This Just In: Bible Crap

The Guardian Unlimited Arts Blog is sort of hurting for page views, I guess. Please do visit their rather interesting site more often so they don’t have to publish ridiculous works like Sam Jordison’s review of the Bible. I think it’s safe to say he’s unimpressed.

The literary quality of the Bible is an issue that I think is worth addressing. Firstly, there’s the simple point that if the Bible really were the word of God, you’d think that He would be able to make it more interesting. Secondly, there’s a war being waged against reason at the moment and it’s gone time that reason started landing a few punches of its own. Why not freely state the obvious, but hitherto rarely mentioned, truth? The Good Book is not, as is so often suggested, a damn good read. It’s crap. If the two Testaments tell the greatest story ever told, I am a monkey (and not just the distant descendant of one).

Now, Jordison does make one decent critical observation in his otherwise junior-high-school-ish essay. He points out, in reminder, that the Bible is a work of translation. With any great non-English work of literature I often wonder what I’ve fallen in love with, the work, or the translation. Jordison suggests that, in this case, us lovers of the Bible have fallen in love with the translation. Our otherwise keen critical senses, so sharp when reading Dostoevsky or Chekov, have left us too dull-witted to see past the translators gloss.

Or if not gloss, careful shine. The Bible has had a sort of checkered history when it comes to translation but it’s been a long one. I’m not sure if any other collection of ancient documents has been under such intense scrutiny, much of it under people who would like to see the object of study destroyed. Regardless of your opinion of the truth of the thing (which itself involves sensitivity to literary style often missing in these sort of arguments) suggesting that one of the most carefully translated foreign works on the planet, editions existing both gussied-up and dressed-down, is hiding behind overly-benign translation sounds, well, ridiculous.

Of course, I don’t really know, do I? I don’t read Hebrew or Greek. I have to take this sort of thing on authority — and you know me, I love checking with the authorities. For an interesting experiment in Biblical translation with important literary connections I’d recommend The Book of J by Harold Bloom and David Rosenberg. The bulk of the book is pretty much an introduction by the always entertaining Bloom to the last chapter, Rosenberg’s attempt at a very literal translation of the hypothesized J Document, the earliest textual strand in the first six books of the Bible. Rosenberg’s translation tries to tease this strand, the J Document, out of the hands of it’s later editors. His translation leaves it very ironic and very rough — often ignoring English grammar for a presumed foreign sound — and contains no gloss whatsoever. And there’s no denying it’s literary qualities.

15 responses to “This Just In: Bible Crap”

  1. First of all, it’s patently ridiculous to ask, “Has anyone got the stamina to read the entire tedious work from cover to cover?” I know lots of people (myself included) who have–and often more than once. There are definitely some hardcore slogs in Leviticus and Numbers (and for me, a non-history aficionado, from Joshua through 2 Chronicles).

    His charge that the Bible is tedious is accurate. But he can’t criticize it without setting up a straw man–that the only books worth reading are internally consistent and entertaining, featuring a likable protagonist who never offends.

    As for his Jesus argument, that’s another straw man. He says that so-called Christians should “realise that far from being the meek and mild socialist of popular conception” Jesus is a whole bunch of other things. This belies a cursory understanding of what the foundation of Christianity is. In some denominations Jesus has been diluted to a social worker (think of Thomas Jefferson’s famous version of the Bible). In many orthodox denominations, Jesus is acknowledged to be “an unforgiving egomaniac, obsessed with demons, who likes nothing more than to have his dirty feet kissed.” That is, perfect, holy, and the Son of God worthy of all praise–as he has been acknowledged by Christians since the day Christians were invented. So that’s just a silly criticism made for the sake of throwing stones in a popular direction.

    I am not one of those people who say that you have to accept the Bible without question. It’s a difficult text, and it is hard or even impossible to comprehend the mind of God in some places (he points out some particularly troubling passages). I do take issue with this kind of dismissive joviality that’s more about making fun than raising honest questions.

  2. It’s like he’s marching into the University of Winnipeg library and screaming at the top of one’s lungs: “These books contradict each other! They don’t flow together as a literary unified whole and they don’t have a likeable protagonist! Some of this is fiction!” Well duh. It’s an effing multi-genre anthology, dumbass.

    Honestly. The war against reason is clearly also being waged by ranting fundamentalist atheists like Jordinson, not only by his religious counterparts.

    To the Book of J, I would add Reynolds Price’s “Three Gospels,” Thomas Cahill’s “Desire of the Everlasting Hills,” and the introductions to the Grove Press Bible. They all have interesting discussions of the literary merits and demerits of the Bible.

  3. Er, that first “one’s” should be “his.” Me, literary? Obviously not.

  4. Duuude. The Guardian Arts Blog was the inspiration behind my WTF category. Get to it.

  5. Annie, I wish there was some kind of decent online service for anti-Christian internet folk so they could figure out precisely just who they were attacking and what. I think it would streamline things. But please don’t take issue with all kinds of dismissive joviality — that’s my only trick!

    Elliot, “It’s an effing multi-genre anthology, dumbass” — too true. Plus: I must read Reynolds Price one day.

    Imani, LOL! I know! I should have mentioned your blog somewhere in there. Today I’m taking issue with the Guardian Arts Blog, tomorrow I’ll be reading the Paris Review.

  6. Isn’t it bad enough that we must put up with Dawkins? Must we now be accosted by his replicants?

  7. Ack, was it the latest issue? That one was something of a bore unless you really liked the loooooong photo essay.

  8. Its a little odd to criticize a book that’s hung around for 2,500 years, sparked at least three major existing civilizations and NEVER goes out of print except by government censorship as lacking in literary quality.

    And, does Jordinson read Hebrew? Can he really critique translations if he doesn’t? Or does he simply not like the sound of them? The KJV along with the Book of Common Prayer and Shakespeare seem to have codified literary English for the ages.

    But I suppose that is nothing. We moderns are so clever.

  9. I’m sure the militant moderns will be ranting against Shakespeare next.

  10. Hi There,
    I was wondering about the “Wait, There’s More!”, is it a plug in, if so can you share where you got it. I really want to place it on my site please drop me a mail and let me know,

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  11. Hey, Ian, check out this article – a few paragraphs fit in with your reading worries theme:

  12. Great find, Elliot.

  13. I love it when this comment section becomes more like a discussion. I feel like a real blogger.

    Embarrassment: Imani, I was being sarcastic about reading the Paris Review. It didn’t really come through, though. Like, today the Plains of Abraham! Tomorrow the world! I am lame.

    WordPress stuff: Michael, I sent you an email about that plugin. Good luck.

  14. Hi Ian,
    Thanks about the plug in, but i did not receive it, i have commented with a different email address this time. If you already send it, then it must have gotten lost between the 20 billion i have inherited 30 times today already and the e greeting cards or the enlargement stuff and so on.
    I you dont mind please send it to this address [address removed — my apologies to Dr. Clement Okon]
    Many thanks

  15. Dont be fooled by literary writer wannabes who cant appreciate fine english literature, instead, they just use idiotic sensationalism as gimmicks for their trashy books to sell(which I doubt very much if they sell at all). Please visit:

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