By the time I was five—well before I learned to read—I understood that my mother’s Bible had special powers. For one thing it was different from all the other books in our house. Bound in soft black leather that was well worn but well cared for, its pages were of thin high quality paper that was wavy rather than flat. Moreover, my mother treated her Bible in a way that was totally different from how she treated any of our other books. She always laid it out in its own special place on a living room table, never on a bookshelf with our other books. She spent a great deal of time reading from it and always took it with her to church so she could look up any of the verses that the pastor quoted during his sermon.
It was a King James Version, and that added to its power. The words were English, but they often were so different from the contemporary vernacular that I heard every day that I assumed that the characters in the Bible actually spoke in “thee”s and “thou”s. And I have the sense that everyone else in my family thought the same.
But it wasn’t just that it looked different or that it was written in a form of English that we heard nowhere else. The Bible was also oracular. Within its covers were, we believed, the answers to all of our questions, or at least the ones that really counted.
In many ways our views of the Bible have matured since we were children. As adults we don’t believe that a Bible as a physical object has special qualities or powers. And we understand, at least intellectually, that the King James Version—or any other version, for that matter—is not written in the exact words penned by the original authors, and that translations in contemporary English may be just as accurate as the KJV, or even more so. But I think what many persons of faith still believe is that the Bible has oracular qualities, that residing within scripture are the keys to The Truth. It is only a question of finding the right passages and being able to interpret them.
My Christian friends tell me how they spend time with their Bibles, reading passages each morning or evening or perhaps reading the Bible through or studying portions of it in accordance with study guides that others have put together. And I observe groups of individuals of common faith sitting together, each with his or her own Bible, studying passages and earnestly discussing their meaning. Some say that they believe the text contains wisdom, while others believe the power goes deeper than that.
Myself, I do see some nuggets of wisdom in the Bible. But that wisdom pertains primarily to admonitions about how we should conduct our lives. And some of those passages are better than others. Ecclesiastes is probably my favorite. The Bible is a massive book, written over a timeframe of a thousand years or more by authors having very different views of the human condition and of the god that they thought had authority over their destiny. And the overwhelming majority of it has little relevance to contemporary living. Instead, it includes highly dubious histories, rules and regulations that are either wholly irrelevant or inappropriate to contemporary culture, and conflicting descriptions of the nature of god from which the devout can simply pick and choose passages to match whatever conceptions best meet their personal religious sensibilities.
That is what I find so maddening—seeing intelligent, well-intentioned individuals devoting enormous amounts of time and effort to the study of the Bible when there is so much of value, not just in science but also in contemporary literature and moral discourse to which they could be devoting their intellectual capital. From my point of view that is a most unfortunate waste.
For my 8th birthday my parents gave me my own Bible. It was bound in fake leather and could be zipped closed. It also included a number of muddy sepia photographs of the Palestinian region. It is filled with marginal notes in my 12-year-old scrawl from the time I was preparing for my baptism. More than 60 years later I still have that Bible, but I really wish I had my mother’s.
© 2015 John M. Phillips