I don’t like “piggy-backing” on someone else’s post, but doing so in this case permits me to say something about the author of the post that prompts this one. Jerry Coyne has just put up a post about the Bible. In “The Bible is Boring and Insipid” — as it often is — Jerry tells us about his latest “religious” project: to read the Bible straight through. It’s not a labour of love, and, as anyone who has done this knows, it can be almost stultifyingly dull — and not only in the “begats” either. As Jerry points out, the parts where the priestly author spends so much time describing the construction of the Tabernacle — which is to house the Ark of the Covenant (which is also described in tedious detail) — is anal as well as banal — and unintelligible too, if it is thought to come from a transcendent being. As Jerry says:
I don’t get this at all. He’s GOD, for crying out loud: omniscient, omnipotent, and wholly good. Why the hell does he need people to praise him all the time, and why does he kill those who fail to do so? If he’s perfect, he wouldn’t need that kind of constant reinforcement. For example, some of the Israelis [Israelites?], wandering in the desert, are getting sick of eating manna all the time, and kvetch about not having meat. So what does God do? He makes it rain quails—thousands of luscious birds falling from the sky. And then, when the people bite into those toothsome birds, God smites them with the plague for their lust, killing many of them. What? They deserve to die because they want some real food?
The point, however, is that Jerry is actually doing this. Atheists are so often accused of knowing nothing about religion or theology, but the truth is that many serious atheists do try to find out about religious teachings, and Jerry Coyne is one who takes this seriously as an obligation. If you’re going to criticise something, and dismiss the entire premise of that thing, then you have some responsibility to do your homework. No one can say that Jerry Coyne doesn’t do this. He reads much more theology now than I do, and his latest project — will he persevere to the end, I wonder? — while obviously an onerous labour, has already produced good things.
However, while I am ”piggy-backing” on a Why Evolution is True post, I’ve also had the intention of putting up something about the Bible over the last few weeks, ever since Richard Dawkins defended the Education Secretary’s (Michael Gove’s) decision to send free King James Bibles to every school in Britain. In an article in the Observer entitled “Why I want all our children to read the King James Bible,” Dawkins says:
I am a little shocked at the implication that not every school library already possesses a copy. Can that be true? What do they have, then? Harry Potter? Vampires? Or do they prefer one of those modern translations in which “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, all is vanity” is lyrically rendered as “Perfectly pointless, says the Teacher. Everything is pointless”? That is Ecclesiastes, 1:2, as you’ll find it in the Common English Bible. And you can’t get much more common than that, although admittedly the God’s Word translation provides stiff competition with “absolutely pointless” and the Good News Bible challenges strongly with “useless, useless”.
As Robin McKie (the Guardian science editor) says — obviously a bit surprised by Dawkins’ decision to back Gove’s decision:
Church leaders have approved, but the plan has fallen foul of most non-believers. An online Guardian poll showed an 82% opposition, while the National Secular Society said the £375,000 proposal wasted money and favoured Christianity in multi-faith state schools.
That ”multi-faith state schools” is a bit of a surprise. Wouldn’t “secular state schools” be better? There are lots of “faith-based” state-funded schools in Britain, and those which are not faith-based take children from homes where different faiths are honoured and passed on, but also from secular homes, where religious belief is neither honoured nor taught.
Besides, despite Dawkins’ rhapsody over some of the lyrical and expressive language of the King James Bible, much of that lyricism is spent on palpably tedious and rebarbative text. It may be important, in order to understand much English literature (at least until the present), to have some familiarity with the English Bible, but surely this could be done without suggesting that the whole thing, from cover to cover, needs to be read. Some of the texts, such as Ecclesiastes or Job or the Song of Songs, should be read, no doubt, for these are texts which have resonance whatever your religious beliefs or lack of them. But much of the Bible is simply mind-numbingly boring, as Jerry Coyne points out. As for literary allusions, it would probably be better to have people learn them by reading the literature in which the allusions are made, and have them pointed out and explained. English culture may have been marinated in the English Bible, but should this continue? And, more importantly, should this continue by the reading a book (whether enforced or just recommended) in which the sacred text of Christians is given to children in the form of precisely this collection of books within the same covers — especially if, as is almost surely the case, the title is given as the “Holy Bible”?
There is another problem with the King James Bible. It is true that the language is often poetic and moving; but it is also true that the prose style is the same throughout. It does not reflect the style of the original. Some of the “books” of the Bible are written in graceful, literate Hebrew and Greek, some of it is unschooled and vulgar. In the English text, however, it all sounds the same, and it is this very sameness that gives the Bible its distinctiveness, and separates it from other works of literature. The style itself may be thought to give the Bible a kind of pious haze, and so, by style alone, to make it seem holy, set apart and distinct. The same is true of the Qu’ran, which, for similar reasons, is not held to be translatable. A translation of the Qu’ran is not the Qu’ran, just as many people think that the English Bible is not really the Bible, unless it has the penumbra of holiness that centuries of repetition in the English of the early seventeenth century has given it. And I have been told that even this is not true, and that the English of the King James Bible was deliberately written in an artificially archaic style precisely to give it, from the beginning, the appearance of being unique, set apart, holy.
