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Feathers: A Stunning Photographic Love Letter to Evolution’s Masterpiece and Its Astonishing Array of Beauty

Art meets science in a poetic celebration of Earth’s astonishing diversity.

Feathers: A Stunning Photographic Love Letter to Evolution’s Masterpiece and Its Astonishing Array of Beauty

“Hope is a thing with feathers,” Emily Dickinson wrote, unwitting of how wonderfully this artistic truth conveys a fact of science. More than material for metaphor, feathers are one of evolution’s most hopeful creations — a remarkable multipurpose design, which powers everything from warmth to mating to flight and endures as one of very few tangible links our everyday world has to the dinosaurs that walked it millions of years ago.

While working on a National Geographic story about Darwin, award-winning photographer Robert Clark became enchanted with the role of birds and their feathers in the pioneering scientist’s theory of evolution — from the diversity of finch beaks in the Galapagos, which first gave Darwin the idea that spatial isolation and adaptive change over time could give rise to a new species, to the pigeons he began breeding upon returning to Britain in an experiment to accelerate the process of evolution.

Clark, whose childhood love of birds never left him, grew newly bewitched by a scientific curiosity about the feather, that exquisite masterpiece of nature, and its 200-million-year evolutionary history. To exorcise this obsession, he set out to photograph an astonishing array of feathers, from a 125-year-old Chinese fossil predating the death of the dinosaurs to the understated feathery ferocity of the owl to the stunning plumage of the bird-of-paradise. The result is Feathers: Displays of Brilliant Plumage (public library) — an intensely beautiful visual taxonomy and a photographic love letter to this poetic feat of evolution. Each of Clark’s striking photographs, an intersection of art and science, is accompanied by short text illuminating the role of feathers in the life of that bird species, from hunting and camouflage to flight to mating.

King Bird-of-Paradise (Papua New Guinea)Cicinnurus regiusThe King Bird-of-paradise is a bright red bird with oddly shaped wings. The pair of tail wires shown in this photograph serves non-mechanical purposes; like other Birds-of-paradise, the King uses its bizarre feathers in a complex mating ritual.
King Bird-of-Paradise (Papua New Guinea)
Cicinnurus regius
The King Bird-of-paradise is a bright red bird with oddly shaped wings. The pair of tail wires shown in this photograph serves non-mechanical purposes; like other Birds-of-paradise, the King uses its bizarre feathers in a complex mating ritual.
Golden Pheasant (China)Chrysolophus pictusThe male Golden Pheasant—also known as the Chinese Pheasant—is an extravagant creature. Featuring reds and yellows, every section of their plumage is a vibrant color. But despite the male bird’s showy appearance, it is not as visible as one might assume in its dark, coniferous-forested habitat in Central China. The layered distribution of the bird’s feathers obscures the less colorful bases of the crest feathers. A detailed view of the Golden Pheasant’s crest feathers overlaid over one another. Crest feathers such as these are ornamental. But though they serve no flight function, these feathers are crucial to attracting a mate. Males with vibrant colorations and well-preened feathers are the most attractive suitors. The layered distribution of the bird’s feathers obscures the less colorful bases of the crest feathers.
Golden Pheasant (China)
Chrysolophus pictus
The male Golden Pheasant—also known as the Chinese Pheasant—is an extravagant creature. Featuring reds and yellows, every section of their plumage is a vibrant color. But despite the male bird’s showy appearance, it is not as visible as one might assume in its dark, coniferous-forested habitat in Central China. The layered distribution of the bird’s feathers obscures the less colorful bases of the crest feathers. A detailed view of the Golden Pheasant’s crest feathers overlaid over one another. Crest feathers such as these are ornamental. But though they serve no flight function, these feathers are crucial to attracting a mate. Males with vibrant colorations and well-preened feathers are the most attractive suitors. The layered distribution of the bird’s feathers obscures the less colorful bases of the crest feathers.
Victoria Crown Pigeon (New Guinea)Guora victoriaA member of a small genus of ground-dwelling pigeons from the Columbidae family, Victoria Crown Pigeons are known for their loud hooting call, sometimes accompanied by a clapping sound as their oddly shaped wings bat the air. Weighing in at more than seven pounds, they are considered the largest members of the Pigeon family.
Victoria Crown Pigeon (New Guinea)
Guora victoria
A member of a small genus of ground-dwelling pigeons from the Columbidae family, Victoria Crown Pigeons are known for their loud hooting call, sometimes accompanied by a clapping sound as their oddly shaped wings bat the air. Weighing in at more than seven pounds, they are considered the largest members of the Pigeon family.

