Imagine what might happen, though, if we took a different approach. Imagine if we treated the Bible as if it were an actual book that we read from beginning to end. Imagine that instead of reading a chapter a day (as proscribed in our devotionals) that we hunkered down and read large chunks, the way we would read Melville, Dostoevsky, or Stephen King. Imagine if we stopped treating it solely as a reference work, to be pulled off the shelf when we need some advice, but as a coherent narrative, a work of literary art co-produced by the very Creator Himself.
In June I explained how to destroy a culture in five easy steps. On reflection I realize that I was making the issue more complicated than was necessary since the task can be completed in one simple step. As science fiction writer Ray Bradbury once said, “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” While this is certainly true, the genre of books that people stop reading matters considerably. In fact, one genre matters most of all, as Tony Reinke explains In his recent book, Lit!:
Since Moses descended from the mountain with two loose-leaf stones under his arms, all literature can be divided into two genres: Genre A: The Bible . . . Genre B: All other books.
If it’s true, as I believe, that culture can be destroyed by getting people to stop reading books, then I think one of the most important activities we can undertake to restore culture is to get them to read Genre A—to instill in them a passion for reading the Bible.
One of the most significant cultural disasters in the West is the loss of biblical literacy. From the Middle Ages to the twentieth century, the Bible was the bedrock for our culture’s shared heritage. The term culture comes from the Latin cultura, meaning “to plow” or “to till,” and for centuries, the Bible was the rich loam our civilization would plow. The Old and New Testaments provided the fertile soil in which the Western literary imagination took root, and from the scriptural terra firma grew the metaphors, allusions, narratives, and archetypes that fed the soul of our civilization.
But like the story of the Tower of Babel (remember that one?) we have lost our shared language. As Adam Nicolson argued in an article in the Wall Street Journal:
Up until, say, 100 years ago, biblical literacy would have been practically mandatory. If you didn’t know what “the powers that be” originally referred to, or where “the writing on the wall” was first seen, or what was meant by “the patience of Job,” “Jacob’s ladder” or “the salt of the earth”—if you didn’t know what an exodus was or a genesis, a fatted or a golden calf—you would have been excluded from the culture. It might be said that a civilization consists, at its core, of these easily transmitted packages of implication. [ . . . ] You don’t have to return to first principles every time you wish to communicate. You can play your present tune on a received instrument, knowing that your listener hears not only your own music but the subtle melodies of those who played it before you. There is a common wisdom in common knowledge. But does this Bible-informed world still exist? I would guess that on the whole, and outside committed Christian groups, biblical literacy is a thing of the past.