Evocations of the God of whom the Bible speaks, teachings the Bible transmits, and biblical vocabulary mediated by art, music, literature, television, and film populate the public and private discourse, the moral and metaphysical imagination, of a very large number of people. Not only Barack Obama, but political opponents like Michelle Bachmann and Rick Perry; not only a conservative Jewish author like Dennis Prager, but a liberal Jewish author like Judith Shulevitz; not only the Archbishop of Canterbury, but ordinary Christians in China, the United States, and India - all worship the God of the Bible as best they know how and enrich their public and private lives with practices and language of biblical origins.
Millions of self-identifying Jews and billions of self-identifying Christians populate the planet. The Bible is a fundamental resource of their life and practice. Believing Jews and Christians concur with Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Whereas for Horatio and friends, heaven and earth are bereft of providence; no transcendent beings haunt the world we live in; we have no one to speak to but ourselves.
The world is full of people who think of the Bible as God’s Word addressed to them: “Your word is a lamp before my feet; a light before my path” (Ps 119:105). They consider that word to have life-changing and world-transforming consequences. For them it has private and public value – however much they disagree about the value it has.
There are others - the New Atheists for example - who think of the Bible and its “main character” in extremely negative terms. Biologist Richard Dawkins speaks of God, especially the God of the Old Testament, as a “moral monster”:
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all of fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty, ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully. [The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006) 31]
If we turn to the Bible itself, we are in for major surprises. The Bible is replete with accusations that the God of whom so much is expected has been a moral monster. Those in God’s face the most are spoken of as God’s servants: Abraham, Moses, David, Jeremiah, Job, Jesus, the martyrs in heaven.
Along the same lines, according to the Bible the world we live in cannot possibly be described as the best of all possible worlds. Though the world – material and spiritual – is good in principle, that same world is understood to be in need of tikkun, a Hebrew word meaning “rectification, healing.”
Given all of the above, it is no wonder that the Bible and its main character are an integral part of public and private discourse. In the thick of life’s contradictions, believers and non-believers alike turn to and sometimes against the God of the Bible, the teachings of the Bible, and/or other features of what literary critic Northrup Frye called “The Great Code.”
But do we understand what the Bible says? If we do, do we know how to persuade others that its contents are helpful or hurtful, according to our point of view, respecting those who disagree?
Ian Young, an Australian professor of biblical literature, said the following: “the greatest obstacle to understanding the Bible is thinking that you already do.” Unless we have already determined that it has nothing to say to us, good or bad, the first thing to do is to read biblical literature afresh, not with eyes wide shut, but as if it were a mirror in which we might see ourselves, and the conflicts around us. The second thing we might do is decide whether we agree with Marx, who said that philosophers have only described the world, the point is to change it. Are the Bible and its tropes a resource in that endeavor, or a stumbling-block in the way?