What emerges is a glorious celebration of the diversity of this planet we call home and a gentle, poetic antidote to our arrogant sense of specialness and supremacy — there are, after all, creatures whose beauty stuns us into humility, into realizing that entire dimensions of wondrousness and whimsy exist on which we can’t even begin to compete. Even the way we name these creatures — lest we forget, naming can confer dignity or take it away — says more about our human hubris than about nature’s humbling magnificence: the species we’ve named with words like common are no less beguiling than those whose names contain words like superb.

Common Flicker (North America)Colaptes auratusWhile most Woodpecker species are tree-bound, the Common Flicker has a tendency to forage near the forest floor. Here is shown a secondary feather with prominent notching on the tip. During flight, air is forced through the gap created by all the notched feathers in alignment, increasing the overall lift.
Common Flicker (North America)
Colaptes auratus
While most Woodpecker species are tree-bound, the Common Flicker has a tendency to forage near the forest floor. Here is shown a secondary feather with prominent notching on the tip. During flight, air is forced through the gap created by all the notched feathers in alignment, increasing the overall lift.
Superb Lyrebird (Eastern Australia)Menura novaehollandiaeFound in the forests of Australia, this species is known for the male’s ability to mimic sounds from their environment, ranging from complex birdsong to the sound of a chainsaw being used in the woods. The male Lyrebird’s feathers, which resemble a lyre when fanned out, are crucial to their courtship.  The mating rituals of a Lyrebird are just as complex as their birdsong. The male birds build a mound of topsoil on which they sing and fan out their feathers in a grand dance to attract a mate. This photo shows a detail of the Lyrebird’s ornamental tail feathers. The tail feather is purely ornamental and not a flight feather.
Superb Lyrebird (Eastern Australia)
Menura novaehollandiae
Found in the forests of Australia, this species is known for the male’s ability to mimic sounds from their environment, ranging from complex birdsong to the sound of a chainsaw being used in the woods. The male Lyrebird’s feathers, which resemble a lyre when fanned out, are crucial to their courtship. The mating rituals of a Lyrebird are just as complex as their birdsong. The male birds build a mound of topsoil on which they sing and fan out their feathers in a grand dance to attract a mate. This photo shows a detail of the Lyrebird’s ornamental tail feathers. The tail feather is purely ornamental and not a flight feather.

Science writer Carl Zimmer, who has previously celebrated feathers as a miraculous “accident of physics,” marvels in the preface:

A bird can use some of its feathers to fly, others to stay warm, and still others to attract a mate. And among the ten thousand species of living birds, evolution has produced a staggering variety of feathers for each of those functions. Penguins, for example, produce tiny, nub-like feathers on their wings that keep them warm in the Antarctic Ocean while also allowing them to, in effect, fly through water. Owls, on the other hand, grow feathers on their wings that muffle the sound of their flight as they swoop in on their victims. The tail feathers of a Lyrebird grow to elegant twisted heights to attract a mate. The Club-winged Manakin has feathers that produce violin-like notes when flapped. The female Club-winged Manakin doesn’t choose a mate based on how his feathers look so much as how they sound.

