A Formula for Two Millennia of Popular Appeal

Culture, History by Adam on 2006-05-06 12:07

The Bible is indisputably the most important piece of literature yet created by mankind. Its significance spans many realms. In history, it is one of the most complete documents of historical record from its era. Culturally, it has guided and shaped societies and their moral and norms worldwide. Politically, it has provided principles and concepts which have guided the creation and execution of governments, and served as a moral centerpiece for their administrators. Linguistically, tracing the history of its translation reveals changes in language and thought as they have evolved over the course of two thousand years. Even considered purely as a piece of literature, it is an impressive work.

But perhaps most astonishing is its continued popularity and application in the modern world. What is it about this collection of writings dating back nearly two millennia which could possibly have any relevance to modern life? The short answer is: very little. The lifestyles described in the Bible are nothing like our lives today. To take one glaring example, polygamy is a common and socially acceptable practice when depicted in the gospels.

What, then, gives the Bible such incredible traction in cultures throughout history and even today in our own?

I believe the answer lies in the style of writing found in the Bible, coupled with the side-effect of the many translations it has necessarily suffered over the ages. The Bible’s application to so many varied societies, each with their own differing set of moral standards and cultural norms, is explained by the two-fold nature of its writing style.

The writings in the Bible make what appear to be bold, unambiguous claims about morality and basic principles of human life. Bold statements appeal to people; no one wants to hear mushy, “it-all-depends” explanations for morality, or relativistic philosophies that claim morality is variable dependent on time, place, and situation.

But although they appear bold, clear, and concrete, passages from the Bible are actually none of these. In fact they are so vague as to offer an almost unlimited number of interpretations! Thus, it is possible for the reader to use the statements they find in the Bible as support for almost any moral position.

Humans are born with a natural sense of morality, one which is greatly strengthened by upbringing and the culture around them. By the time a person can read a work as weighty as the Bible, he or she will already have an extremely well-defined moral compass. The effect is then as follows: reading the Bible, they see what appear to be bold statements about morality. Given that these statements are actually highly malleable and can mean anything the reader wants, they naturally map the statements onto to their own strong sense of morality. The reader is then overwhelmed with a sense of “rightness” of the Bible: this work which has the credibility of antiquity seems to support precisely the same moral beliefs that the reader has believed their entire life.

This dualistic effect - apparently bold statements which in fact can be bent to nearly any meaning - is further enhanced by the effects of translation. The Bible was originally scripted in several languages, and has been translated and re-translated throughout the ages. (Given that language almost completely reshapes itself every half a millennia or so, there is no avoiding this. Try reading a work written in English 500 years ago and you’ll see what I mean.)

The effect of this translation and re-translation gives almost unlimited leeway for reinterpretation of any passage in any light. One does not have to look far to find Christian scholars debating the meanings of the various translations.

Furthermore, the Bible’s sheer volume of passages - many of which tell the same story from different perspectives - allow for even further obfuscation. The result is that it is possible to find a passage in the Bible supporting any possible point of view.

Consider the very first book of the Bible, Genesis. One would be hard-pressed to find world-creation myth more straightforward than the passages here. Yet even this is hotly debated by believers. Was the Earth created in seven literal days, or are these days representative of the eons of time that modern sciences tell us were necessary for the creation of our planet? Did He create the Earth out of whole cloth, exactly as it is now, or set it in motion the process of gravitation, creation of heavy elements in stars, and eventually evolution on Earth?

One would think that the bold assertations in Genesis would give clear answers that all Christians would generally agree upon. But even something as simple as this provides no common wisdom or belief. Genesis has been used to support wildly different beliefs of countless cultures and countless religions, beliefs as diverse as a flat planet around which the stars resolve, to that of modern Christians who commonly accept evolution and creation on a galactic scale.

It is widely believed that the Bible’s importance in human history is due to its bold statements. But in fact, it is quite the opposite: it has remained relevant because of its vagueness.

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