In a guest post, Christian blogger Grace Dalton considers whether April’s issue of GQ magazine was right to describe the Bible as a “Book You Don’t Have to Read.”
From 21 Books You Don’t Have to Read by GQ (April):
“The Holy Bible is rated very highly by all the people who supposedly live by it but who in actuality have not read it. Those who have read it know there are some good parts, but overall it is certainly not the finest thing that man has ever produced. It is repetitive, self-contradictory, sententious, foolish, and even at times ill-intentioned. If the thing you heard was good about the Bible was the nasty bits, then I propose Agota Kristof’s The Notebook, a marvelous tale of two brothers who have to get along when things get rough. The subtlety and cruelty of this story is like that famous sword stroke (from below the boat) that plunged upward through the bowels, the lungs, and the throat and into the brain of the rower. —Jesse Ball, ‘Census’
Will anyone decide not to read something – that they would have read otherwise – on the basis of this article? The opinions of individuals fortunate enough to have had writing published don’t void the enjoyment and enlightenment that many millions of readers have experienced via the books disparaged on this list. It’s right that no one should feel compelled to read classic literature purely for the sake of appeasing cultural expectations – but because the books that one has read doesn’t determine their moral standing nor their value, not because literary classics are useless as this GQ feature proposes.
“Those who have read [the Bible] know there are some good parts, but overall it is certainly not the finest thing that man has ever produced. It is repetitive, self-contradictory, sententious, foolish, and even at times ill-intentioned.”
Jesse Ball, ‘Census’ — GQ Magazine, April 2018
Indisputably, the Bible has had magnitudes more impact on humanity than any other book. If one wants to better understand history, better relate to other cultures, or better enjoy art and literature, the Bible is certainly the best investment of one’s reading time. The Bible permeates countless other writings; lending themes, motifs and quotations to an endless array of books, plays, songs, turns of phrase and more. Even if one disagrees with the Bible entirely, reading it will enable better comprehension of so, so much else. The Bible was the first book ever to be printed when, Johannes Gutenberg developed the first printing press in the late 1430s; and today, the Bible Society’s research has found that around 50 Bibles are sold each minute.
“Ill intentioned” – I wonder how Jesse Ball presumes to know what the intentions of the Bible’s writers were? He gets money and notoriety from writing fiction – no such incentive was on offer to the Bible’s writers. The New Testament was written largely by early Christians whose lives were much endangered by their sharing about Jesus. It is often argued “religion” is fabricated to control people “the opium of the masses”; but whilst in later centuries, Church leaders had power and wealth, there was no prospect of this for the first Christians, who wrote the NT. King David – who wrote most of the Psalms – was powerful; but his writing didn’t contribute to his clout; and he willingly documented his weaknesses. Paul – who wrote much of the New Testament – was developing eminence among the early Church; but he wrote to encourage and to confess his mistakes and vulnerability. Where is the ill intention?
“It is a common quip of atheists that the Bible is fictional fairy stories. Their primary reasoning is their naturalism; they presume that supernatural events can never happen, therefore the Bible’s miraculous events render it beyond their acceptance of reality. But the reality of Christianity’s existence cannot be denied — so those who believe the Bible’s miracles didn’t happen must account for how the biggest movement in history developed.”
Nearly all of the books on the list are fiction – does Jesse presume this is true of the Bible? It is a common quip of atheists that the Bible is fictional fairy stories. Their primary reasoning is their naturalism; they presume that supernatural events can never happen, therefore the Bible’s miraculous events render it beyond their acceptance of reality. But the reality of Christianity’s existence cannot be denied – so those who believe the Bible’s miracles didn’t happen must account for how the biggest movement in history developed. The other religions are ideologies formed through their founders’ wrestling the philosophy of existence, and individuals’ reports of messages from God; Christianity is based on events.