Bohemian Waxwing (United States–Canada Border) Bombycilla garrulus This exploded view shows all the feathers of the Bohemian Waxwing. With more than 3 million birds, this member of the Passeriformes order makes up one of the largest populations of passerine birds ranging throughout the Northern Hemisphere. The Waxwing is best known for getting drunk—they often eat the fermented rowan berries. Though their bodies are usually able to metabolize the alcohol, occasionally they do get fatally intoxicated.
Bohemian Waxwing (United States–Canada Border)
Bombycilla garrulus
This exploded view shows all the feathers of the Bohemian Waxwing. With more than 3 million birds, this member of the Passeriformes order makes up one of the largest populations of passerine birds ranging throughout the Northern Hemisphere. The Waxwing is best known for getting drunk—they often eat the fermented rowan berries. Though their bodies are usually able to metabolize the alcohol, occasionally they do get fatally intoxicated.
Golden-Breasted Starling (East Africa, Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Northern Tanzania)Lamprotornis regiusAlso known as the Royal Starling, Golden-breasted Starlings are social animals that exhibit a behavior known as “cooperative feeding” wherein the larger social group of Starlings collectively nest and feed their young. Male and female birds share the same coloration, and the Starling’s feathers grow more vibrant as the bird ages. The edges of the feather shown here appear iridescent, much like the feathers of a Peacock. Iridescent color is an indication of the feathers’ structural color, which interferes with natural light.
Golden-Breasted Starling (East Africa, Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Northern Tanzania)
Lamprotornis regius
Also known as the Royal Starling, Golden-breasted Starlings are social animals that exhibit a behavior known as “cooperative feeding” wherein the larger social group of Starlings collectively nest and feed their young. Male and female birds share the same coloration, and the Starling’s feathers grow more vibrant as the bird ages. The edges of the feather shown here appear iridescent, much like the feathers of a Peacock. Iridescent color is an indication of the feathers’ structural color, which interferes with natural light.
Scarlet Macaw (South America)Ara macaoThe coloration of this Macaw allows it to live in and blend into diverse habitats. While the bird has been subject to habitat loss, so far the species has proved to be widespread and adaptable enough to avoid major threats to population levels.
Scarlet Macaw (South America)
Ara macao
The coloration of this Macaw allows it to live in and blend into diverse habitats. While the bird has been subject to habitat loss, so far the species has proved to be widespread and adaptable enough to avoid major threats to population levels.
Silver Pheasant (Southeast Asia, Mainland China)Lophura nycthemeraJuvenile Silver Pheasants possess brown spots throughout their body. As the male birds age they develop a pure white morph, while the females remain brown. Originally found in Southeast Asia, the Silver Pheasant has gained popularity as a pet because of its calm temperament and nondestructive behavior in gardens.
Silver Pheasant (Southeast Asia, Mainland China)
Lophura nycthemera
Juvenile Silver Pheasants possess brown spots throughout their body. As the male birds age they develop a pure white morph, while the females remain brown. Originally found in Southeast Asia, the Silver Pheasant has gained popularity as a pet because of its calm temperament and nondestructive behavior in gardens.
European Green Woodpecker (Eastern Europe and Westernmost Asia)Picus viridisThough officially a member of the Woodpecker family, this bird doesn’t spend much of its time drumming holes in wood. Rather than finding its food in trees, the bird forages for ants on the ground. Both sexes are greenish yellow with a bright yellow rump and red crown. The secondary feather seen here can barely be seen until the bird opens its wings.
European Green Woodpecker (Eastern Europe and Westernmost Asia)
Picus viridis
Though officially a member of the Woodpecker family, this bird doesn’t spend much of its time drumming holes in wood. Rather than finding its food in trees, the bird forages for ants on the ground. Both sexes are greenish yellow with a bright yellow rump and red crown. The secondary feather seen here can barely be seen until the bird opens its wings.
Indian Peafowl (Native to South Asia, but introduced throughout the world)Pavo cristatusThe male birds—more commonly known as Peacocks—may well be one of the world’s most recognizable birds. Their extravagant tail feathers, made up of elongated upper tail coverts, are some three times longer than the length of the bird itself. Their iridescent plumage is an example of structural color—the feathers are actually brown, but their structure interferes with light, making them appear blue, green, and turquoise.
Indian Peafowl (Native to South Asia, but introduced throughout the world)
Pavo cristatus
The male birds—more commonly known as Peacocks—may well be one of the world’s most recognizable birds. Their extravagant tail feathers, made up of elongated upper tail coverts, are some three times longer than the length of the bird itself. Their iridescent plumage is an example of structural color—the feathers are actually brown, but their structure interferes with light, making them appear blue, green, and turquoise.
Red Bird-of-Paradise (Papua New Guinea)Paradisea rubraThe Red Bird-of-paradise is one of the seven hundred vibrant bird species found on Papua New Guinea. Because New Guinea is an island with few predatory species, local bird species have flourished in the face of little competition.
Red Bird-of-Paradise (Papua New Guinea)
Paradisea rubra
The Red Bird-of-paradise is one of the seven hundred vibrant bird species found on Papua New Guinea. Because New Guinea is an island with few predatory species, local bird species have flourished in the face of little competition.

