The Best-Selling Book No One is Reading: Why the Bible Really is Literature
Little girl down on the strand, With that pretty little baby in your hands
Do you remember the story of the Promised Land
How he crossed the desert sands, And could not enter the chosen land
On the banks of the river he stayed, To face the price you pay
Bruce Springsteen, “The Price You Pay”
You may wonder why an article about the Bible as literature would start with lyrics from Bruce Springsteen, though if you have read much of my stuff, you may not; I write about him a lot (see two examples at the end of this piece). I start with the lines from “The Price You Pay” because they reference a famous Old Testament story that people who have never read the Bible would miss completely, which make them the perfect jumping off point.
If you ask people to name the best-selling book of all time, some will say “The DaVinci Code” or one of the Harry Potter books, but the fact is the Bible is still the best-selling book in America. Despite the great sales numbers, however, it is also the least-read book in America today.
Don’t get me wrong; most people in America own a Bible, and a large number own more than one. But to borrow the line from a less biblical question, 90% of people don’t read the Bible, and the other 10% lie about it. Even many regular churchgoers in the Bible Belt only dust off their copy long enough to carry into Sunday services; they then toss it into the back seat of their SUV until the next week. That’s a shame, because religion completely aside, the Bible is one of the greatest works of literature ever produced.
We weren’t always biblically illiterate; only a generation ago most Americans were at least familiar with the majority of the Bible stories, if not the theology. That’s not true anymore, and if you think I’m exaggerating, consider the following recent responses to some simple Bible knowledge questions:
In the first book of the Bible, Adam and Eve were created from an apple tree. One of their children, Cain, asked, “Am I my brother’s son?”
Moses led the Hebrew slaves to the Red Sea, where they made unleavened bread which is bread made without any ingredients.
Moses went up on Mount Cyanide to get the Ten Commandments. He died before he ever reached Canada.
Samson slew the Philistines with the Axe of the Apostles.
Lot’s wife was a pillar of salt during the day, but a ball of fire at night.
Noah’s wife was Joan of Ark.
Keep in mind that these responses came from children ranging from elementary to high school, most of them in Christian schools. How much worse would the average “man on the street” do, since many can’t find the Pacific Ocean on a map of the United States? But that’s another rant for another day.
I raise the issue of Biblical illiteracy because it goes hand in hand with our growing illiteracy overall. Whatever your religious affiliation may be, or if you have none at all, the fact remains that many of our laws are based on the Bible and much of the great art, music, and literature of the Western world was inspired by the Bible. Not knowing anything at all about the Bible is as unacceptable as knowing nothing about Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Mozart, Jefferson, or Springsteen; all five owe at least some debt to the Bible for the content in the works they created.
Let me be crystal clear at this point: I am not urging religion on anyone. Rather, I am talking about how unacceptable it is to know nothing about a foundational book of Western Civilization, one that writers, composers, and artists have drawn inspiration from for thousands of years. It contains everything from history to poetry to wisdom literature. Wisdom doesn’t know a religious affiliation, and it’s in short supply at the moment.
If you think the Bible isn’t still influencing popular culture, you haven’t been paying attention to movies over the past several years. We’ve had Russell Crowe as a tortured environmentalist Noah, Christian Bale as a sword-wielding Moses, and I imagine at some point soon Robert Downey, Jr. will star in The Bible: Episode IV - The Savior Strikes Back.
It’s a shame that filmmakers feel the need to change things to make the Bible more exciting because it’s easily as exciting as most of what’s been put on screen since Avengers Endgame. There’s the story of a bald prophet who calls out two bears to maul a gang of menacing youths, as well as one about a woman who drives a tent peg through the skull of a sleeping general. It was the roving eye of Israel’s most famous king seeing a woman bathing on a rooftop that inspired Leonard Cohen’s best song. And if you think Deadpool was the first wisecracking, murdering, anti-hero let me introduce you to Samson.
Whether you’re Anglican or atheist, Buddhist or Baptist, I think you will find that by reading this best-selling book your literary, historical, and cultural literacy will improve considerably. It’s got wars and romance and treachery and heartbreak and redemption, just like any good novel. And if you read closely enough, you may even learn the amazing fact that while God isn’t a Republican or a Democrat, he is a reader. After all, he gave us a book.
Want to get started reading the Bible but not even sure where to begin? Check out the excellent How to Read the Bible as a Non-Believer and Enjoy It by Mary DeVries. And don’t let the title fool you; it’s perfect for believers and non-believers alike.