is more, i am encouraging you to also discover & know this soul of the Bible, whom others merely heard, know or read about. So it is purely out of love i am calling (preaching, if you will) you to embrace the Person of the Bible and not get lost in the details. Know the Lover, who is said to have laid down His life for all of us. Knock and it will be opened to you. Preaching and the cross is no doubt obnoxious and offensive, because it calls us to lay down our arms, even if they are nuclear, let alone this post, and simply surrender to this One, who is Lord not without reason. In His own words, we are only kicking against the goads, being in opposition to the WORD-made-flesh-lived-died-and-resurrected!

    God bless you with the Truth that matters!

  42. Pingback: Appreciating the Bible

  43. Ian

    Wow, doubling down on being obnoxious? Really? Gosh you’re quite a piece of work. You’ve no need to listen, because you already know anything that could be said to you ‘leads to nowhere’? Wow. Just Wow.

    And presumably you think this kind of attitude is Christian, or glorifying to God? Your lack of self-awareness amazes me.

    I’m simply asking you to read and understand what you’re responding to, and to respond in a way that acknowledges what has come before. Conversing on-topic, listening to someone else, asking questions, none of them are the same as compromising or capitulating. None of these restrict your ability to share your views and experiences. They are just basic social skills.

    At the very least, given that I clearly seem to think you’re missing the point, even when you think you aren’t, the obvious thing would be to ask why. Surely? If, you weren’t so convinced you knew exactly what’s in my head (despite, of course, not yet even being able to summon up any demonstration of such). It doesn’t seem to me like rocket science to be able to think “oh wait, perhaps I’ve missed something here, maybe I should ask why this person thinks my responses are inappropriate.” Rather than “clearly they are a God-hating imbecile who cannot bear my superior spiritual knowledge and eternal Truth”.

    You really are a walking stereotype of evangelical self-righteousness. Please go and find somewhere else to glorify God with your exemplary Christian attitude.

  44. Ian

    Note to anyone following this: Caleb left a reply to this. WordPress held it in moderation. This seemed to enrage him and overnight he left comment after comment on different posts on the blog, getting nastier in tone, and trying different names, FB logins, emails and even changing IP address. That has tripped my ‘danger’ switch, so I’ve decided to block him. Sorry if you were keen to see whether this would go anywhere! Feel free to search his name to visit his site if you are interested in what he has to say.

    I always feel bad doing this. There are hundreds of comments on this blog from folks who strongly disagree with me. This is only the third person in 3 years on the block-list (one other is, incidentally, an atheist). I’ll have a think of whether I want to change my commenting policy. But I suspect that wouldn’t have helped in this case.

  45. THanx for sharing that Ian. Yeah, he seemed to be heading out of control.
    Like you, I hate banning too — I have only done it to about 3 also and wished I didn’t have to. Fortunately, most self-ban before that is needed.

  46. Ivey

    The bible is fiction no one has shown proof that the storys are real so many storys of the same topic in different religions at different dates through history

  47. Ian

    You may need some punctuation in there.

    Some of the bible is fiction, certainly, some of it is poetry, some of it apocalyptic, some of it is letters, and some of it is history (how accurate that history is, is another matter). The bible isn’t one thing. There are bits that are very similar to other texts, there are bits that are very unusual. And various bits in between.

    But all that is rather besides the point. Did you read the post? Because whether the bible is fiction, fact or both is irrelevant to the question we’re discussing here.

  48. Blogger has CAPTCHA to sort out humans from bots. I wish WordPress gave us the option to test potential commenters with a short reading quiz to sort out the rest.
    ;-(

  49. Ian

    @sabio – yeah. a short multiple choice quiz on the post you’re commenting on, just to check you are actually in the right place. Great idea!

  50. Damn, sounds like the beginning of a business plan, eh Ian?
    Build it as an add-on for WordPress that you buy and then it is individualizable (sp?) for each post. For example, for this post, you write 4 questions with Yes or No options, and thus set it for 15/16 chance of proving you ain’t reading:
    (A) Ian feels most Christians read their Bibles often: Y or N
    (B) Ian thinks the Bible is “useless”: Y or N
    (C) Ian thinks the Bible is worse than other religious books: Y or N
    (D) Ian thinks if you are unprimed, the Bible could be pointless read: Y or N

    Only NNNY works in this case (I think) and opens up the comment section. You could even allow a set number or retries.

    Wow, great idea, eh?

    And you could make 10 questions if you want very few readers but all very bright, careful readers.

    Start writing the code Ian. What should we call it?
    FOCUS: “Filtering Out Commentors’ Useless Stuff”

  51. I would love to see some sources other than the Bible which profoundly poke at the difference between “spirit of the law” and “letter of the law”. I’m not much in the business of claiming uniqueness—one has to be a scholar to do that, and one’s claims are always the weak kind of nonexistence claims—but I have found that it has a lot to say, from many different perspectives, on this particular issue. I’ve also found that many people don’t seem to particularly well-understand anything other than the surface level of this difference. For example, my alma mater started adding rules and regulations for its students to follow, to replace the “honor code” which was absolutely spirit of the law: no member of the community was to take undue advantage of another. Then the administration claimed it wasn’t bound by this code and things have really spiraled out of control. It is really surprising that virtually nobody sees that folks are trying to achieve unity via letter of the law when there are multiple different, violently opposed spirits (gestalts?).

    As with many things, it is interesting to look at the time-evolution of both the spirit of the law and letter of the law, especially on different scales. I’ve not even done this very extensively, but I would be forever grateful to someone who would give me the right suggestion to really send me off on this journey.

  52. sido

    Is the Bible Special? To be honest I haven’t read much literature in my life, I guess its never to late to start, but majority of my reading has been dedicated to the readings of the Bible.

    Many use the Bible as the law and absolute truth, even when sections make no sense. My question: If the Bible has a series of commands for believers to follow, was it in the interest of say Christ or his Apostles in creating a book like the Bible for following generations? The teachings of the Bible don’t call for such actions, or show any signs that such a project was in progress at the time. Nowhere in the Bible does it say that a book like this will be left for us to follow. Am I misreading something?

  53. Ian

    What a fascinating point. Jesus is recorded talking about the church, and the holy spirit, but not leaving behind a book – although Sola Scriptura claims it is the only resource needed. A very good point!

  54. Tis a very good point. Ian, fantastic to see you on-line.

  55. Pingback: The Life of Jesus: The Important Parts (#1) – Grassroots Apologetics

  56. “Is the Bible special?” is a great question. How many have read the book of Leviticus without falling asleep? But look at the book of Psalms. This is the book that has provided inspiration to Bono and many others.

    Psalm 19:1 states “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. (NIV)”. A person can go on a hike, see a mountain and remark on its beauty. Or they could see the majesty of God. Words spoken need to be received to serve a purpose. The Bible is just ink on a page if the word of God is not communicated.

    We know this by experience. When you write something on your blog and readers completely miss the point, you are talking to them, but you are not communicating. It doesn’t matter how “special” your words are. But when you convince them, your words have life.

    The Bible is only a special book if God’s word comes through it. You miss the point if you think ease of reading or reading enjoyment are what would make the Bible special. Being the words of God is what makes it special, not whether or not it is great literature.

    You think God should have done it differently? That’s a different issue entirely. But at least consider its effectiveness by the numbers of people that find the book, even nominally, to be the source of God’s words.

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