The Christmas edition of the New York Times Book Review begins with the Bible. Appropriate enough for a book that gave us “in the beginning” and the Christmas story in the first place. Reviewed by Marilynne Robinson, the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, the Bible is presented as the unacknowledged source of much of our literary culture. It is a message that bears repeating every now and again, since the Bible itself is often equated with those who thump it instead of trying to comprehend it. The Bible is often guilty by association. Like any book, it has parts that we wish weren’t in it, but that is only problematic for those who think of the Bible in authoritarian terms, a book that must be rebuilt into modern culture, jot and tittle. Taken alongside other ancient writings, however, the Bible is a fine example of human evolution. It represents a segment of our developing culture. And, every now and again, atheist and evangelical should acknowledge, the Bible gives us profound insights.
Robinson’s article mostly focuses on reiterations. The Bible’s influence is deep, and in the English literary world, nearly universal. What authors have written in the past—and what they are still writing today—bears the stamp of the Bible. It was the first formative book in western culture, and to dismiss it completely is to throw away a valuable part of our selves. At the same time, even so able a writer as Robinson can’t escape the subtle supersessionism that coheres to the mythic reading preferred by a large cross-section of society. The Bible is a self-referential text, but the Bible does not know that “the Bible” exists. Books that eventually made it into the collection were written without an awareness that they would become authoritarian tomes millennia down the road. Modern believers still invest the books with the mystique of divine authority, often in subtle ways.
A point made by Robinson should be read by those aspiring presidential candidates super-bussing their ways across Iowa. “Moments of the highest import pass among people who are so marginal that conventional history would not have noticed them,” she writes of the biblical narrative. The vast majority of us are marginal in this sense. Those in seats of power frequently forget that it is the unassuming compliance of those further down the food chain that lends them their power. The Bible is nearly always on the side of the oppressed. The Bible, however, can also empower those deprived by the crass world of politics. It must be rescued first. Once they are done kissing babies and shaking hands, once they settle in their opulent offices built with the money that would have otherwise gone to those babies, politicians forget the basic truths of the Bible. As long as it can be thumped once in a while, however, they will keep it in the bottom drawer until it is needed again. Only by dealing with the Bible sensibly can its abuse be stopped.