The editors of GQ magazine recently assembled a list of 21 no-need-to-read so-called Great Books, along with a parallel list of recommended alternative choices. [Read the article here.] The point was to challenge the idea that there’s a mandatory list of books that anyone claiming to be well-read will know from firsthand experience. Don’t worry, say these guardians of the hipster style scene, because the whole idea of a canon is, well, already shot.
Many of the Great Books aren’t actually so great, so feel free to take a pass.
The list itself is pretty eclectic, taking aim not merely at older classics from authors like Henry James, Mark Twain, and Ernest Hemingway, but also newer offerings like those of David Foster Wallace and Paulo Coelho. The original sin apparently afflicting all of the list? The snore factor.
No doubt some of the questioning, along with the suggested Plan B, are spot on. Instead of J. D. Salinger’s “not profound” Franny and Zooey, try Willa Cather’s “calm and contemplative and open” Death Comes for the Archbishop instead. Sound advice there. But sometimes the list limps, as when Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings fantasy novels are relegated to “barely readable” status.
The Bible and the ListIt’s probably not surprising that the Bible also made the cut list. These days there is a rather standard list of objections to the Bible, including but not limited to being sexist, violent, and generally approving of all manner of cultural regressions.
It is interesting and worth noting that not so long ago the standard story about the Bible was that it was The Good Book, albeit the one rarely read. Pollster George Gallup called it the best-selling, least-read book in America. Today the Bible remains largely unknown, but now it’s increasingly The Bad Book. And yes, boring too.
GQ’s list is not made up of review essays; it is as it claims to be, merely a list. But a few dismissive comments are included with each entry.
American novelist Jesse Ball’s cool brush-off of the Bible goes like this:
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.
So there you have it.
First, the data point is correct: a long stream of research over the last few decades confirms what we all pretty much know anyway: the Bible is not being read very much. Most of those who still interact with it are not really reading it, but using some of its bits and pieces. So in many cases the pro-Bible people do not have a deep acquaintance with the actual content (which we’re actively working to address.)
Ball goes on to claim that once we do actually read it, we quickly discover the Bible’s manifold faults. But here the critique misses, I think, because of what I call the misframing of the Bible. Let me explain. For the Bible to be anything like what it’s intended to be, it is crucial to bring the right kind of assumptions and expectations to it.
Evaluating the Bible On Its Own Terms
Is the Bible trying to be like the other entries on this list? Is the Bible trying to be a captivating novel?
No, it isn’t, so characterizing it this way misleads us about its real purpose. And this can quickly enough lead to its easy dismissal.
Of course those who’ve already committed to the Christian story and its Author will have lots of reasons for wanting to read and reread the Bible. But what about would-be readers from outside the traditions that are honoring their own Scriptures? How does an honest outside evaluation of the Bible get on the right track?
For openers, the Bible must be acknowledged for what it is and what it’s trying to do. The Bible is a library of ancient literature, so the first thing is to set aside anachronistic contemporary assessments which want the Bible to act like a modern book. The Bible’s various literary entries are essentially telling us the story of a particular people from thousands of years ago and their claims to be interacting with the Creator of the world.
The Bible does this using ancient ways of writing and telling, so the only way to appreciate the Bible is to willingly enter into its own ancient world. If we’re going to pretend to sum up the value of the Bible, we at least owe it a fair reading, which means learning the basics of how ancient writings worked on their own terms. Poetry, prophetic visions, earthy wisdom, story-telling, and all the other communicative forms of the Bible are often strange to our modern ears. So the thing to do is learn a little about them and then at least begin by reading sympathetically.
Ultimately, the only decent way to read the Bible is to take it book by book, try to understand first what each one was saying to its own ancient audience, and then start putting the story together. Where does the narrative of the Bible go? We live where the story was going, not where it’s been. This is how the decisive question of the value in the Bible needs to be addressed. Rather than acting as a sourcebook for timeless truths, the Bible claims to be the beginning of a story that has continuing relevance for the world long past its own pages. It does this by making claims about the God of the Bible and what he’s up to.We live where the story was going, not where it’s been. This is how the decisive question of the value in the Bible needs to be addressed.Click To Tweet
The Bible itself already has a long record of being a powerful force in the history of the world. It’s hard to think of anything more influential in the Western imaginative tradition of art and literature. This alone makes it worth reading. GQ’s assessment of the Bible was surpassed before it was even printed, and its dismissal tells us more about ourselves and our age than it does about the Bible.
It may be best to offer an invitation, rather than a defense. As the voice urged St. Augustine (no small cultural influence himself), “Take up and read!” Just be sure to read well.