Complement Feathers with Cedric Pollet’s photographic love letter to tree bark, another breathtaking intersection of art and science, and these gorgeous 19th-century illustrations of birds of prey.

All photographs and caption text © Robert Clark courtesy of Chronicle Books

BP

Keats on the Joy of Singledom and How Solitude Opens Our Creative Channels to Truth and Beauty

“The roaring of the wind is my wife and the Stars through the window pane are my Children… I do not live in this world alone but in a thousand worlds.”

Keats on the Joy of Singledom and How Solitude Opens Our Creative Channels to Truth and Beauty

“Nourish yourself with grand and austere ideas of beauty that feed the soul… Seek solitude,” the great French artist Eugène Delacroix counseled himself in 1824. Just a few years earlier, another timeless patron saint of the creative spirit extolled the rewards of solitude as a supreme conduit to truth and beauty.

Celebrated as one of the greatest poets humanity has ever produced, John Keats (October 31, 1795–February 23, 1821) married an extraordinary capacity for transcendence with an uncommon share of sorrow. His short life was suffused with loss from a young age — his father died after a horseback accident when Keats was eight and his mother died of tuberculosis when he was fourteen. And yet even amid his darkest despair, Keats maintained a luminous faith in truth, beauty, and the power of the imagination.

Portrait of John Keats by William Hilton
Portrait of John Keats by William Hilton

In an 1817 letter to a distressed friend, found in Keats’s altogether enthralling Selected Letters (public library), the 22-year-old poet writes:

I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of Imagination — What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth — whether it existed before or not — for I have the same Idea of all our Passions as of Love they are all in their sublime, creative of essential Beauty.

For Keats, the sacred road to love and beauty passed through the gates of solitude. With loss as his constant companion since childhood, he had no choice but to seek solace in the only certainty that couldn’t be taken away from him: his own living self.

In his early twenties, Keats found himself warmed for the first time by the fire of romantic love. But just as he was beginning to surrender to the possibility of happiness in communion, his brother Tom began exhibiting increasingly severe symptoms of tuberculosis. In nursing him, the young poet exposed himself to the infection that would eventually take his own life three years later. Watching Tom fade, Keats was faced once again with the impending devastation of having his loved ones taken from him one by one, leaving him even more alone than before — and more determined than ever to use his solitude for creative sustenance.

In a letter from late October of 1818, 23-year-old Keats offers a most magnificent testament to the power of what Bertrand Russell called “fruitful monotony,” that great fertilizer of creative flourishing. The young poet writes to his brother George and his sister-in-law Georgina:

Notwithstand[ing] your Happiness and your recommendation I hope I shall never marry. Though the most beautiful Creature were waiting for me at the end of a Journey or a Walk; though the carpet were of Silk, the Curtains of the morning Clouds; the chairs and Sofa stuffed with Cygnet’s down; the food Manna, the Wine beyond Claret, the Window opening on Winander mere, I should not feel — or rather my Happiness would not be so fine, as my Solitude is sublime. Then instead of what I have described, there is a Sublimity to welcome me home — The roaring of the wind is my wife and the Stars through the window pane are my Children. The mighty abstract Idea I have of Beauty in all things stifles the more divided and minute domestic happiness — an amiable wife and sweet Children I contemplate as a part of that Beauty. But I must have a thousand of those beautiful particles to fill up my heart. I feel more and more every day, as my imagination strengthens, that I do not live in this world alone but in a thousand worlds — No sooner am I alone than shapes of epic greatness are stationed around me, and serve my Spirit the office which is equivalent to a King’s body guard… I melt into the air with a voluptuousness so delicate that I am content to be alone… I have written this that you might see I have my share of the highest pleasures and that though I may choose to pass my days alone I shall be no Solitary… I am as happy as a Man can be… with the yearning Passion I have for the beautiful, connected and made one with the ambition of my intellect.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss

