The Bible is a literary “classic”, perhaps the literary classic. And like many other works in the literary canon, the Bible can be hard going. It requires thoughtful reading, at a slow pace, preferably with a few footnotes helping us bridge the cultural divide. You might not like it at first, maybe for a hundred pages or more. Eventually, its subtle logic and moral power creeps up on you, and you may even find yourself agreeing with those who say that no one can claim to be an “educated Westerner” until they’ve read the Bible.
I had a similar experience in recent years with another work from the Western literary canon. Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities was one of ten books my literary friends insisted I should read if I wanted to maintain any pretence of being a cultured human being. I swallowed my “I-only-read-non-fiction” pride and sat down one lazy weekend to give it a go.
The book opens with that intriguing and unforgettable line, “It was best of times, it was the worst of times …”, but after a couple of pages I was sure I would hate it. The sentence structures were complex, the language unnecessarily verbose (and sometimes even foreign), and the historical setting—London and Paris at dawn of the French Revolution—was an alien land for me.
Fortunately, my edition of A Tale of Two Cities included a lengthy introductory essay from a Dickens scholar and copious footnotes throughout the book explaining unusual terms, cultural peculiarities, and historical references. I dutifully read the notes, all of them. It was a “classic”, after all. It was my intellectual duty. I slowly began to appreciate Dickens’ skill and intent, but even a hundred pages in I saw it only as a worthy book, not something to be relished.
I can’t say exactly where everything changed—somewhere around the middle of the story, I think—but I distinctly remember putting the book down after a brief installment and wishing I had time to keep going. I was hooked. I had grown fond of the unusual rhythm of the language. I was fascinated by the historical details. And above all, the story captivated me. It is a moving human plot and an insightful portrait of the universal themes of sacrifice and renewal. I felt I had been repaid for my effort, with interest.
After reading Dickens, I resolved never again to mock a “classic”—without first reading it, slowly and in its entirety. I am glad my literary friends were patient with me through my dogmatic non-fiction years. At times I must have sounded to them like the 15-year-old in English class: “Shakespeare is stupid!”
Some people approach the Bible like this. They’ve never read it—at least not slowly, as an adult, with some technical assistance. Yet, just like the proverbial 15-year-old, they know it’s stupid. But there are reasons this book has influenced our culture, arguably, more than any other text. There are reasons it continues to sell more copies than any other book, every year.
The most important and rewarding literary works often require something from us before we reap the benefits. I guess it’s in the nature of a “timeless work” to seem, at first, less immediately relevant, less temporal. But my experience with Dickens has taught me that the pay-off can be surprising, far exceeding the effort.
Every thoughtful adult should read the Bible—at least a hundred pages of it, at least the Psalms and the Gospels, preferably with some interpretive aid close by. Even if it begins out of a sense of cultural and intellectual duty only, that’s reason enough to open a true classic, doubly so in this case. The patient and attentive reader of the Bible will be repaid tenfold.