One of the more embarrassing questions I get asked is “What do you do?” This has been true throughout my career (if what I do can be called that). I should clarify—I don’t mind saying “I’m a professor,” or “I’m an editor”—it’s the follow-up question that’s difficult. “What do you teach/edit?” Mentioning the Bible is a conversation-stopper. In the silence that inevitably follows you can almost hear the electronic buzzing in the interlocutor’s brain as s/he tries to come up with something nice to say while backing away. In actual fact my degrees have been more in the history of religions rather than Bible per se, but those who’ve done the hiring haven’t tended to see it that way. This is not a nostalgic post, asking to go back to yesteryear (that’s happening politically without my help), but it is a reflection of what James Wallace Harris says on BookRiot—the Bible is a good book to read.
It’s easy to get swept away in the criticism of religion, and particularly Christianity. Those who profess it, historically, have a lot to answer for. What we’ve allowed religion to do to others is inexcusable. What we sometimes miss is that the motivation is one in which all people participate—learning the truth. This is more difficult than it might seem. If someone had discovered “the truth” we’d all know by now. The fact is we’re deeply divided about what that truth is and that alone proves no one has found it. We’ll recognize it when we see it. We just haven’t seen it yet. What sometimes gets forgotten along the way is that the Bible was, and is, a great milestone of humanity’s search. As I keep having to remind myself, there’s some really good stuff in there.
Harris isn’t alone in suggesting that atheists should study the Bible. Some very prominent non-believers have declared the same thing from time to time. The Good Book is densely interwoven with western culture—even secular western culture. I’m currently at work on a book that explores one thread of that complex fabric, and it’s amazing to me how much we miss when we ignore holy writ. We shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater, as the old saying goes. That’s not biblical, but it does hint at the truth, I think. Or maybe it’s just that I want to be able to answer that most basic of questions without having to make excuses for what otherwise looks like a series of poor life choices.
Posted in Bible, Books, Literature, Memoirs, Posts, Religious Violence, Sects
Tagged Bible, BookRiot, James Wallace Harris, literacy, Western Canon
I’ve been writing about reading. No surprises there, I suppose. My wife recently introduced me to BookRiot, and I wish I had more time to spend there. A recent post by Aisling Twomey describes how reading on her Tube commute helps keep her sane. Here is a good case of convergent evolution—I came to the same conclusion after about a week of what turns out to be about three hours a day commuting to New York City. We didn’t move to my current location to work in Manhattan. My job was in nearby Piscataway. It was only when a headhunter found me a job at Routledge that I began the daily trip. The problem is I get terribly car sick. To this day I can’t read in a car. Some days I can’t read on the bus either. Gradually, however, I trained myself to do it, and the results have been worth it. Ms. Twomey has read over fifty books this year on her London commute. I suspect my commute is a bit longer since I’ve read a few more than that. Still, we tilt against the same windmill, so we need to appreciate the dedication it takes.
I was talking to someone the other day who was complaining about cell phones. She said, “I used to read a lot. I worked in a book store. It was great.” Her cell, she said, gave her a stiff neck from constantly looking down. And a sore thumb from swiping and texting. And yet, she lamented, she just couldn’t stop. Books may well be a vice. I’m as bad as any addict. I have no idea how many books I’ve read in my life: the number is in the thousands rather than the hundreds, I know. And even the books I regret, I don’t really regret. Reading is a coping mechanism.
One of the things that the traditional ancient religions all have in common is books. Not all of them treat sacred texts the same way, but they all have some form of sacred writing. There was an implicit sense, I believe, from the first stylus on clay, that something truly special was going on here. Holy, even. Writing is one of the great joys of life. Reading is another. Both are sacred professions. In a way it seems a shame to have to be forced into a commute in order to find time to read books. Still, the constant flow of new material has a life-saving quality to it. I can’t imagine spending fifteen concentrated hours a week texting. I don’t know that many people to text. The ones I do know I know through their books. And they’re very good company on a long ride.
One of my most frequent imaginary dalliances is wondering what I would have done with my life if I hadn’t been raised religious. Like many young boys I found “exciting” jobs enticing—soldier, firefighter, explorer—but scientist also loomed large in my imaginary horizon. By the time I was a teen I was firmly ensconced in books. My upbringing meant that many of these books were religious in nature, and my concern with ultimate consequences meant religion was the only possible career track to make any sense. It certainly never made dollars. As someone who professionally looks backwards, I’ve found myself wondering if I shouldn’t have focused on English rather than Hebrew and Ugaritic as a career. After all, the Bible has been available in English for centuries now. Besides that, the canon is larger—from Beowulf to Bible and beyond. Reading is, after all, fundamental.
Beowulf, from Wikimedia Commons.
I only discovered BookRiot recently, and that through the mediation of my wife. For the writer of a blog I really don’t spend that much time online outside of work. I like real books, and being outdoors. Too much time staring at a screen brings me down. Nevertheless, BookRiot has stories that cause me to question my career choices from time to time. For instance, I have never knowingly heard of The Exeter Book. Dating to the tenth century, this medieval manuscript is among the earliest of English writings. Showing the interests of the monk who likely inscribed it, it has religiously themed material and riddles. As E. H. Kern’s post on BookRiot points out, The Exeter Book has inspired many later writers and has, through them, made its way into mainstream popular culture. Not bad for a book that I suspect many, like myself, have never heard of.
Old English has the same kind of draw as other ancient languages. Not nearly as dusty as ancient Semitic tongues, it contains the roots to the form of expression I find most familiar. I love looking back at the Old English of Beowulf and spotting the points where my native language has remained relatively unchanged over the centuries. Modern English even begrudgingly owes a considerable debt to the Bible of King James. Our language is our spiritual heritage. We have trouble expressing our deepest thoughts without it. Perhaps had BookRiot existed when I was young, I might have made a rather more informed decision about the direction of my career. Or, then again, religion might have found me nevertheless. From some things there is just no hiding.
Posted in Bible, Books, Britannia, Literature, Memoirs, Posts, Religious Origins, Ugarit
Tagged Beowulf, BookRiot, E. H. Kern, English, Hebrew, King James Bible, Old English, The Exeter Book, Ugaritic