Appreciating the Bible

Ian at Irreducible Complexity asks Is the Bible Special?:

The point is, if you actually read the bible without being primed to think it is holy, True (in some sense), important, or special, the text is simply not very impressive. It is tedious, tribal, occasionally uplifting, ludicrous, far fetched, even more tedious, and alienating.

It takes hard work, perhaps sustained by naive enthusiasm, to get much out of the bible. But the same is true of any work of literature, spiritual or fictional or both. If I went back 30 years now, to talk to my former self about what to spend my life studying, I’d be hard pressed to give good reasons to choose the bible over Shakespeare, say, or Bach, or any other cultural artefact. At least those alternatives are easier to derive pleasure from, on a shallow level. I don’t regret the choice I made, I just don’t think I somehow picked perfectly.

Ian illustrates his point with this classic XKCD comic:

James McGrath asks about the positive side of the issue:

Certainly there are things which you appreciate in literature, wine, music, or anything else by really familiarizing yourself with the range of phrases, sounds, tastes, etc. Surely this isn’t always a bad thing, is it?

Obviously it’s not a bad thing to appreciate the subtleties in a subject which the uninitiated would miss. I think the problem comes in when your subtleties become so arcane that you have to question whether they are real or just figments of your own imagination. As an example, I point to the David Derbyshire article at the Guardian, Wine-tasting: it’s junk science, which is loaded with examples like this:

In 2001 Frédérick Brochet of the University of Bordeaux asked 54 wine experts to test two glasses of wine– one red, one white. Using the typical language of tasters, the panel described the red as “jammy’ and commented on its crushed red fruit.
The critics failed to spot that both wines were from the same bottle. The only difference was that one had been coloured red with a flavourless dye.

Wine is too complex for the human senses to fully grasp. This leads to a great deal of subjectivity in evaluations, even among those people who have carefully trained their palates. This results in a lot of bullshit analysis, like the above.

Perhaps language has a much complexity as a glass of wine. Extracting subtle meanings from a text is surely as tricky as detecting oak notes and tannin signatures. Maybe much of what we appreciate about the Bible – or any text – has less to do with the pattern of words and more to do with the projections of our own minds.

I’m not sure that’s a problem. The meanings may be useful or inspiring regardless of the source. The problem comes in when we try to privilege one bottle, or one book, over another. If much of the subtleties within the Bible come from our own minds, then why prefer it to other books? What special power or authority does it have?

It seems appropriate to end with a little Mark Twain, from “Concerning Tobacco:”

No one can tell me what is a good cigar—for me. I am the only judge. People who claim to know say that I smoke the worst cigars in the world. They bring their own cigars when they come to my house. They betray an unmanly terror when I offer them a cigar; they tell lies and hurry away to meet engagements which they have not made when they are threatened with the hospitalities of my box. Now then, observe what superstition, assisted by a man’s reputation, can do. I was to have twelve personal friends to supper one night. One of them was as notorious for costly and elegant cigars as I was for cheap and devilish ones. I called at his house and when no one was looking borrowed a double handful of his very choicest; cigars which cost him forty cents apiece and bore red-and-gold labels in sign of their nobility. I removed the labels and put the cigars into a box with my favorite brand on it—a brand which those people all knew, and which cowed them as men are cowed by an epidemic. They took these cigars when offered at the end of the supper, and lit them and sternly struggled with them—in dreary silence, for hilarity died when the fell brand came into view and started around—but their fortitude held for a short time only; then they made excuses and filed out, treading on one another’s heels with indecent eagerness; and in the morning when I went out to observe results the cigars lay all between the front door and the gate. All except one—that one lay in the plate of the man from whom I had cabbaged the lot. One or two whiffs was all he could stand. He told me afterward that some day I would get shot for giving people that kind of cigars to smoke.

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