YFNA Geeks Out on the Bible, Part 2

I want to put forward some of the really chewy ideas I heard tonight, and I will do so in subsequent posts. But first I want to think and talk a little about why it’s useful – or important, or relevant, or not totally insane – for an atheist to read the Bible.

First and foremost, it is a collection of narratives on which nearly all of western culture is built. If you want to fully understand anything painted, carved, written or played in Europe or its colonies since about 300AD, you’d better have some basic biblical literacy.

Case in point: My husband and I went to the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco a week ago and saw this painting, “Portrait of a Lady of the Saxon Court as Judith with the Head of Holofernes”, by Hans Cranach, 1537. If you’re prone to contemplation about these sorts of things, you might find yourself with some questions, the first being who is Judith and what is she doing with this guy’s head? And why would a lush little society dame want to pose as her? What does it say about her, about her family, about her interests? What does it say about the artist? What does it say about the zeitgeist in which she posed and he painted? It’s remarkably postmodernist for a 16th century painting, full of self-referents and mirroring cultural memes. Without an elemental understanding of the central narrative, you can’t even begin the conversation.

Secondly, it is imperative that we understand the language in which the most important social justice issues are being discussed in this country. Marriage equality, reproductive rights, racial and economic justice are all being played out on the stage of religiosity. If we want to stand on the side of human rights, we have to be fluent in the language to which those standing on the side of oppression resort to support their claims. I tell you this now: theirs is not the only interpretation of this book. We must not cede to them its resources, for there is more liberation in it than subjugation.

Thirdly, it is comprised of some of the most moving stories ever recorded. Leave aside for the moment the ontological arguments about its authorship, its veracity and its literal or metaphorical interpretation – this is an intense book. It has stories about working, living, loving, losing, longing, grieving, healing, striving, surviving. Human stories. Stories that have been picked over, assembled, reassembled, reworked, but nevertheless they speak to a common thread of lived experience that stretches back millenia. Look down at your own hand, and then imagine the hands that built the pyramids. There is a narrative that stretches back to those hands and beyond, and the echoes of that narrative are enshrined in the Bible.

I have to tell you that I am so grateful for the opportunity to reread – reclaim – the stories in this book without the crushing, foreclosing oppression with which they were imposed on me as a child. I will be very clear that I read them as myth, not fact. I read them as myth in the way that Pastor Guest defines myth: as “a way of explaining to another human being something that is difficult to understand.” I do not wish to engage in a debate about the reality or unreality of these stories, because that leads to unproductive suffering. But talking about what they mean to us as people, what they tell us about ourselves and those who we should strive to find love for – that is a conversation that I will geek out on for days.

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