If you watch “Jeopardy” with any degree of regularity, you start to notice certain trends. Graduate students and librarians tend to be disproportionately represented in the show’s pool of contestants. Alex Trebek sans moustache is inferior to Alex Trebek with moustache. And the categories contestants invariably have the most trouble with are those related to sports and the Bible.
The sports troubles are fairly straightforward; when you’re busy learning the capitols of all the countries in Eastern Europe, you probably don’t have a whole lot of time to watch the Yankees beat the Red Sox. The biblical illiteracy, meanwhile, among people smart enough to compete on “Jeopardy” might seem a bit more perplexing, but it’s really just emblematic of the biblical illiteracy of our culture in general.
People just don’t read the Bible all that much. Nonreligious folks read it hardly at all. Even deeply religious people largely focus their study on those sections that are most important to them, with Christians honing in on the New Testament and Jews on the Torah.
Evangelical Protestants, especially those who regard the Bible as the literal word of God, tend to be the most well versed in the, um, verses of the Good Book. And even in the case of biblical literalists, it’s hardly true that the majority of them have actually read the complete Bible.
Already, I can practically hear many of my readers shrugging. “Well, who cares if people haven’t read up on all those old myths? What have they got to do with how we live now, anyway?” The thing is, they actually have a lot to do with how we live now, and it’s not at all necessary to see the Bible as the unadulterated word of God to recognize the value of the stories it contains.
If there is such a thing as inherent literary value, the Bible has it. And if there’s not (and, OK, there’s probably not — we’re all postmodernists now, right?), the Bible has cultural value, which is probably even more important. It’s become a cliche for people who wish to sound vaguely smart to say that our society is based on Judeo-Christian tradition, but just because it’s a cliche doesn’t mean it’s not true (and, hey, I am vaguely smart).
Just ask David Plotz, author of the recently published “Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous, and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Single Word of the Bible”. As the title probably indicates, Plotz is no heavy hitting theologian, nor is he particularly religious. In a column for Slate, he describes himself as an angry and hopeless agnostic. But he also writes this:
“It was a tiny but thrilling moment when my world came alive, when a word that had just been a word suddenly meant something to me. And something like that happened to me five, 10, 50 times a day when I was Bible-reading. You can’t get through a chapter of the Bible, even in the most obscure book, without encountering a phrase, a name, a character or an idea that has come down to us 3,000 years later.
“The Bible is the first source of everything from the smallest plot twists (the dummy David’s wife places in the bed to fool assassins) to the most fundamental ideas about morality (the Levitical prohibition of homosexuality that still shapes our politics, for example) to our grandest notions of law and justice. It was a joyful shock to me when I opened the Book of Amos and read the words that crowned Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.”
He goes on to describe how the short Book of Daniel has inspired everything from popular phrases (“into the lion’s den” and “the writing on the wall”) to bands (The Fiery Furnaces) to books (“The Book of Daniel”) to TV shows (“The Book of Daniel,” again) to movies (“A Knight’s Tale,” oddly enough). What he’s writing about is the power of myth, the singular ability it has to define — to bestow meaning onto things and people and cultures and worlds.
Discovering that power can feel like a revelation, and it’s not hard for me to see why so many people have come to understand the Bible as the direct word of God. As Plotz illustrates, the wave of understanding can be just that powerful.
It’s important to understand, though, that this revelatory phenomenon is not limited to myths contained in the Bible, but is in fact present in any number of myths. The myths in the Bible resonate with Plotz especially well because he is an American and a Jew. They would probably not resonate quite so well with a Tibetan.
Likewise, however, the Hindu myths that speak so deeply to a Tibetan probably wouldn’t seem quite so revelatory to Plotz, not because they’re not as good as the Bible myths, but because they don’t contain nearly as much cultural capital for him.
In so much as all these myths do resonate with everyone, it’s because of the underlying, seemingly universal themes they all convey. Learning about the myths of many different cultures highlights both these universal themes and the different ways in which different cultures understand these themes.
Additionally, Plotz is not entirely correct when he writes that “the Bible is first source of everything,” as all myths are necessarily built upon the backs of older myths. The Hebrew myths of the Old Testament were deeply influenced by Persian, Babylonian, Assyrian and Sumerian myths, while the New Testament contains dis-tinct strains of Greek and Roman thought.
Being familiar with Zoroastrian theology, for example, is helpful in understanding the biblical conception of the devil. Being familiar with fertility goddesses, like Inanna, is helpful in understanding how the Christ story works. Being familiar with Roman mystery cults is helpful in understanding Paul’s description of revelation and salvation. And so on.
Everything is connected. Everything is part of a larger story. The Bible is our cultural entrance into that story. After reading the whole of it, Plotz actually wonders why students aren’t compelled to read huge chunks of the Bible in high school and college. It’s a good question. At the very least, it would help them out should they ever make it onto “Jeopardy.”
Justin Fowler is a student at University College of Bangor. He may be reached via email@example.com or on his blog<a href=”http:// burnstheair.blogspot.com”> burnstheair.blogspot.com. Voices is a weekly commentary by Maine people who explore issues affecting spirituality and religious life.