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Recently, the editors of GQ magazine posted an article entitled: “21 Books You Don’t Have to Read”. They ranked the Bible 12th on this list of “racist”, “sexist”, but most of all “really, really boring” books, describing it as, “repetitive, self-contradictory, sententious, foolish, and even at times ill-intentioned. “ In a comment laced with sarcasm, they conclude that the Bible is “…certainly not the finest thing that man has ever produced.” (The Editors of GQ, “21 Books You Don’t Have to Read”, GQ, April 19, 2018, https://www.GQ.com/story/21-books-you-dont-have-to-read, accessed 5/15/18)

Given its reputation, when I first read the Bible I thought it would blow me away. That it would transform my life with wisdom and insight. That I wouldn’t be able to put it down. Instead, I found it baffling, bizarre, and, just as the editors of GQ describe, painfully tedious.   It made me, too, wonder what was so great about it.

The editors of GQ are right. The Bible isn’t a great piece of literature. Far from it. 

Of course, some of this has to do with context. The Bible was written in a very different time and place, to a very different culture. So, unless you’ve tended sheep lately or brought your sacrificial offering to the Temple, much of the Bible’s meaning and beauty will go right over your head. Unless we are familiar with its ancient Palestinian-Jewish context, its grandeur will escape us. (By the way, when you do unlock the context, you find that, instead of being sexist and racist, the Bible ends up radically subverting these and all other forms of violence and oppression, and often does it in provocative and ingenious ways. More on how it does this in future blogs.) 

But still, even those who are familiar with the Bible’s context find that it’s not a great work of literature. C.S. Lewis was an expert in ancient literature. He taught English literature and philosophy at Oxford and later was given a chair in medieval and Renaissance English literature at Magdalene College, Cambridge, two of the finest universities in the world. When he was still an atheist, he read the four Gospels for the first time. He was very unimpressed. In fact, they were so “clumsy” and “not artistic”, he was forced to conclude they had to be, in substance, historical: “Now as a literary historian, I am perfectly convinced that whatever else the Gospels are they are not legends. I have read a great deal of legend (myth) and I am quite clear they are not the same sort of thing. They are not artistic enough to be legends. From an imaginative point of view, they are clumsy, they don’t work…Most of the life of Jesus is totally unknown to us…and no people building up a legend would allow that to be so.” (as quoted in Armand Nicholi, The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life (New York, NY: Free Press, 2002), p. 87.)

Great literature it is not!

So, what’s the Bible’s appeal? Why does it remain the number one best-seller of all time? Why is its popularity throughout the world on the rise? It’s not a great piece of literature—but that’s the point. Its massive and enduring appeal has to be something else. So, what is it? 

When you boil it all down, the Bible is a book that claims to be divine revelation. To tell us who God is. The real measure of its value, its appeal, is if and how well it does this. Jesus tells two parables In the Gospel of Luke (15:1-10) that go right to the heart of this question.

The first is about a shepherd who has one-hundred sheep. Discovering that one of them is lost, Jesus asks: what shepherd wouldn’t leave the ninety-nine to go after the one? What shepherd? NO shepherd would do this! Given all that could happen to the other sheep while searching for the lost one, it would be totally reckless. It would be like you going to the mall with a hundred one-dollar bills and, discovering that you lost one of them along the way, leaving the other ninety-nine dollars on a table in the food-court to go in search of the one lost dollar. What are the chances your money would be there when you returned? No, a sensible shepherd would cut their losses and remain with the ninety-nine. But Jesus says God is like the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine to find the lost one. In other words, that God’s love, mercy, and grace are reckless—in ways that seem crazy to us, He will do whatever it takes to save even one who is lost.

The second parable involves a woman who has ten coins but discovers she’s lost one of them. Jesus again asks: what woman wouldn’t turn her house upside down to find this lost coin? What woman? NO woman would do this! The coin in question is of little value. It would be like you moving heavy furniture and tearing up carpeting all day to find one lost quarter. It’s crazy, over the top. But this is precisely what Jesus says God is like: a woman who tears up her house to find one insignificant coin. He’s saying that God’s love is over the top, ridiculously more extravagant, wildly more lavish than we’d ever think it could be. Incidentally, notice that in this parable Jesus depicts God as a woman—in other words, the Bible here is radically subverting the sexist, patriarchal culture surrounding it.

Modern physics has been brilliantly successful in describing the mysterious realities that lie at the heart of our material universe. But many of these theories, which work so well in practical application, are profoundly counterintuitive. Especially when it comes to quantum mechanics, they aren’t at all what our minds would naturally conceive. In fact, physicists have only been able to discover and demonstrate them by using abstract mathematical formulas that are elegant to be sure, but exceedingly difficult to grasp.

Likewise, the kind of God ultimately revealed in the Bible is also profoundly counterintuitive—not the kind of God our minds would naturally conceive or easily grasp. And yet, this understanding of God works so well. Though previously unthinkable, once we see it, to be loved by God with such recklessly extravagant grace—to be loved so thoroughly, so completely, so perfectly---satisfies the deepest desire of our hearts.

And this raises an intriguing question: how is it that the Bible comes up with a God who is breathtakingly beyond every human inclination and expectation, a God no human would be apt to invent? (There will be much more on this in future posts.)

Yes, the editors of GQ are right. The Bible isn’t great literature. So why does the Bible continue to captivate, inspire, and transform people’s lives; why does it remain the all-time best seller despite being so boring and problematic? Because, despite all its problems, it speaks to the human heart like no other work ever has—or ever will.

About Me

E.J. Sweeney is a true skeptic. He needs to see to believe. Hard Evidence. Compelling Proof. Solid Logic. This is what he believes in. In college, he encountered questions that the superficial faith he was raised on couldn’t handle. So he began a quest for Truth, a quest for the answers to life’s ultimate questions.

EJ Sweeney

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