God forbid we should talk about the fact that the Bible, despite some wise and lyrical passages, is mostly a boring tangled mess.
After a storm of protest on Twitter and in comment threads, Salon retracted and removed my recent article, “Why the Bible is So Badly Written,” saying that it failed to meet their editorial standards. But which standards were those? Notwithstanding its provocative title and lede, the article summarized a series of well-known flaws in the Bible along with facts about how the book was constructed. It proposed (as did Thomas Jefferson) that the Good Book could use a good edit. Reviewed before publication by a retired religion professor and a professional editor, and errata corrected, the analysis was factually defensible and reasonably clear.
What the article definitely violated were the sensibilities of many Christians and orthodox Jews, and an array of literature lovers from Christianized cultures.
Christians and Jews differ among themselves in how they think of the Bible. Adherents may hold what is called a high or a low view of scripture, or something in between. At the high end are biblical literalists who think their book of scripture, in its entirety, is a timeless and perfect message from Heaven. At the low end are modernist believers, who see the Bible as a collection of human documents, but nonetheless a precious record of humanity’s struggle to understand what is real and good. In between these two lie those who think their version of the Bible, among all the world’s holy books, is uniquely inspired and inspiring. All of these cherish the Bible’s familiar phrases—selectively—as part of their worship routines.
People who hold varying (even conflicting) views of the Bible as scripture generally unite around a derivative view—that the Bible represents one of humanity’s greatest literary achievements. This view has been unassailable for centuries, even as belief in the Bible as holy scripture has dwindled. For those who have left religion behind, emphatically endorsing the Bible as great literature softens the blow, as does the claim that Jesus was a great moral teacher. What do we do with the Bible if we don’t revere it as God’s word? We can revere it as writing.
Offended critics of “Why the Bible is So Badly Written,” pointed to famous authors, including Poet Maya Angelou, who themselves have treasured the Bible as beautiful, inspiring literature. How presumptuous to suggest otherwise!
To be clear, the Bible contains passages with timeless relevance, lyrical poetry, wise counsel, and stories that have inspired two millennia of derivative art. I could and should have acknowledged that more clearly in the article that set off the storm. But that is not all it contains. Two hundred years ago, when Thomas Jefferson took a sharp instrument to a Bible, he called the parts he kept “diamonds in a dunghill.” The other parts, those he discarded, include tedious details about ritual purification, self-aggrandizing genealogical tributes to racial superiority, horrific stories of god-sanctioned violence that dehumanizes women, slaves, and tribal outsiders—and a vast array of related dross.
My own suspicion is that few of the outraged religious believers and literature lovers who attacked Salon have ever attempted to read the Bible cover to cover. Per Barna, the average American household contains 4.4 Bibles, but 57 percent of people say they read something out of it four times per year or less. Even those who read it more often tend to return to the brief passages that they do find inspiring, while skipping the troublesome parts. The book may be the world’s best seller, as some Twitterati like to crow, but most copies collect dust with very good reason.
But reason is only part of the story when we talk about sacred cows.
Seattle, where I live, is home to a hamburger chain called Dick’s. Some folks may recognize it from a Macklemore video that he filmed on the roof of one outlet. Even newcomers to Seattle know about Dick’s and can tell you that “Dick’s is great,” whether they’ve ever tasted the hamburgers and fries or not. Dick’s is great, has taken on a life of its own. It is common knowledge, a cultural touch point, an unquestioned point of agreement that is a part of our shared identity. To claim otherwise is contrarian, the violation of a local light-hearted taboo.
The taboos surrounding the Bible, as both a sacred text and a body of literature, are not so light-hearted because they are more important. But I might argue that defense of the Bible is no less reflexive. For over a thousand years, speaking ill of the Bible has been as gauche as speaking ill of the dead. But that is changing.
If, at this point, you find yourself irritated or protesting or sneering, let me ask you something. When was the last time you actually read it? Cover to cover. If you think that the Bible as a whole constitutes a pinnacle of human moral guidance or literature—either one—you owe it to yourself to read it, all of it. But be forewarned. The testimonial section at ExChristian.net is peppered with stories of folks who set out to do just that and found their spiritual worldview in rubble.
Note: The version of “Why the Bible is So Badly Written” linked at my website includes minor revisions that did not appear in the version at Salon. These include a more clear statement that the Bible contains bits of beauty and wisdom amidst the rest. I routinely continue to tweak articles after they have been picked up elsewhere. To see the exact version published by Salon, go to AlterNet.com.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including AlterNet, Salon, the Huffington Post, Grist, and Jezebel. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.