The Good Book Reviewed: From Politicians to Poets, the Bible Has Its Fair Share of Admirers and Critics

Article excerpt

"ANOTHER CENTURY AND THERE WILL not be a Bible on earth!" So predicted 18th-century French philosopher Voltaire. History proved him wrong. Corrie Ten Boom, the Dutch Holocaust hero, later noted that Voltaire's house now serves as a distribution center for Bibles in many languages.

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This demonstrates at least one thing: The Bible's a book often underestimated by its opponents. Unfortunately, it's just as likely to be overlooked by its admirers.

How do you get folks to read the Bible? Religious educators are routinely stumped by this task. Some of us are willing to sit through Bible talk during the weekly homily and maybe to attend the occasional Bible lecture if the speaker is famous enough. Spiritually rugged souls will even read books about the Bible or at least page-a-day reflections on select passages.

But to actually pick up that big book and open it for ourselves remains daunting. Noted C. S. Lewis, "Odd the way the less the Bible is read, the more it is translated."

Mark Twain defined a classic as a book everyone praises and nobody reads. If the Bible is to be that sort of classic, then Voltaire will have been right in spirit if not in fact.

An unread Bible is the same as no Bible at all. Properly understood, scripture doesn't exist on the page so much as in the intersection between the ancient story and us. "When you read God's Word," Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote, "you must constantly be saying to yourself, 'It is talking to me, and about me.'"

Though it pains me to admit it, Henry Ward Beecher also had a point in dismissing secondary sources like Bible commentaries as "looking at a landscape through garret windows, over which generations of unmolested spiders have spun their webs." I've spent years spinning such webs in public, no doubt contributing to the general unclarity of the view.

YET MANY OF US SEEK HELP IN DIGESTING SCRIPTURE. FUNdamentalism has taught us to fear the solitary interpretation of words that can be lobbed like bombs into an uninformed assembly. Consider that Bob Jones III, president of Bob Jones University, has gone on record defending prejudice by insisting, "The Bible itself is intolerant, and true followers of God's Word should be as well."

Dead Sea Scroll expert Millar Burrows insisted that defending the Bible is not the job of Christians so much as understanding it. That task is made trickier by our human inclination to self-deception. As George Bernard Shaw slyly asserted, "No man ever believes that the Bible means what it says. He is always convinced that it says what he means."

In the United States the Bible has never been far from our politics, which makes it all the more necessary to appreciate how it's used in the public sphere. Many presidents were avid scripture readers. "It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible," said George Washington. Abraham Lincoln called it "the best Book which God has given to man." Even Thomas Jefferson, whose scriptural views were eccentric, claimed that "a studious perusal of the sacred volume will make better citizens, better fathers, and better husbands." That women might also profit from such study seems not to have crossed his mind. John Quincy Adams proposed that children would emerge as more "respectable members of society" for having been exposed to the Bible early and often.

Perhaps some of these statements were made during election season in front of Bible-believing audiences. But a general consensus has always pervaded American politics that the Bible, taken regularly as a tonic against immorality, is good for the nation.

IF ONLY BIBLE READING DID ACT LIKE A TONIC! BUT THERE'S little evidence that swallowing verses daily will cure what ails us. "You may as well quit reading and hearing the Word of God, and give it to the devil," Martin Luther declared, "if you do not desire to live according to it. …