What the Bible Is (& What-Not)
Navigating a World of Effects
Ask someone (or simply consider) this question: “What is The Bible?”
The answers you will get will fall within a spectrum that ranges from “the literal word of God” to “a bunch of superstitious crap.” In fact I got both these answers in my recent survey (more or less; someone answered that the Bible was 100% the word of God; another that all Abrahamic religions were a blight on the face of spirituality.)
Somewhere in the middle of this spectrum is my own viewpoint (I am a middle man): that the Bible is a great and significant work of literature with varying shades of meaningfulness and quality, including something like divine revelation, or if you prefer, sheer genius (mostly in the Gospel).
I would suggest (subjectively) that this is about as close as we will get to an objectively true statement about the Bible, since it allows for both “the literal word of god” and “a bunch of superstitious crap” (or pernicious disinfo) co-existing in a single book.
What can also be said with some objective certainty about the Bible is that the text itself literally claims (some of the time) to be the word of God (or rather, since the text is not a person, includes characters who make literal claims to this effect). That, and that millions of people over the years have either been persuaded, or persuaded themselves, that it is indeed so.
What has persuaded them? I would say it is a combination of the text itself with the way it has reached them, via authority figures, from parents on up, as well as peers, making claims not actually made by the Bible (only by a few characters in the Bible), creating a web of internal, mutually-supportive value judgments, all of which affirm the idea of the Bible as a uniquely sacred text.
A self-fulfilling prophecy?
Central to the persuasive power of the Bible, then, besides whatever is embedded in the text itself, is the prior conviction of others. This has formed a consensus, over the centuries, that is both self-sustaining and, to a degree, self-generated (if enough people believe the Bible is the word of God, then it assumes a power and influence roughly corresponding to that belief).
What tends to get lost in this shuffle (except among the more dedicated of atheists, of whom I was once one) is that the Bible is only considered the word of God because humans have said it is (this is so even should these claims prove to be true). Some will argue that the text itself persuades us—is its own proof—but that is a wholly subjective statement, and can’t really be tested.
In one set of answers to my recent survey, I was assured that “everything [in the Bible] was written and compiled by God-filled men.” An astonishing claim. Does that also include everyone who translated and added commentary to the Bible? And what of those who designed, packaged and printed it? Or sold and distributed it? Or placed it in the drawer of the bedside table in your hotel room? Just how “hands-on” is God when it comes to “His” book, as compared to all other worldly affairs?
Does the person who wrote this answer perhaps need to believe in the holiness of the Bible, as a unified work, because their religion also rests on this idea in some crucial way? Yet surely such a belief is unsustainable, a matter of “faith”?
Similarly, I am quite sure the person who wrote “100%,” in reference to how much of the Bible is the word of God, has not read all of the Bible, ever, and that they would find that they disagree with all sorts of statements and commandments in it, if they took the time to do so. (And God help them if not: a person could only end up insane by trying to believe everything in the Bible.)
There are, of course, other books (especially since the 1970s) that claim to be the word of God, or at least a god, an angel, or an ET. But none of them (not even the Book of Mormon) have managed to be as culturally persuasive as the Bible. Essentially, this is the only “proof”—besides that of literary quality—that the Bible is what it claims to be: the fact that so many people believe the claim (or claim to). A thousand flies, etc., etc.
(Suppose William Shakespeare, instead of being a playwright seeking recognition through forms of entertainment, had written all his works anonymously, and included within them alleged communications from God to His prophets, then arranged them in such a way as to make them appear to be received texts in the tradition of scripture? And then buried them somewhere near Nag Hammadhi. Might we by now have a new New Testament?)
As I stated in the last post (the survey), it is a truism that the Bible is only as good as whoever is reading it. The Bible only exists, in fact (I am going to say), as an experience for, and an effect in, the consciousness of the reader. This means we can’t know anything about “the Bible,” per se—and how much more is this so of God?”—save in terms of its effects upon us.
This is, no doubt, why I am less interested at present in the Bible than I am in Bible commentaries (good ones, preferably by writers who knew Hebrew or Greek or Aramaic, and were able to refer to the original text).
Most of all, I am interested in how these commentaries affect my consciousness and allow for insights (as exhibited, let’s hope, by this column). As it is with the Bible, so it is with God (and each one of us, only more so): God can only be known through His actions and their effects upon us.
Since God is everywhere (hence nowhere), observing His actions is an art, as much as a science or a religion. Religion can only be organized by its constituents; and the best religion of all (I am going to say) is a religion of one (God).
Is that enough provocative statements for the free half of this post? I will end with one more, a teaser to make you wish or will your way over the paywall (back into Paradise?):
To state that God can only be known through His actions is also to say this: God has no interior life—unless it be that of ourselves—because there is nothing outside of God.
(Story is character, character is story.)
All right, that’s all you get. Unless you want to pay. If do you want to pay, read this first.
Alternatively, to get over the paywall without paying, read this.
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