Jonathan Kay is some conservative Canadian columnist who doesn’t think much, but has nonetheless managed to write something that amused me. It’s an article in which he proposes his solution to just about everything: Everyone should read the Bible (especially atheists). I know already that a lot of you are already giggling: we have read the bible, that’s why many of us are atheists. But as you’ll see, it’s not just the title, but the whole article has this smugly unaware air — he hasn’t thought at all deeply about this subject, but he can wag his finger and lecture us sternly on the conventional wisdom with blissful pomposity.
You might be wondering why he’s taking special pains to hector the atheists. It’s because we’re especially annoying — he was driven to write his article because some damned atheist, Michael Arsenault, is campaigning against the Gideons invading public schools to hand out bibles.
Religious extremists often frighten me, offend me, disgust me. But in terms of provoking irritation, none compare to the militantly godless.
Wait…the Gideons are the ones pushing their faith on schoolkids; Arsenault is only asking them to stop doing that. How is it he’s the irritating one? Kay’s logic is awesome: it’s because religious fanatics believe that the omnipotent lord of the universe has told them to do that, but atheists do it all on their lonesome, without that excuse. Atheists using their brain = massively irritating. Christians slavishly obeying ranting preacher = well that’s all right then.
But there’s even more cluelessness! We are apparently supposed to worship the bible, no matter what our religious beliefs, and Mr Kay obligingly gives us an abbreviated summary of the basic Biblical concepts we must master.
I am not a Christian. But I still keep on my National Post desk a well-thumbed copy of the King James Bible I received from my Moral & Religious Education teacher in 1979. I can’t claim to have read the whole thing, but I have read enough of it to understand basic concepts, such as the genealogy of Abraham’s immediate descendants; the flight of the Israelites from Egypt; the description of Jesus’ life and death contained in the Gospels; and the eschatology of Revelation. Even atheists must understand these concepts if they are to have an educated understanding of our world, for they have a direct bearing on everything from the modern Middle East, to the popularity of Rick Santorum, to the plot of Justin Cronin zombie novels.
So one of the important things we atheists should learn is Abraham’s genealogy? Why? I also suspect some blithe ignorance on Kay’s part: the notorious begats of Genesis 5 are the descendants of Adam; the further begats of Genesis 10 are the descendants of Noah. There are some complicated summaries of Abraham’s descendants, for instance in Genesis 25:
Then again Abraham took a wife, and her name was Ketu’rah.
And she bare him Zimran, and Jokshan, and Medan, and Mid’i-an, and Ishbak, and Shu’ah.
And Jokshan begat Sheba, and Dedan. And the sons of Dedan were As’shurim, and Let’ushim, and Le’ummim.
And the sons of Mid’i-an; Ephah, and Epher, and Hanoch, and Abi’dah, and Elda’ah. All these were the children of Ketu’rah.
And Abraham gave all that he had unto Isaac.
But unto the sons of the concubines, which Abraham had, Abraham gave gifts, and sent them away from Isaac his son, while he yet lived, eastward, unto the east country.
So what, exactly, is the basic concept here? Are we supposed to memorize these names? What is the relevance of Ishbak, Let’ushim, and Elda’ah? Would Canada be a better place with a greater appreciation of the unimportance of Abraham’s many nameless concubines?
Does Mr Kay know that the flight of the Israelites from Egypt was a myth of an event that didn’t happen? There is no archaeological evidence to support the story in Exodus. And again, spell out the relevance, please. It’s a scrap of pseudohistory.
Similarly, vague umbly-mumbly about Jesus’ life is nonsense about a god-man who did not exist, a collection of legends with no primary sources, and no reason to trust the veracity of the authors, who were all religious fanatics with motivation to inflate the grains of truth in the story. We’d be better off throwing that garbage on the trash heap.
And seriously, we’re supposed to know the eschatology of the book of Revelation? I’ve read it for laughs — that stuff is insane. All we need to know is that there is a body of deranged literature which deluded fanatics use to justify violence and a hope for the imminent destruction of the universe; there are no truths in the prophecies at all, and the only people who really need to know them in detail are the experts in psychopathology who are trying to untangle the delusions that drive dangerous human beings.
Here’s the one great truth you need to know. The bible is a bad book. It’s a nearly unreadable mess of contradictory stories, ancient political propaganda, arcane tribalisms, bizarre rituals, and the bragging of petty provincial bullies. There are occasional scraps of genuine literary quality imbedded in it, but it is 95% shit…and unfortunately, the book has been granted such extravagantly unwarranted reverence that people refuse to recognize the shit and worship it all uncritically. Which leads to columnists telling us to read the bible for the genealogies and Revelation, rather than Ecclesiastes and the Song of Solomon, and whole American industries striving to replace all of science with a few paragraphs from Genesis.
Kay also makes the tiresome argument that the King James Bible is full of idioms that have common currency in the English, therefore…what? I would not deny that the bible has been influential in Western history, but then, so has cholera — I think recognition of the importance of both is essential for an educated person, but I do not endorse being inoculated with either.
In his 2010 book, Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language, David Crystal concluded that the King James Bible alone created twice as many modern English idioms (think “fly in the ointment”) as all of Shakespeare’s work combined. And even these are only a small fraction of the thousands of idioms given to us by predecessor Bibles, such as the Tyndale, Bishops’ and Geneva variants. The English we speak today and the English of the Bible are inseparable. A common phrase such as “brother’s keeper,” for instance, loses its meaning to someone ignorant of the story of Cain and Abel.
This is a false argument. You certainly can understand that simple phrase without reading the Bible, and you can read the Bible without understanding the phrase. How often have you heard “Am I my brother’s keeper?” used by Christians as an excuse to avoid responsibility, vs. recognizing that it was a transparent rationalization by a murderer? I’d argue instead that many of these well-worn idioms have acquired meanings independent of their sources, and that trying to tie them to Christianity or Judaism ignores their modern usage.
I wouldn’t be surprised at all if there is a great deal of our modern language that arose from the Bible — evolutionary biologists do not deny the significance of antecedents! But that is not sufficient cause to demand that everyone must learn from the archaic and often irrelevant original source.
That more idioms arose from the Bible than Shakespeare is no virtue. Imagine a table with two books: a copy of the Bible, and the very least of Shakespeare’s plays — say, Troilus and Cressida. Which do you think will be better written, more interesting, more humane, and more coherent? Shakespeare, hands down. Shakespeare was an author who was certainly informed by the Bible, but he was also a literary genius who used the clever 5% and left out the 95% shit, plucking the gems out of the dungheap and giving us a better story and a better morality.
Kay ought to recognize this fact; he even gives an example that ought to have alerted him that his thoughtless assumption that the Bible was a good book was wrong.
My children are too young for the Bible (as I learned from an unsuccessful and unintentionally terrifying experiment at bed-time reading with Robert Crumb’s illustrated Book of Genesis) — so I had to explain concepts like “wickedness” to them as they arose in Montgomery’s text. [He was also reading them Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables–pzm]
I love Crumb’s Genesis — most people have not actually read the Bible at all, and translating it into a different medium — especially a particularly faithful translation — can jar them into looking at it more closely. And what you learn from Genesis is that it is a truly awful, evil, wretched little book. Kay’s children could see that. Now why can’t Kay himself?