Sometimes, when you talk to some of the saner Christians and they admit that the Bible can’t be taken seriously or read literally, they gamely counter with the notion that “but still, you can’t deny that the Bible is one of the great works of literature!”
Why not? What’s so great about it?
First of all let’s remember that the Bible doesn’t work as history or science: the creation story, the Garden of Eden, the flood, Abraham the would-be child killer, the enslavement of the Israelites and the escape across Sinai where they received God’s commandments, Joshua’s genocide in the Holy Land, God punishing the Israelites when they disobeyed the Torah, Jesus rising from the grave and flying off into outer space….are all lies. Never happened.
The Bible doesn’t work as a moral guide: God approves genocide, ethnic cleansing, killing your children and/or selling them into slavery, subjugating women, killing gays, and the absurdly widespread use of the death penalty. God’s followers commit murder, bigamy, adultery, incest, rape, theft, fraud. And the Song of Songs is pure porn.
The Bible doesn’t help in the quest for wisdom: it says specifically that the path to wisdom is…obedience. The lesson it teaches is that even if you obey God’s absurdly arbitrary and capricious laws, he is still going to screw you over and kill for fun. The few worthwhile bits of wisdom in the Sermon on the Mount are the bits that today’s Christians do their level best to ignore, all that hippie commie stuff about loving your neighbor, meekness, tolerance, forgiveness, caring for the poor and the sick. The hell with that!
It doesn’t work as fable: many of the little lessons it teaches are about God’s whimsical cruelty. Occasionally they teach a neat lesson about David taking on Goliath or the good Samaritan, but those are few and very far between.
It doesn’t work as prophecy: the Old Testament promises over and over that God will watch over the chosen people, and time and again they are invaded, slaughtered, scattered to the four winds. A key message in the New Testament was that everybody needed to get ready because God was going to establish his kingdom on earth within a man’s lifetime...two thousand years ago. Tick tock, tick tock.
It has few good characters, because most of them are just people waiting for God to punish them, like hogs in a slaughter pen. And few of them are sympathetic, because as a group they are not very nice people: David arranging for a romantic rival to be killed, a number of “Bible heroes” handing over their female relatives to be raped or killed, Jacob deceiving his father and brother, the endless whining of Jeremiah. And of course the most unpleasant character in all fiction, Jehovah.
It’s not even well-written: it’s repetitive, it has plot holes and logical leaps, and it is often boring. Jeremiah and Isaiah should not be read while operating machinery. It’s so badly written that artists as varied as Dante, Milton and Andrew Lloyd Webber have pulled out their Bibles and tried to rewrite the stories so that they’re actually, you know, good. And invariably the only way to make the Bible good is to turn the whole story on its head: in Jesus Christ Superstar the most interesting character in Judas, and in Milton the most fascinating character is Satan.
It is badly edited. Even a novice editor would have sliced about 300 pages out of this monster. All the repetitive passages about dietary laws and idol-worshipping kings, the book of Isaiah which could be cut in half without losing anything of value, the porn in Song of Songs, the lunacy of Revelation, and a lot of sheer silliness like the miracles.
And very repetitive: Genesis has two conflicting accounts of the creation, and the Gospels have four conflicting accounts of Jesus’ life. The Books of Chronicles are a rehash of the stuff in Genesis and Kings. So at least five books of the Bible are redundant.
A perfect example of the bad editing occurs in the Book of Numbers. Balaam is a sort of repeat of the tale of Moses’ agonizing and his reluctance to carry out God’s will, so that the Israelites can attain victory and finally end their wandering in the desert. And right in the middle of the story, the author inserts…a talking donkey. Script doctor! Code Blue! It’s as though Orson Welles was working on the script of Citizen Kane, and Herman Mankiewicz, drunk as usual, shouted out “You know, Act Two kinda drags, how about we stick in a scene with Mickey Mouse and Pluto?”
If an author were to walk into a publishing house today (or, worse, Hollywood) and submit the Bible for publication, they would either reject it outright, or slice it in three and market it as a young-adult trilogy starring the Witch of Endor as a teen rebel out to save Israel from a dystopian, totalitarian future. And add vampires. Who solve crimes. Can we get Emma Stone as the Whore of Babylon?
The Bible does work as a cultural touchstone: it has been rammed down our throats for so many centuries that everyone is familiar with its stories and its slogans. Everybody knows the Pharaoh, Goliath, the Ark, Peter’s denial, the prodigal son, spare the rod and spoil the child, money is the root of all evil. Generations of bad writers have tried to tart up their bad writing by opening their works with quotes from the Bible, just like they do with Shakespeare. It confers a thin layer of borrowed panache upon the semi-literate. Hurray for the Bible! But alas, to be well-known is not to be well-written.
The book is so old and so venerated that no one has the guts to say that it’s not worth keeping in our lives anymore. It’s a 1370-page effort by ancient priests to sell lies to stupid people, in order to enslave them. It’s time for modern civilization to move on, to toss it into the bin with all those books we’re supposed to revere but are essentially unreadable: James Joyce, the “Silmarillion” sequel to the Lord of the Rings, Waiting for Godot, Catcher in the Rye, Thomas Hardy, Tom Clancy and John Grisham after they got rich and lazy.