In a recent article, which will hopefully be published, I explore the origins of the horror tradition in the Bible.That should come as no surprise since the Good Book is really the beginning of the western literary canon.Yes, there are earlier works—the Epic of Gilgamesh may be considered part of that canon as well, for the canon has no official curator—but because of Scripture’s status literature in the western world takes off from there.In any case, the other day I was considering the additions to the book of Daniel in the Apocrypha.The Apocrypha is, of course, part of the Catholic biblical canon, but not the Protestant.The additions to Daniel roughly fall into three stories, or two stories and a poem.The two stories—Bel and the Dragon, and Susanna—involve Daniel as an early kind of detective.
Traditionally the inventor of the detective story is Edgar Allan Poe, and certainly in the modern literary canon that may be so.One wonders, however, if Poe might have drawn his inspiration from these apocryphal stories.Susanna goes like this: two nasty elders fall in lust with Susanna, the beautiful wife of a local prominent judge.They stalk her, learning her habits, and when they know she’ll be alone they confront her demanding sex.If she won’t, they’ll claim they caught her with another man and since the law requires two witnesses, well, she was screwed.Since she won’t comply they accuse her and she is condemned until a young Daniel in turn condemns the court for not questioning the men separately.When Daniel does so the details of their story don’t match and Susanna is vindicated.Part courtroom drama and part ratiocination, this is an early detective tale.
Bel and the Dragon involves a couple stories together, but the story of Bel is the one involving detective work.The priests of the god Bel take food into their temple every night to offer as a sacrifice.Since it’s gone in the morning, they offer this as proof that Bel is real.Daniel, however, knows Bel is just a statue and so he sprinkles a fine layer of ash on the floor around the food one night.The next day as Bel’s followers announce the food is gone and the temple was sealed for the duration, Daniel takes them back and shows the footprints in the ash—the priests have been entering from a secret access and eating the offering.There may not be a direct line from these stories to Poe, but they nevertheless reinforce the idea that the western canon begins with Holy Writ.If we explore this with our own ratiocination we’ll discover, I believe, much more.
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.
Writing with the hopes of eventually being included in the Western Canon, I suspect, is often somewhere in the back of an author’s mind. We want our efforts to be noticed and our voices to be heard. The Western Canon, however, is a very exclusive club, and the members don’t get selected easily or quickly. We value our classics. More amorphous than the biblical canon, the list of books that define western culture is slightly different with every analyst, but the biggies always make the cut. Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly see the great classics as a source of meaning in an increasingly secular world. All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age is a fascinating consideration of how the writing we’ve turned to for inspiration has changed over time. Older members—including the Bible—don’t drop off the list, but newer ones are continually added. According to Dreyfus and Kelly the polytheism of Homer shone with possibilities, and monotheism led to necessary changes where the shining shifted to new characters and new stories. It is an intriguing concept.
Reading about writing generates a fire within. Some of the classics All Things Shining discusses are those you’d expect: The Divine Comedy and Moby Dick. Others are more personally meaningful, such as the work of Elizabeth Gilbert or David Foster Wallace. We all have the authors that shine for us. Moby Dick, of course, has been on my personal canon since seminary and the chapter on Melville helps to bring the thesis of this brief book together. We all know the white whale is more than an albino cetacean, and the world has benefitted from that fact ever since Melville put pen to paper.
As enjoyable as All Things Shining is to read, I was left with the impression that meaning itself has become greatly fragmented in the modern world. Without the social glue of religion, we’ve been left to chart our own course through parts of the universe yet unexplored. We select our crew by the books we read, and we decide whether Jesus or Captain Ahab is better able to guide us through such dangerous waters. They both, in their way, captain ships. Since this is an exercise in fragmentation, we don’t know upon which shore this craft will ultimately land. While Dreyfus and Kelly are philosophers, many of us have followed other paths and have come to our amateur ways of finding meaning. Some of our ships never come ashore at all. “One does not have to believe that the Greek gods actually exist in order to gain something deep and important from Homer’s sense of the sacred.” Well said! If only we could learn the lesson to be literary rather than literal, religions would allow for many ships upon this vast ocean. And still we hale each other with the words, “Have ye seen the great white?”