The Old Testament: Preliminary Thoughts
As I sit down to write this, I have recently finished the Odyssey and started reading through the Old Testament. I’ve only read the first few chapters of Genesis so far, and already I’m realizing that this phase of my Great Books quest is going to be an interesting one. That’s not to say that any of the other phases won’t be interesting, but I’ve decided to write down a few preliminary thoughts on this particular book because given its nature as well as my own personal history with it, I feel I would be remiss if I failed to share where I’m coming from.
We will eventually read both the Old and the New Testament for this project, but only the Old for now. The New Testament will come later, in roughly chronological order among all of the other works on the list, but here I will refer to both as the Bible because everything I have to say applies to both.
The Bible is unique among all of the books on our reading list for two important reasons. First, it is the only book on the list that is taken seriously as a holy text by any significant number of people in the current day and age. Second, it is the only book on the list that I have ever personally taken seriously as a holy text at any point in my life, as well as the one I have read and studied more than any other by far. It isn’t the only one on the list that I’ve read before (for example, I read the Iliad and Odyssey for the first time in middle school, Crime and Punishment in high school, and I’m sure there are a few others on the list), but it far surpasses any other work with regards to the time I have spent reading it.
Because of the Bible’s status as the primary holy text of one of the world’s largest religions, it has greater potential to generate controversy than any other great work. I would venture a guess that in the United States of 2019, there is relatively little variation from person to person concerning their relationship to a work such as the Iliad or Odyssey. Certainly some are more familiar with these works than others, and some haven’t heard of them at all, but among those who have heard of them, everyone basically agrees on what they are: epic poems from an ancient culture that tell mostly mythological stories, possibly inspired by historical events. When I wrote about and discussed these works, I could be reasonably assured that my audience would have more or less the same relationship to them as I do.
The relationship of modern people to the Bible is much different and much more varied, and there is no widespread agreement on exactly what it is. Some take it to be the literal, historical, infallible word of the Almighty, while others believe it was wholly fabricated by powerful people in history for the purpose of controlling the masses. Emotional reactions vary widely as well, from reverent awe to seething hatred; from respectful appreciation to scorn and ridicule. Because of these variations, this time I cannot be assured of my audience’s relationship to the text and they cannot be sure of mine, so I feel it will be useful to state my own point of view up front.
This brings me to my second point. I was raised in an evangelical Christian household and attended church every Sunday from early childhood until I left home for college at age 18, rarely missing a week and sometimes attending on Wednesday evenings as well. The church in which I grew up believes the Bible is the infallible word of the living God and is historically accurate in a literal sense. These were my beliefs as well until I left the faith in my early 20s, a little over five years ago.
I won’t go into the details of my deconversion here; that’s a story for another time. My point here is to say that I have read through the Bible in full several times in the past, but this will be my first reading as a non Christian. Before starting this current reading, part of me wanted to just skip the Bible and move on to other great works that I haven’t read before, but as I read through the first few chapters of Genesis I find my view shifting, and I’m glad I decided to go ahead with reading it.
The view of the Bible on which I was raised was very black and white: either the Bible is the true and powerful word of God, or it really isn’t worth much. I don’t remember being taught much of apologetics as a kid, but I do know that many Christians see the Bible’s prevalence in modern society as evidence for its holy and divine nature. According to these particular Christians, if it wasn’t the word of God, no one would care about it and it would never have had the profound impact on culture that it has had. In this view, there is no room for the Bible to be seen as what I now believe it to be: a truly great and profound collection of literary, mythological, and poetic works, authored and compiled by human beings.
I learned a lot about the Bible and its stories from an early age, and I remember the lessons being mostly very simple and straightforward, especially when I was very young. Whenever I learned about any particular Bible story or passage, the adult who was teaching (my parents, church leaders, or teachers at my Christian school) would always have a specific idea in mind of what the passage meant and what lessons could be taken from it. I don’t think I was ever taught the skills necessary to think critically about the Bible and interpret it for myself, which is to say I was taught what the stories meant rather than how to figure out what they meant for myself.
In hindsight, I think the seeds of the development of my literature-reading skills were sown during my middle school and high school years. It was then that I began to learn how to decipher meaning from great literary works for myself. By this time however, the lessons and morals of the Bible stories on which I had grown up had already been strongly instilled into my consciousness, and it would be years before I thought to apply my developing critical thinking skills to the Bible. During this time in my life, whenever I would read or talk about the Bible, I would always start with a foregone conclusion as to what I was supposed to learn from the particular passage I was reading. Because of this, I never learned anything new, and the Bible became dead to me.
The epiphany I had while reading the beginning of Genesis last week was something that would have seemed downright paradoxical to my former Christian self: the Bible is far more alive to me now, as a nonbeliever, than it ever was to me as a Christian. Throwing away my belief in the Bible’s divine authorship and infallible nature has not made it worthless to read, or even less interesting, as my upbringing would have led me to believe. In fact, it has done quite the opposite. I am now free from any preconceived notions, any foregone conclusions, about what the stories mean and what they have to teach. I am free to apply my critical thinking and literary interpretation skills to this book, just like any other great work.
Most importantly, I am free to follow the text where it leads without trying to fit it into the box of what I already know about it. It is for this reason that I’m glad I’ve listened to the part of me that wanted to go ahead with reading the Old Testament rather than moving on to something else. Though the stories are familiar to me, it almost seems as if I am truly learning them for the first time. I move into this phase of the Great Books journey with fresh eyes, excited to see where the text will lead and what it has to teach.