With an eye to the perennial problem of how woefully we misjudge each other’s inner worlds based on outward appearances, Keats adds:

Think of my Pleasure in Solitude, in comparison of my commerce with the world — there I am a child — there they do not know me not even my most intimate acquaintance — I give into their feelings as though I were refraining from irritating a little child — Some think me middling, others silly, others foolish — every one thinks he sees my weak side against my will; when in truth it is with my will — I am content to be thought all this because I have in my own breast so great a resource.

Tom died five weeks later. The bereavement only intensified Keats’s communion with solitude, and yet he channeled it as a creative force, tapping ever more deeply into that great resource within his own breast. The trying period after Tom’s death marked the beginning of Keats’s annus mirabilis — the yearlong spell of creative vitality under which he produced most of the work for which he is best beloved today, including his “Ode to a Nightingale.”

Complement this particular fragment of Keats’s wholly enchanting Selected Letters with Edward Abbey’s sublime 1968 love letter to solitude and this modern-day manifesto for how to be alone, then revisit psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on why “fertile solitude” is essential for creative work.

BP

Frida Kahlo on How Love Amplifies Beauty: Her Breathtaking Tribute to Diego Rivera

“I do not think that the banks of a river suffer because they let the river flow.”

As artists, Frida Kahlo (July 6, 1907–July 13, 1954) and Diego Rivera (December 8, 1886–November 24, 1957) each possessed boundless talent bolstered by an unbending will. As partners, they possessed each other with a ferocious love, intense and complicated and all-eclipsing — the kind for which, in Rilke’s immortal words, “all other work is but preparation.” They wed when Kahlo was twenty-two and Rivera forty-two, and remained together until Kahlo’s death twenty-five years later. They had an open marriage long before the term existed as a trend of modern romance — both had multiple affairs, Rivera with women and Kahlo with both men and women, most notably with the American-born French singer, dancer, and actress Josephine Baker and with the Russian Marxist theorist Leon Trotsky. Still, both insisted that they were the love of each other’s life — a deep conviction crystallized in Kahlo’s passionate love letters and Rivera’s affectionate account of their first encounter.

But nowhere does their uncommon love come more vibrantly alive than in Kahlo’s portrait of Rivera, written twenty years into their marriage for a catalog accompanying one of his major exhibitions and later included as an afterword to his autobiography, My Art, My Life (public library). In just a few wholehearted, wholebodied paragraphs, she captures the enormity of their love. Her sincere humanity radiates a testament to the enormity of all love as a transfiguring force, the ultimate wellspring of beauty and grace.

fridakahlo

Kahlo begins:

I warn you that in this picture I am painting of Diego there will be colors which even I am not fully acquainted with. Besides, I love Diego so much I cannot be an objective speculator of him or his life… I cannot speak of Diego as my husband because that term, when applied to him, is an absurdity. He never has been, nor will he ever be, anybody’s husband. I also cannot speak of him as my lover because to me, he transcends by far the domain of sex. And if I attempt to speak of him purely, as a soul, I shall only end up by painting my own emotions. Yet considering these obstacles of sentiment, I shall try to sketch his image to the best of my ability.

Under the wildly affectionate gaze of her sketch, Rivera — a man physically unattractive by our culture’s conventional standards of beauty — is transformed into an exquisite, magical, almost supernatural creature. We are left with a bone-deep awareness that the true splendor of a human being, as Ursula K. Le Guin so elegantly demonstrated a generation later, is something quite different from “beauty.” What emerges is ultimately a portrait less of Rivera than of Kahlo’s own astonishing capacity for love and beauty in the largest possible sense.

Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Mexico, 1933 (Photograph by Martin Munkácsi)

Kahlo sketches Rivera:

Growing up from his Asiatic-type head is his fine, thin hair, which somehow gives the impression that it is floating in air. He looks like an immense baby with an amiable but sad-looking face. His wide, dark, and intelligent bulging eyes appear to be barely held in place by his swollen eyelids. They protrude like the eyes of a frog, each separated from the other in a most extraordinary way. They thus seem to enlarge his field of vision beyond that of most persons. It is almost as if they were constructed exclusively for a painter of vast spaces and multitudes. The effect produced by these unusual eyes, situated so far away from each other, encourages one to speculate on the ages-old oriental knowledge contained behind them.

On rare occasions, an ironic yet tender smile appears on his Buddha-like lips. Seeing him in the nude, one is immediately reminded of a young boy-frog standing on his hind legs. His skin is greenish-white, very like that of an aquatic animal. The only dark parts of his whole body are his hands and face, and that is because they are sunburned. His shoulders are like a child’s, narrow and round. They progress without any visible hint of angles, their tapering rotundity making them seem almost feminine. The arms diminish regularly into small, sensitive hands… It is incredible to think that these hands have been capable of achieving such a prodigious number of paintings. Another wonder is that they can still work as indefatigably as they do.

Diego’s chest — of it we have to say, that had he landed on an island governed by Sappho, where male invaders were apt to be executed, Diego would never have been in danger. The sensitivity of his marvelous breasts would have insured his welcome, although his masculine virility, specific and strange, would have made him equally desired in the lands of these queens avidly hungering for masculine love.

His enormous belly, smooth, tightly drawn, and sphere-shaped, is supported by two strong legs which are as beautifully solid as classical columns. They end in feet which point outward at an obtuse angle, as if moulded for a stance wide enough to cover the entire earth.

He sleeps in a foetal position. In his waking hours, he walks with a languorous elegance as if accustomed to living in a liquefied medium. By his movements, one would think that he found air denser to wade through than water.

Art by Yuyi Morales from Viva Frida, a lovely picture-book celebrating Kahlo’s life and legacy

From this intimate portrait of the man emerges an intimate portrait of the artist as a wholly integrated being, a creature of unselfconscious and uncompromising authenticity:

He is eternally curious and, at the same time, an eternal conversationalist. He can paint for hours and days without resting, talking while he works. He talks and argues about everything, absolutely everything, like Walt Whitman, with all who want to listen to him. His conversation is always interesting. He says phrases that amaze you — sometimes they hurt you, other times they move you, but the person who listens is never left with a feeling of fruitlessness or emptiness. His words make one tremendously uncomfortable because they are live and true. His raw concepts weaken or disorient those who listen to him because they don’t agree with the already established morals; thus, they always break the bark to let new blossoms come out; they wound to let new cells grow.

At the very end of the piece, Kahlo addresses that gruesome yet all too common human tendency to judge other loves from the outside — a violent flattening of the nuance and dimension and enormous richness that exist between two people, perceptible to them alone. She writes:

Perhaps it is expected that I should lament about how I have suffered living with a man like Diego. But I do not think that the banks of a river suffer because they let the river flow, nor does the earth suffer because of the rains, nor does the atom suffer for letting its energy escape. To my way of thinking, everything has its natural compensation.

Complement My Art, My Life with Mary Oliver’s equally, very differently beautiful tribute to the love of her life, then revisit Kahlo’s illustrated love letters to Rivera.

BP

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.

A Nonbeliever’s Case for the Bible: How a Secular Reading of Scripture Enlarges Our Experience of Beauty, Morality, and Transcendence

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.

Art by William Blake for a rare 1808 edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost

Gopnik writes:

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.”

Art by Salvador Dalí for a rare 1978 edition of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet

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.

Art by William Blake for a rare 1826 edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy

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.

BP

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