So, when Dawkins writes, in his Observer article, about the wealth of literary allusion in the Bible (or, more properly, texts in the Bible to which literary allusion has been made), the question surely arises whether reading the Bible itself a necessary exercise in order to know this:
Ecclesiastes, in the 1611 translation, is one of the glories of English literature (I’m told it’s pretty good in the original Hebrew, too). The whole King James Bible is littered with literary allusions, almost as many as Shakespeare (to quote that distinguished authority Anon, the trouble with Hamlet is it’s so full of clichées [sic; participe passé féminin pluriel du verbe clicher]). In The God Delusion I have a section called “Religious education as a part of literary culture” in which I list 129 biblical phrases which any cultivated English speaker will instantly recognise and many use without knowing their provenance: the salt of the earth; go the extra mile; I wash my hands of it; filthy lucre; through a glass darkly; wolf in sheep’s clothing; hide your light under a bushel; no peace for the wicked; how are the mighty fallen.
Of course, it may be true that English would be the poorer for it, were it to lack its biblical clichés, but when he complains (in the quote above) about the Ecclesiastes phrase, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity, saith the Preacher,” being translated into contemporary prose in terms of ‘uselessness’ — although ‘pointlessness’ or ‘emptiness’ or ‘meaninglessness’ might be closer to the original meaning — and more evocative for us too? – is something lost or gained? It is not obvious to me that losing the King James language here would be a great loss, though the passage “To everything there is a season …” (Ecclesiastes 3.1 et seq.) is still very evocative. But is it evocative, I wonder, because that’s the way I first heard it, or because modern English cannot achieve such lyrical prose?
Dawkins adds to this that:
A native speaker of English who has never read a word of the King James Bible is verging on the barbarian. [my italics]
And that is no doubt true, but surely entire Bibles are not necessary for the purpose, and the only purpose served by the distribution of Bibles to schools, King James or otherwise, is to enforce precisely the point that the churches were so happy to support: that this text is somehow distinctive, special, and should form, not only the literary, but also the moral foundation of people’s lives. And this is where supporting the distribution of Bibles is deeply ambiguous. Sir Ian McKellan, the great English actor, whose Lear I was watching last night, takes some justified pleasure in tearing out the pages from hotel Gideon Bibles where homosexuality is condemned as an abomination, the penalty for which is death:
But this is not the only part of the Bible which should be ripped out. (I have occasionally removed Gideon Bibles entire, and thrown them in the trash.) There is, first, the division into Old and New Testaments (in the Christian Bible), which is inherently antisemitic, but many passages in the New Testament which are explicitly and damagingly antisemitic — as well as many other things. There is the misogyny, the genocides, the justification and support of slavery, the questionable morality of obedience, the commendation of faith without evidence (as in “doubting Thomas”), the apocalyptic vision of vengeance in the book of Revelation (or the Apocalypse) — which, whether meant to comfort persecuted Christians or not, is a nightmare that some Christians still anticipate with cruel joy, however evocative the description of the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” may be. Watch it if you have the stomach for it (I couldn’t make it all the way through). The text read in the video is printed below it on youtube:
So, here’s the problem. The Bible is not only boring and tedious in places, the Bible is often deeply immoral, an immorality that underlies so much violence and hatred, misogyny, homophobia and antisemitism, that putting such texts into the hands of children is not something to be welcomed or endorsed. It should be opposed. If understanding English literature, or the source of some English expressions, depends on some knowledge of the Bible, it is not necessary to go through the mind-numbing task of reading the Bible itself, straight through or otherwise, nor to be presented with it in its Christian form, with the aura of sanctity which will accompany it in many contexts. A few important texts might be provided, accompanied by some instruction on the part these texts have played in literature in English. Northrup Frye’s The Great Code would be a good place to begin. However, it also needs to be added that literature in English now extends far beyond the bounds of people whose literary debts include the English Bible — to Salman Rushdie, whose fiction owes much more to Islam than to Christianity, or Chinua Achebe, the great Nigerian novelist and critic, whose debts are as much to the oral tradition of the Igbo of southeastern Nigeria, as to Christianity. While it is important to be aware of these debts, it is not necessary to read through the Bible to learn about them, and, while I understand Dawkins’ concern, there are considerable dangers in suggesting that putting the English Bible into the hands of children is a salutary thing to do.