25 October 2007


How to read the Bible

There's been a bit of a buzz recently about the book The Year of Living Biblically, where author A.J. Jacobs, an agnostic Jew, chose to live by all the rules in the Bible (even the obscure ones, and mostly from the Old Testament) as much as he could, for an entire year. The Bible is of course a fascinating book, even for atheists like me, for whom it is not a divine revelation but a magnificent human construction.

Like the Quran, the Hindu Vedas, Buddhist Sutras, the Analects of Kong Fuzi (Confucius), and the myths and stories of everyone from the Egyptians, the Greeks and Romans, and the Norse to the Inca, the Haida, and the vast diaspora of Polynesia, the Bible has profoundly affected, and been the foundation of, huge parts of human culture and history. I know less about it (and those other works) than I should.

I'm not sure Jacobs's book would be my best resource, though I'm sure it's funny and revealing—in a radio interview with Jacobs I heard this morning, I discovered that wearing clothes whose fibres mix wool and linen is apparently forbidden. Daily showers are, however, apparently fine, even though I've heard of some religious Christians and Jews who disdain "bathing for pleasure." And in the Bible (New Testament especially), there appears to be a whole lot more about helping the poor and needy than the behaviour of a lot of people who claim to be literalist Christians would indicate.

Perhaps a better introduction would be How to Read the Bible, by Richard Holloway, the controversial retired Anglican Bishop of Edinburgh. On the most recent CBC "Ideas" podcast, he and Paul Kennedy engage in a fascinating discussion (MP3, available on CD once that MP3 link expires) of his book.

Richard Dawkins, most prominent atheist, was raised Anglican, and he has called Anglicanism a watered-down, weakened strain of the virus he thinks religion is. Holloway surely does not disabuse Dawkins of that assessment, especially when he writes things like:

One of the constant themes of the Bible is the human capacity to get God wrong, which is why the distance between those who believe God is a human invention and those who believe God is real is narrower than we might think.


The afterlife of great texts [like the Bible] eclipses the intention of the original author, even if we think we know what it was.


Retrojecting ideas from a later perspective into the text of the Hebrew Bible became a major enterprise in Christianity, with two branches, historical and theological.

Those are just from the first chapter. I knew nothing about Holloway until I heard the podcast, but I suspect that a lot of believing people—especially those prone to Biblical literalism—no longer consider him a good Anglican, or a good Christian, regardless of his previous senior role in the church.

Now, by nature, I know pretty much nothing about the past 2000 years of Christian theology, just as I am largely ignorant of what intellectuals among Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, Zoroastrians, Jains, Buddhists, and others have thought and written about their own faiths—or what modern academics outside those religions have to say about them. I'm not particularly interested in becoming a religious expert either, for even all religions put together are only a part of how humans try to understand and organize the world (not the part that most interests me).

But from what I have heard and read this week, I like Holloway's approach, and will probably read his book at some point, which I guess means I'll need to get to reading that Bible eventually too. From previous comments on this blog (and surely some more to come on this post), a small number of you readers might think doing so will lead to a born-again conversion in me, especially with my cancer and everything now, or that I've already consigned myself to Hell unless I repent pretty darn soon.

If I were you, I wouldn't bet any money on that.

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I am reading this book right now, and it is an amazing, thought-provoking read! As a decidedly non-Fundamentalist Anglican, I am finding it uplifting and refreshing. And the author has such a delightful turn of phrase -- I find myself laughing out loud on almost every page.

And as for trying to convert you Derek, when I see the grace, strength, humour and honesty with which you are dealing with your illness, I think you have more to teach us Christians, rather than Christians trying to teach you.

Keep the Faith, whatever it may be!
Did you follow David Plotz's "Blogging the Bible" last year? https://www.slate.com/id/2167894/ Interesting perspective!
Hello my friend. Have you started chemoprevention? You should ask your doctor about chemoprevention. It may prevent recurrence.
Once again Derek, your description of religiosity as you encounter it is insightful and respectful.

Religiosity differing from religion in the important sense that a person's consistent efforts to live a humane, constructive and rewarding life may be founded on a religious doctrine. If these definitions of humane and constructive hold true at an objective level (determined by rational reasoning) then the religiosity of this individual may have had some positive effect. The religion itself in whatever form it might take, is not automatically deserving of respect. In fact, noting that the next few practitioners of the same beliefs may and frequently will use it to justify selfish and cruel behaviour, the religion is probably not deserving of respect at all.

All that is tangential to Derek's posting that magnificent achievements of creativity can be found in close association with various living and dead religions.
I'll finish with the next six months of chemotherapy before I head for any chemoprevention. Let's get rid of what's there before we try anything to get rid of what might come later.
You might find "The Case for Christ" by Lee Strobel interesting. Strobel is a Yale educated attorney, former legal editor of the Chicago Tribune, and a former atheist.

By the way, I think "Inside Home Recording" is a great show and I'm pulling for you to beat your cancer.