Our country’s three major religions, in order of their entry into time, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, are scriptural. To adhere to one of them is to believe its Book, be it the Hebrew Bible (retrospectively in Christian terms, the Old Testament, or the “Covenant,” anciently referred to as ta biblia, “The Books”), the New Testament, or the Qur’an (“Reading”).
My reflections here concern the study only of the Judeo-Christian Bible in a classroom. I am not competent to opine about the study of the Qur’an, though I know that the works of al-Ghazālī, a major Islamic theologian and philosopher, are centered on the same questions about authority that underlie my own much less learned or intense thoughts.
The dual Bible (Old and New Testaments) became available to a select larger public in antiquity in the Latin Vulgate, and, in modernity, it became accessible to an essentially uncontrollable public through the invention of printing, which evoked translation into every vernacular. Thus, it entered “world literature,” the Western canon of “great books,” on a par with them.
Acquaintance with some works of this canon is now an ever less obvious requirement for students in the humanities. Moreover, the mode of reading its constituent books varies widely—from irritatedly reluctant glancings by students who regard the assignment as a jumping-through-hoops imposition to keen, even gimlet-eyed, inspection by professionals with a fancy vocabulary, or from mildly appreciative engagement to deeply attentive delight. All the great books must suffer quite supinely being disregarded, assaulted, or embraced; were we to hear them thinking, we might hear a murmur: “We asked for it when we assumed that stature of publications.”
Sacred scripture is less permissive than other great books, less tolerant of being ranged among literary works as “world literature”—of being read “as literature.” By being forced into this company, these Books know themselves to be neutralized, castrated, cut down to size, adulterated—housebroken, so to speak. What is being done here, and why does it want doing?
So first, what does it mean to read a book “as literature”? For something to be taken as something, it seems to be a minimal condition that it should be in some aspects like that something. So the Bible must be in some aspect like literature.
What is literature? It has become a term of unmeaning vastness that includes not only deliberate fictions and personal poetry but also commentary and factual explanatory writings, like the technical disclosures that nowadays accompany one’s bottle of pills—indeed, anything composed of letters (Latin, littera).
But in the humanities faculty of a modern university, a work is, so I’ve observed, usually identified as literature by having several features characteristic of humanism. Humanism is the ideological ground, going back to the Renaissance, of the humanities. It is the doctrinal commitment that puts humanity and its values in the place of divinity and its doxology. Thus, the humanistic humanities replace theology, which makes an account of God and humanity’s relation to the divine the central concern. Eventually, the humanities were themselves edged out by the sciences, by the mathematical study of nature.
Consequently, there is a much deplored, though circumstantially encouraged, indifferentism in the educational space. Literature is an “elective,” choice being more than occasionally a matter of practical convenience, passing preference, or mere availability. Accordingly, the academic defense of reading works of quality is flabby, perhaps deliberately banal, and un-deep.