As readers of my other blog know, I've been focusing on reading (and sometimes rereading) classic literature this year. As the end of the year approaches, I've decided to close out by reading some books of the Bible.
I've read a fair amount of the Bible thanks to my religious upbringing and continue to use a lot of Biblical learning in my writing. My Bitterwood novels are rife with Biblical allusions, not to mention direct quotes. Coming soon, I've got a short story called "Fall of Babylon" appearing in an anthology of kaiju stories where I draw heavily upon the Book of Revelation for inspiration.
But, at Capclave last month, I was talking about the book of Job on a panel with James Morrow and he basically said I didn't understand the lesson of that story. He's an author who's built a career out of building novels around Biblical concepts, so I'm taking his admonition seriously. It's been over 30 years since I've been to Sunday school and actually had homework assignments to read sections of the Bible. I have trouble remembering books I wrote just a year ago, so it's certainly possible that my memory of some of the Bible isn't as crisp as it needs to be.
Which, of course, invites the question: Why should I even want to know the Bible. I'm an atheist. Have been since my late teens. Why bother slogging through a book that's got almost nothing to do with my life these days?
I've got four answers:
1. The Bible is still the foundation of a vast body of English literature. Last month I read Jane Eyre, and all through the book she makes references to Biblical myths. While certainly our culture today is increasingly secular, and I'm sure you could watch a hundred episodes of "Three and a Half Men" without knowing a single scripture and not miss a thing, I still feel like many great books would be less satisfying if I was unaware of the religious text underpinning the works.
2. The Bible is actually pretty amazing reading... in parts. Look, I won't pretend that the average reader is going to get a damn thing out of trying to slog through Numbers or Leviticus or the cluster or minor prophets at the end of the Old Testament. But Job, Ecclesiastes, and Revelations are definitely worth mining for their poetry and imagery, and there's a lot of Biblical myths that a writer is going to be a hell of a lot poorer for not knowing. David versus Goliath, David and Bathsheba, the creation myth of Genesis, the Flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, the parables of Christ, Jacob wrestling an angle, Moses parting the Red Sea then wandering in the wilderness for forty years, the Ten Commandments.... it's worth knowing these things for the same reason it's worth knowing Greek mythology or Norse mythology. Only, more so, since no one takes Greek and Norse myths as literal truth, while we live in a nation where there are people... often people in with great political power... who do take these myths seriously.
3. It's important to know what's in the Bible because so many, many people think they know what's in it when they don't. I don't want to start a political discussion in this particular article, but lets just say that the Bible and Jesus get invoked a lot by both the right and left in contexts that bewilder me. I have a hard time figuring out how some people read the Bible and come away knowing Jesus's position of, say, the capital gains tax or EPA regulations. Knowing what's actually in the book so many people reference incorrectly is a useful tool for making yourself disliked in heated dinner conversations, if such is your goal in life.
4. It's important to know myself. I was taught the Bible starting from the time I actually acquired language. I still remember some of the terror I felt in church being warned about the fires of hell. I remember the awe and wonder I felt thinking about armies of angels swarming down from a sky cracking open on Judgment Day. I remember my confusion about how the hell Noah got so many animals on the ark, and just what the heck any of this had to do with dinosaurs. I got a little cryptozoological thrill by being assured that giants and ghosts and witches and dragons were all real creatures, because the Bible said they were real.
There are still values and assumptions I hold without giving them much thought that no doubt arise from some of those early Sunday school lessons. Digging deeper into the book that gave birth to them might yet open unknown doors in my brain that lead me to discover the terra incognita within me.
So, next up... rereading Job.