Today’s column is on confronting the Bible.
Yes, you read that right.
I’ve spent my life as a Catholic who was largely kept there because I was terrified of God the Father. Over the course of all these years, I collected an awful lot of theology books and Bibles. I still have them and still collect them, because I can never have enough of the Catholic paranormal. That’s another topic though. The fact is that at last count I think I had seven Bibles in various translations sitting on my bookshelves.
In the American culture, it’s impossible to not be confronted with the Bible. It’s everywhere. At the moment I’m reading the novel Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Since the novel is based on Lincoln’s life, the book that most influenced the 14th president’s writings and thought was the King James Bible. The excellent PBS documentary series God In America is laden with evidence that the KJV was the dominant force shaping American philosophy, politics, and literature. When it came to literature, the KJV was the dragon that slew Beowulf.
As heathens, we still live in this book’s shadow, and probably will for at least another century. If you’ve ever said, “An eye for an eye,” or made a joke during a heavy rainstorm about building an ark, or referred to a “David and Goliath” situation, you’ve shown that the Bible is present still in how you express reactions to the world.
What’s a godsfearing heathen to do? I’ve known pagans who do their best to purge such references from their speech, but I think such self-censorship is bound to frustrate. Instead, I would say one should pick up the Bible and read it.
As American heathens, the Bible is a foundational text. One’s literature shelf ought to hold a copy of the King James Bible expressly for that reason. It should sit on the shelf between Shakespeare and Jane Austen. Be familiar with the better-known bits, like the 23rd psalm, the 91st psalm, and the second chapter of Luke, which is so movingly recited by Linus in “A Charlie Brown Christmas”. This cursory familiarity with the King James has been a basic part of every literate person’s education since the book was first published in 1611.
In 2009-2010, I decided to read the Bible cover to cover. I bought a copy of the New American Bible in hardcover (this is the version used in Catholic churches in the U.S.) and started at Genesis. Since I’d been to divinity school at McGill University in Montreal, I knew about how the first five books were actually four or more texts woven together into a narrative, and that there had been different but related religions in Israel and Judah. What I didn’t fully grasp, however, was how much the Old Testament was an enormous spin-job to cover up that the Hebrews had once been polytheists. Ha’Shem was god over Judah, and his worship eventually overshadowed that of his Israelite counterpart, El. El himself was a title for other gods, collectively referred to as Elohim. At least one of these male gods was married to a goddess, Asherah, who was represented by a sacred tree. The Old Testament is a millennia-old cry to us to “ignore that pantheon in the corner”.
The New Testament to me represented the hijacking of the Gospels by Paul and his ghost writers. Much ink has already been spilled about that, so I won’t belabor the point.
If you read the Bible knowing what you’re getting into, you’re more likely to have your faith as a heathen affirmed, not weakened.
I really should have realized what was happening to me when I would read passages such as Psalm 92:10, “to me he has given the wild ox’s strength” and thought, “Why, that’s Uruz!” and immediately pictured Thor in his chariot whenever thunder and lightning was mentioned. And if Freya is fond of love poetry, I’m sure she has the Song of Songs in her library. I couldn’t go through the Bible without seeing the Aesir, Vanir and runes inside. It made me get a better idea as to why there are carvings from the Eddas in Norwegian stave churches.
The final advantage of being a heathen who is familiar with the Bible (and many are, as ex-Christians) is the ability to debate would-be missionaries and, if one is very lucky, instill a grain of doubt in their minds. I’ve defused a few conversations by saying, “Yes I have read the Bible, and that’s what made me decide not to be a Christian.”
And if all else fails, you can always draw runes and pictures of Thor in the margins.