It took me some courage to decide to blog on this activity from the 40 acts of generosity Lent challenge. Is there any book in the world that provokes such diverse and heated reactions as the Bible?
Among Christians there is an enormous range of responses, from obedience to respect to frustration. Fans of the English language celebrated the King James translation‘s recent anniversary regardless of spirituality and public atheists like Philip Pullman riff on its themes in their own literature. If you’ve never read the Bible, you probably still know dozens of quotes and idioms from it, whether you realise it or not. As Robert McCrum wrote in the Guardian:
As well as selling an estimated 1bn copies since 1611, the [King James Bible] went straight into our literary bloodstream like a lifesaving drug. Whenever we put words into someone’s mouth, or see the writing on the wall, or go from strength to strength, or eat, drink and be merry, or fight the good fight, or bemoan the signs of the times, or find a fly in the ointment, or use words such as “long-suffering”, “scapegoat” and “peacemaker” we are unconsciously quoting the KJB. More astounding, compared to Shakespeare’s prodigal 31,000-word vocabulary, the KJB works its magic with a lexicon of just 12,000 words.
It is the most widely-translated book in the world. To join the 3000 or so languages biblical manuscripts have been translated into, the Wycliffe Bible translation organisation is currently involved in, wait for it, 1500 new translations into languages that don’t yet have a version of the Bible.
Familiarity can of course breed contempt, and it’s pretty easy in dinner party conversations in the West these days to dismiss the Bible as unimportant, irrelevant, harmful or superstitious, particularly if you haven’t read it, or forget that it was written a few millenia ago and is at least partly a product of its times.
An Anglican friend of mine at Carey used to hold stalls at alternative lifestyle festivals displaying angel artwork and installations of ‘ancient holy writings.’ You may not be surprised to hear that the profound wisdom of these spiritual texts was a huge hit with the post-Christian crowd. It’s all in the marketing, right?
Here’s how I see it. Over the course of several centuries, some extremely talented, unusual people (imagine the literacy rates in the ancient near east), drawing on wells of spirituality and connection with God, composed literary masterpieces in a variety of genres. The ones that weren’t masterpieces, or weren’t recognised by their communities as containing God’s wisdom, knowledge or truth, were simply not adopted, preserved, copied or loved enough to reach us, so we really do have the cream of the crop on our bookshelves.
Some wrote poetry to try and express their personal spirituality and conversations with God (Psalms, for example) or cosmic truths that were beyond the ability of prose (Genesis 1, John 1).
Some wrote fables, parables and catchy stories to make serious points about who God is and how God relates to humans (Jonah, the Good Samaritan).
Some wrote histories of God’s interaction with individuals (Joseph, Paul), family networks (Genesis, Ruth), large communities (Exodus) and nations (Judges, Chronicles).
Some aimed deliberately to tell people who hadn’t met the extraordinary Jesus of Nazareth what kind of man he was, what he did, on small and large scales, and why his existence could matter to people who had never before heard of him (the Gospels, Acts).
Some wrote to make sense with others of what they knew of Jesus, after he had left their presence. They puzzled together over the significance of God’s interactions with humanity, and what they could mean for how ordinary people could now see themselves and each other (the New Testament).
All of these texts are fascinating and compelling. There are parts of the Bible that I ‘like’ more than others (Ruth, Isaiah, pretty much anything Luke or James wrote), there are parts I feel like I understand more than others (Ezekiel ain’t in this list!). But it’s all relentlessly, magnetically captivating.
It’s a skyscraper’s worth of windows into other people’s spirituality. It’s food for thought and action. It’s a counterpoint to every other influence in surrounding culture. It’s provocation to be more, better, deeper than we are now.
It’s also pretty hard to understand without being a Jew in the ancient near east, so it should really come with a warning: be careful with these texts. They are dangerous and alive and they growl and sing in a foreign tongue. Don’t assume you understand what the lion is roaring.
With the right attitude, equipment and respect for the sting, a beekeeper can safely approach a hive of powerful insects. If you advance with curiosity, in the company of expert commentaries and with an important question or three, you may encounter in the Bible tastes of what has drawn people to read it, print it, translate and share it for a few thousand years of human history.
And yes, who knows? You may even encounter the almighty God of the Universe.
This is part of a series following Stewardship UK’s 40 acts of generosity challenge through Lent. You can find other posts in the series here, and the 40 acts blog post on the Poverty and Justice Bible here.