Finding myself at a bookstore with a good friend this past Friday evening, I wandered around without purpose or direction carrying the giddiness of a young child anticipating Christmas Day on my shoulders. Surrounded by pure creation and imagination, I was at home. Much like a large man is pulled in by the smell of a Christmas ham, in my aimlessness, I gravitated to a large anthology of writings by CS Lewis. The shiny jacket cover and significant size of the book drew my attention. Upon flipping through the works of my hero, I alighted upon an essay titled “What Are We To Make of Christ?” The subject of that essay will not be the subject of this post. However, a casual observance was made as I perused the essay. Lewis calls the gospels “clumsy” by literary standards, and on discovering this with my eyes, I was immediately beside myself.
This summer I decided that because I manage a small and insignificant blog on literature, I should, once a year, speak on the most influential piece of literature our world has ever come across: The Bible. It just happened to be that this summer I also decided to suspend all commentaries, study Bibles, and eventually section headers when I read the Bible. I endeavored to push everyone’s thoughts out of my head. I endeavored to read the book as it was originally written, so much as I could. After journaling through the book of Matthew in this fashion, one conclusion I had on the work was that it seemed rather clumsy by literary standards.
It is this clumsiness that has become the most sensation piece of literature this world has ever experienced. This is why I now comment on it. No book has been more praised and condemned; more studied and scrutinized; more quoted, translated, purchased and reread; more discarded as useless. More humans have been affected by this one piece of literature than perhaps all other books combined throughout the ages. Nothing comes close. Wars have been fought because of it, and men have traveled great lengths to proclaim its strength. Its adherents coin it as being “God’s Word,” and its adversaries push it aside, proclaiming its irrelevance all the while proving the relevance it holds by the very act. Good writing is controversial. This is the hardest book to accept.
And yet a distinguished Oxford professor, a literary historian, claimed the climax of the book as “clumsy” writing, almost suggesting it as being uninteresting. I have to agree. At face value, the Bible is not Lord of the Rings. It is unable to be categorized. The book of Matthew, of which I am most familiar, seems to be a jumbled mess with little flow, and the Old Testament is stretched so thin in its content that it too is hard to handle. Despite all this, the book is a phenomenal piece of literature. Geoffrey Chaucer, Who I am now teaching in my class, was noted as having quoted every book of the Bible. Shakespeare, in all his inclusion of mythologies, could not leave it out of his writing. Milton, Dickens, Steinbeck, and Melville, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky even down to someone like Dave Matthews cannot avoid it. Those who hate it are perplexed by its popularity.
But what stuck out to me this year as I managed through the great Tome once again? Numerous postings could document a year through one book, so I will focus my attention on just one: the hidden gems.
It happened as it does every time, that as I began at ground zero, I grew more wary as Exodus began to leave me and Leviticus approached. I was tempted to skip that book as would usually happen, but something told me to give it a try. I went through the book and was surprised to find it was highly enjoyable — more violent than I had remembered. The book consists of chapter after chapter of documented religious laws and sacrifices that the Hebrews had to go through for their atonement. After one gets through a few, they begin to be hard to distinguish. Yet each one has a peculiarity of its own, and each point to a greater sacrifice. The author of Psalm 119 writes 176 verses on his love for the first five books of the Bible. It might be easy for a modern to read that Psalm and apply it to the entirety of the Bible, but to apply that Psalm to Leviticus is mind blowing. As laborious as that book is, and though the violence towards goats and lambs would bring a modern PETA member to insanity, the subject is foreshadows is display after display of what God would one day do for mankind. The Holy Unblemished Lamb’s sacrifice is in Leviticus. The entire Bible points to Christ.
This sacrifice is so grand and momentous that every other story of sacrifice pales in comparison. Sydney Carton’s sacrifice for Darnay or even Ham Peggotty’s for Steerforth, though written in fantastic prose, pale in comparison. The gospels are clumsy in this regard. They do not attack the emotions. Christ’s sacrifice is recorded almost as one would record the evening news, but the richness of what is actually being said is far deeper than the most magnificently told story.
Again, as I continued to journey through the book, I saw those first nine books of 1 Chronicles approaching, I contemplated a skip. It reads something like a phone book would read. But when we look more intensely at those chapters, perhaps we discover that more action occurs in the phone book than anywhere else. For each of those names in that list are small stories in and of themselves. As each person in our world is more fascinating than we could imagine, so must be true of the individuals in that genealogy.
A far greater amount of detail could be written on what struck my fancy this year. I could write an entire post on how 2 Corinthians 4-5 has woken me to a new wonder I have never experienced, but perhaps I will save that for another day. It has been my argument that probably 75 percent of all the literature in the world has been affected in some way by this one book. A friend of mine, and English major, once said it is probably more like 100 percent. In any case, we cannot ignore the impact this book has had on all other books. And if so many great writers have been affected either positively or negatively, how much more should we too give the Bible a chance? Reading the Bible does not have to be simply a devotional time or study tool. It can be read as any other book. If what it claims to be true is true, we have a response to make. And if it is not true, we can discard it as bad literature. But we cannot ignore its impact, and this brings us back to its truth. A book written so poorly by literary standards would not have such an impact. It would have been done away with long ago. Therefore, we have the responsibility to either accept or reject it. There can be no middle ground. And to properly do so, one must read. As Theodore Roosevelt once said, “A thorough knowledge of the Bible is worth more than a college education.”