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The Bible After Fundamentalism

By: Michael C. Legaspi
May 12, 2016

wo friends return to their long-neglected garden. The surprising vigor of a few plants among the weeds leads one to believe that a gardener tends them. Because neither has ever seen this gardener, the other concludes that no such gardener exists. The two consider the matter, but all additional evidence simply leaves each more convinced his original assessment was correct.

British philosopher John Wisdom offered this parable 71 years ago to show that belief in God—like belief in the gardener—is not a straightforward, testable claim. We may employ a common language in our debates about God, but “wrongheadedness or wrongheartedness” and “blindness to what is there or seeing what is not,” warned Wisdom, are at work beneath the surface of our words. One’s stance toward God arises from inner “connexions” which “are not put into language at all.”

Enter A. N. Wilson, a prolific author known, among other things, for his writings on religion: critical biographies of Jesus, Paul, and C. S. Lewis; and broader works, such as his chronicle of modern spiritual decline, God’s Funeral. But Wilson also has the distinction of being a double convert, a Christian who embraced atheism in his thirties and subsequently found his way back to Christian faith. In The Book of the People: How to Read the Bible, Wilson now draws on his experiences departing and rejoining the Christian fold to illuminate those “connexions” that go into the making of belief and unbelief.

The resulting, deeply personal book moves briskly among anecdotes, recollections, observations, historical examples, and ruminations. At times it reads like a novel. Wilson weaves the book around episodes in a thirty-year sequence of meetings with a woman referred to simply as “L”—a composite figure created by Wilson to dramatize his spiritual journey.

It is fitting that a quasi-mythological figure like L—a Christian believer with poetic sensibilities—should serve as Wilson’s guide between the Scylla of religious fundamentalism and the Charybdis of secular fundamentalism, Wilson’s term for the New Atheism. L haunts but does not argue with Wilson. As his disillusionment with Christianity peaks, L remains an example for him of a “God-stricken” individual whose faith transcends old dualisms: historical fact and religious fiction; rational morality and positive religion. L’s faith neither requires nor furnishes the moral and metaphysical assurances that often cause committed Christians to appear facile, credulous, and intolerant.

L’s passion for the Bible allows Wilson to see belief in a new light, learning to understand it not as a naked set of truth claims to be accepted or rejected but as an imaginative work that inspires and unsettles. At one point L writes, “THE BIBLE IS THE FIRST ATHEIST TEXT.” The Old Testament prescribes a Temple for God but no statue to represent Him. Its prophets speak for God, but do so by deconstructing religious practices. The conspicuous vacancy in the Holy of Holies and the prophetic contempt for what most peoples associated with proper worship indicate that, when it comes to thinking about God, the Bible does not yield to simple binaries. In this connection, Wilson quotes Kierkegaard approvingly: “God does not exist, he is eternal.”

Even more valuable is L’s lesson that the Bible is a work of the people, by the people, and for the people. Modern biblical scholarship has replaced notions of simple authorship with more ‘democratic’ accounts: compositional histories that unfold in stages, among various groups, and over many periods.

Wilson recognizes that the Bible, once its materials coalesced into a single book, became even more “the book of the people” than it was when it was written. He turns to a wide variety of sources to illustrate what “reading the Bible” in this sense entails. It means neither treating the Bible as “research materials” for scientific or historical questions, nor using a perverse literalism to argue that it’s irrational and absurd. Rather, the Bible invites us to a different form of life. Opening the New Testament is like entering a Greek Orthodox Church: “If you were not Orthodox, the words, the music, the enigmatic movements of the priests, the incense rising before the icons would all be incomprehensible. But here is the living Christian tradition.” In both cases, the point is not that there is evidence to be gathered but “mysteries to be experienced.”

Liturgical experience is one way of “reading the Bible,” but there are others. Wilson recollects a lavish meal with “H,” a prominent atheist who closely resembles Christopher Hitchens. H asserts that religion is rubbish. Shortly after dinner, Wilson attends a service at a site where Martin Luther King, Jr. once preached. The juxtaposition of a well-fed atheist facilely denouncing religion as “mental poison” and the noble, self-sacrificial example of Christians like King suggests that Christianity’s detractors often live lives far removed from what Bible-reading in the broader sense involves. To condemn Christianity for violence and obscurantism while overlooking its role as “the fundamental inspiration” for the Civil Rights movement, for example, is intellectually dishonest.

The Book of the People says a good deal more about other modes of reading the Bible. Wilson skillfully connects medieval Christendom’s greatest church, the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, to the Bible’s presentation of wisdom as a divine, indwelling reality. The engravings of William Blake, the poetry of George Herbert, the famous altarpiece at Ghent—all exemplify the ways that the Bible frames an encounter with realities we would otherwise be ill equipped to describe or fathom. As Wilson puts it, “the Bible does not compete with the metaphors of Science or Literature or Philosophy, but its own metaphors can inform life…. The Book mysteriously remains, and whether we hear it used in liturgy or read it in private, it retains its undying luminosity.”

By speaking of the Bible as “the book of the people,” Wilson declines to participate in the debate between religious and secular fundamentalisms, which he considers fruitless. On questions central to this debate, Wilson acknowledges complexity. Much in the Bible is metaphorical, but some things (for example, the death and resurrection of Jesus) are historical. Parts of the Bible are repellent, others are inspiring. Christian history is filled with atrocities, but also contains much that is noble. For good or ill, Western civilization is unthinkable without the Bible. In this sense, the Bible is “our book.”

The name “L” is nowhere explained, but it would be appropriate if it stood for the Greek word laos (“people”), from which “layperson” and “laity” are derived. L, a distinct and even eccentric individual in Wilson’s story, nevertheless represents the multiform ways that the Bible is taken up into people’s lives—incarnated, so to speak. Some of these ways are quite public, but most, equally profound, are quiet, personal, and obscure. It is in connection with this observation that the title and subtitle of the book should be understood. To read the Bible as the laos have read it is not to get better at making sense of it. The real point is to see how years and decades of experience with the book help one make sense of life.

In John Wisdom’s garden parable there are only two friends. But what if a third appeared (let’s call him “T”) with book in hand? I imagine T would stop to listen to the conversation between the two friends, but, seeing the sun climb high in the sky, he would politely take his leave and head to the garden itself. Asked what he was planning to do, I hear T simply responding: “What else but work on the unfinished project?”