Jesse asserts that “the Bible is rated very highly by all the people who supposedly live by it but who in actuality have not read it” – how many such people does he base this absolute on? Indeed there are many who claim to follow the Bible yet barely read it – but there are innumerable followers who put substantial time into Bible study. Study being the crux of his misperception; Jesse states that those who have read it know that it’s not the finest thing, presuming that all who read it will share his feelings. In reality the Bible requires not only reading, but studying; it is endlessly complex, filled with poetic language and symbolism specific to the culture of the time. The narrative gives us key points of events, but it is imperative that we give consideration to the wider society and other events of the time. Biblical teaching on slavery, for example, which seems to us now to be cruel, was in fact unprecedented at the time for the mercy it commanded be given to slaves. Levitical laws which to us seem bizarre, were caring guidance from God to the Hebrew people in a setting entirely different from ours. Violent conflicts of the Old Testament record for us the results of human evil and Satan’s war on humanity. Psalms, Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes paint a vivid picture of the emotions and musings of two brilliant but flawed individuals, perfused with contempory imagery and idioms. Jesus repeatedly uses parables and metaphors, compelling His audience to deep self examination. Thus whilst Jesse concludes the Bible as simply being poor quality, the issue is in fact that he’s only skimmed the surface of the deepest text in human history; his superficial understanding overlooks fundamental contextual points.
“The success of entertainment like Game of Thrones shows that plenty amongst the generation who’ve grown up Biblically illiterate are in fact keen to soak in stories of war and sexual scandal; there’s plenty in the Bible to grip GQ’s demographic.”
“If the thing you heard was good about the Bible was the nasty bits” – seems an intriguing statement given the regularity with which other critics chastise the Bible’s “nasty bits”. The success of entertainment like Game of Thrones shows that plenty amongst the generation who’ve grown up Biblically illiterate are in fact keen to soak in stories of war and sexual scandal; there’s plenty in the Bible to grip GQ’s demographic. Even if one disbelieves in God, one might well read the Bible for the drama – but perhaps Jesse feels the notion of God so distasteful, that he feels repelled by the Bible even if its events are attention grabbing.
Indeed, as Jesse bemoans, it is repetitive at times. Why has Jesse not considered the reasons for the repetitions? Each has purpose and meaning. Some arise from poetic devices. Some arises because of patterns in events that serve to teach us vital lessons – in particular, the Hebrew people repeatedly turn from God to follow pagan gods, then suffer, then return to Him. This helps us today, to understand why God hasn’t eliminated suffering as atheists frequently argue He should.
“That the Gospel accounts agree, and that the popular objections can each be shown to be false should give us pause for thought. If Jesus truly returned life, the Bible is incomparably more important than any other book.”
Most importantly, the Gospels share many events, such that they might indeed be deemed repetitive – but the fact that different writers each attest to the same events give them striking credibility. In a criminal investigation, the court will endeavour to hear accounts from independent witnesses. The court may come to a ruling if the testimonies agree, whilst not being identical enough to suggest a collaborative hoax – and if no reasonable counter evidence is submitted. That the Gospel accounts agree, and that the popular objections can each be shown to be false (this requires a separate article) should give us pause for thought. If Jesus truly returned life, the Bible is incomparably more important than any other book.
Yet, today, flicking pages is not the only way to experience texts. Audiobooks enable us to consume literature whilst travelling, exercising, doing chores and more. In addition to multitudes of websites and online videos on the Bible, diverse audiobook Bibles are available from an enormous selection. Hearing the Bible read by expressive actors makes The Bible a fascinating accompaniment to even mundane daily tasks, rather than a chore as many of the GQ demographic presume.
There’s a lifetime’s worth of scholarly lectures and publications that help you decide for yourself regarding the history and meaning of the Bible. Christians sometimes quote the Bible to non Christians presuming that it’s universally regarded as true, but it’s wise to study why we can trust it. If it were untrue, it would nonetheless be impactful enough to be the literary work most worthy of your time; if, as I believe, it is true, reading it is – literally – crucial.
PS – Many respectable figures would disagree about GQ’s dismissal of the Bible. Consider, for example:
“I believe God did intend, in giving us intelligence, to give us the opportunity to investigate and appreciate the wonders of His creation. He is not threatened by our scientific adventures.” – Francis Collins (former director of the Human Genome Project – under whom the human genome was first sequenced in its completion; now Director of the National Institutes of Health)
“A thorough knowledge of the Bible is worth more than a college education.” – Theodore Roosevelt
“The Bible shows the way to go to heaven, not the way the heavens go.” – Galileo Galilei
“I read novels but I also read the Bible. And study it, you know? And the more I learn, the more excited I get.” – Johnny Cash
“The Bible is a study guide for social interaction.” – Prince
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