A Nonbeliever’s Case for the Bible: How a Secular Reading of Scripture Enlarges Our Experience of Beauty, Morality, and Transcendence
From Blake to Bach, why the ancient text long stripped of fact remains essential to our grasp of poetic truth.
By Maria Popova
In my early twenties, I took up a peculiar practice of cultural insurgency — every time I found a Bible in a hotel night-stand drawer while traveling, I would go to the local bookstore, purchase a copy of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, and replace the Bible with it. Although Nietzsche may have winced at this as a manifestation of the haughty rebelliousness youth often mistakes for being a free spirit, it nonetheless sums up my sentiments about the Bible.
But such wholesale dismissal of the Christian classic may be a monumental disservice to our comprehension of poetic myth as a hearth of the human impulse for beauty, morality, and transcendence. So argues Adam Gopnik, one of our few secular rectors of truth and meaning, in his introduction to The Good Book: Writers Reflect on Favorite Bible Passages (public library) — an anthology featuring such celebrated authors as Pico Iyer, Colm Tóibín, Lydia Davis, and Ian Frazier, edited by Andrew Blauner.
How should we read the Bible in a secular age? At a time when this odd, disjointed compilation of ancient Hebrew texts and later Greek texts has lost its claims to historical truth, or to supernatural revelation, it would seem to some that we might simply let it fade, read, until it becomes one more of those texts, like Galen’s medicine or the physics of Aristotle, that everyone knows once mattered but now are left quietly to sit on the shelf and wait for a scholar.
As history and revelation its stories have long ago fallen away; we know that almost nothing that happens in it actually happened, and that its miracles, large and small, are of the same kind and credibility as all the other miracles that crowd the world’s great granary of superstition. Only a handful of fundamentalists — granted that in America that handful is sometimes more like an armful, and at times like a roomful — read it literally, and, though the noes may not always have it in raw numbers, the successive triumphs of critical reason mean that they have it in all educated circles. (Believers may cry elitism at this truth — but the simpler truth is that when the educated elite has rejected an idea it’s usually because there’s something in the idea that resists education.)
And yet. The Bible remains an essential part of the education of what used to be called the well-furnished mind. Not to know it is not to know enough. Most of what we value in our art and architecture, our music and poetry — Bach and Chartres, Shakespeare and Milton, Giotto at the Arena Chapel and Blake’s Job among his friends — is entangled with these old books and ancient texts.
But the Bible’s relevance, Gopnik notes, extends beyond art and into the realm of practical wisdom, offering guidance for our everyday lives — guidance we discern by doing away with the myths and holding onto the moral truth behind them. It’s an argument that parallels the distinction Margaret Mead famously made between “fact” and “poetic truth.”
Echoing Richard Feynman’s ideas on religion and why uncertainty is essential for morality, Gopnik observes:
Modern people are drawn to faith while practicing doubt, as our ancestors confessed their doubts while practicing their faith.
He considers the four ways modern people read the Bible, beginning with the aesthetic:
We read and dissect the books and verses of the Bible because they tell beautiful stories, stirring and shapely. We read the good book because it is a good book. We explore the stories because they are transfixing stories, dense and compelling. The beauty of the Song of Songs, or the nobility of the account of creation in Genesis, or the poetic hum of the Psalms — these things are beautiful as poetic myths alone can be. That they were best translated into our own language in the highest period of English prose and verse, in Shakespeare’s rhythms and vocabulary — conceivably with his hand at work, and certainly with hands near as good as his — only makes them more seductive… These are good tales and great poetry, and we need not worry about their sources any more than we worry about which level at that endless archaeological dig in Turkey is truly Troy. We read them not as “myth” but as fiction — we read them as we read all good stories, for their perplexities as much as for their obvious points.
To say that the Bible’s stories are good stories is to say that they are sustaining stories: tales we tell ourselves in order to live.
Next comes the accommodationist reading of the Bible, done through a moral-metaphorical lens:
It asks us to be stirred by the Bible as enduring moral inquiry — the accommodationist seeks to translate the gnomic knots of the Bible stories into acceptable, contemporary, and even universal ethical truths. It is the kind of reading that shows how, in texts that might otherwise seem obnoxious or alien to a modern mind, enduring moral teaching can still be found.
Then there is the anthropological reading, the kind that animated Margaret Mead and James Baldwin’s conversation about religion. Gopnik explains:
This style insists on intellectual detachment, on a sense that the Bible is an extraordinary compilation of truths about how we imagine miracles — that the miracles are imagined does not diminish what they tell us about that imagination, or about mankind. We don’t read scripture to hear good stories or learn good morals. We read to learn about human history, and human nature. How do laws get made? How do dietary restrictions work? Why? How does order come from warfare? Or, looking at the New Testament, the anthropological-minded reader asks: What is the nature of charismatic leadership? Academic in origin, the anthropological view need not be merely academic in practice. By seeking to use the holy text right at hand, it tries to enlarge our views of how we make ideas of holiness.
Lastly, there is the antagonistic reading — the more enlightened version of the blunt antagonism of, say, refusing to read the book at all and replacing it with On the Origin of Species. Gopnik writes:
We read holy books in order to show why we need none. We read to fight back. Nor is this habit merely antagonistic. Without strong oppositional readings, how can we ever make sense of texts at all? Indeed, much classic Talmudic reading, though not heretical, is often best described as antagonistic in this sense: fed up with the stolid apparent meanings of the verse, it searches for a meaning that wiser men can live with.
Any good reading of biblical text, Gopnik points out, includes elements of all four dispositions — the aesthetic, the accommodationist, the anthropological, and the antagonistic. He considers how the book’s non-negligible protagonist, God, amplifies these secular rewards of reading scripture:
Things that defeat logic can often invite imagination, and as a fictional creation the idea of the Deity remains compelling exactly in its — in his — plurality. We need neither believe nor doubt as we read, but remain suspended in that ether of scruples, credulity, and wonder where all good reading really takes place.
A deeper point remains. No moral idea worth preserving has been lost as the idea of God has diminished. Indeed, many moral ideas — of inclusion, tolerance, pluralism, and the equality of man, and the emancipation of women — depend on the diminishment and destruction of a traditional idea of an absolute authority Deity. But nor have moral ideas worth saving been gained simply by diminishing the idea of God. Atheism is a fact about the world, but humanism is a value that we make. Supernaturalism needs the cure of sanity. But humanism needs humility.
Complement The Good Book, which contains a range of stirring and stimulating contributions from some of today’s finest writers, with Isaac Asimov on humanism vs. religion, Flannery O’Connor on the difference between religion and faith, Carl Sagan on science and spirituality, and Hannah Arendt on the crucial difference between truth and meaning.
Published December 28, 2015