Centuries from now, historians will have the daunting task of looking back on the essays of the 21st century in an effort to distinguish the serious from the satirical. I don’t envy them; I can barely tell the difference now. Case in point: GQ Magazine, which heretofore has primarily dedicated itself to the sartorial rather than the scholastic, recently offered its own list of what it considers to be the “Great Books.”
The article began with so much promise: “We've been told all our lives that we can only call ourselves well-read once we've read the Great Books.” No argument there. The problem lies, however, in which works belong in the canon of Great Books. GQ provides two lists: first, those “Great Books” which it considers unworthy; and second, those that people, according to this men’s fashion magazine, should read instead. Proclaiming that the books of the first list are “really, really boring” and overrated, GQ grants its readers “permission to strike these books from the canon.”
Both lists are revealing. GQ uses the capitalized term “Great Books” as well as the word “canon” to assemble this first list, so one might expect works such as Plato’s Republic, Augustine’s Confessions and Dante’s Divine Comedy. None of these, however, merit mention on the list.
So what does? Something called Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, and a book simply titled Lifeby a man whose name is not exactly inseparable from the Western Canon: Rolling Stones guitarist, Keith Richards. Remember these classics? Neither do I. Nevertheless, in the editorial eye of GQ, these are commonly considered “Great Books.” (In fairness, their list of “overrated” books does contain The Lord of the Rings and Gulliver’s Travels.)
Included among these ignorable books is one familiar to just about everyone: the Bible. Here’s GQ’s official take on the Sacred Writ:
The Holy Bible is rated very highly by all the people who supposedly live by it but who in actuality have not read it. Those who have read it know there are some good parts, but overall it is certainly not the finest thing that man has ever produced. It is repetitive, self-contradictory, sententious, foolish, and even at times ill-intentioned.”
Thus, GQ recommends that the Bible be struck “from the canon” of Great Books.
“Those who have read it [the Bible] know there are some good parts…” This might be the darnedest example of damning with faint praise that I’ve ever seen. Alas, with the use of pejoratives such as “foolish,” “ill-intentioned,” and “sententious” even such faint praise does not hold up for long. (By the way, hats off to the guy who looked up the word “sententious” in Roget’s Thesaurus. Hats back on to the guy who opted for the title “21 Books You Don’t Have to Read,” and then listed only twenty. And GQ accuses the Bible of being self-contradictory!) According to GQ, the canonists of both ascots and great literature, biblical scholarship is an exercise in coming to the realization that your subject matter is not as great as imagined.
It would not be unfair to dismiss the GQ article as irrelevant claptrap which did little more than cater to the world’s well-dressed agnostics. Yet it provides an opportunity to briefly address the issue of greatness regarding The Holy Bible.
Of all the ways one might argue a book could be called “great,” two measures are particularly noteworthy: influence and rhetoric.
On the level of influence, or the overall impact a work has had on the world, the Bible is undoubtedly the greatest book— indeed, the firstbook—ever printed. It is by far the most widely read book in history. Every other best-seller comes and goes, but the Bible remains. According to a 2007 report in The Economist, more than 100 million Bibles are sold or gifted each year, resulting in sales of around a half billion dollars.
It is often stated (as the GQ article alludes) that many people don’t actually read the Bible, but it is just a tome that gathers dust on a shelf. There is certainly a degree of truth to the idea that some people ignore it. Yet, isn’t it worth a mention that millions of people throughout history—from ancient Rome to present-day North Korea and Iran—have willingly risked their lives to read the Bible and share it with others?
And in what field of study or human endeavor has Scripture had no influence? One could easily maintain that, in some way, the Bible has influenced the vast majority of persons, societies, and governments for almost two millennia. Its impact has been vast, indelible, and enduring. No other book in history can come close to making that claim.
On the level of rhetoric, it is clear that the Bible has been the gold standard for centuries. A huge portion of the rich literary imprint of Western Civilization comes from the Bible—so much so, that even those who are biblically illiterate are likely to use dozens of clichés and allusions born from Holy Scripture. As famed literary critic Northrop Frye wrote in The Great Code: The Bible and Literature, “a student of English literature who does not know the Bible does not understand a good deal of what is going on in what he reads…” Moreover, from the perspective of the English language, it is not simply the case that many of the great writers in history have been influenced by the Bible; it would be more accurate to say that the Bible was a—perhaps the—key text by which writers learned how to write. In his book, Language Intelligence: Lessons On Persuasion From Jesus, Shakespeare, Lincoln, and Lady Gaga, Joseph J. Romm writes about the development of the King James version:
In 1604, James directed that the ‘the best-learned’ in Oxford and Cambridge begin a new translation from the original Hebrew and Greek into English. Some four dozen translators of varying Christian religious beliefs were divided into six teams to translate different pieces of the Bible. Then twelve men, two from each subgroup, worked on the whole final work.
That the King James Bible did become a textbook of rhetoric will soon be evident: Many of the most famous examples of every figure of speech can be found in its pages. That the Bible would be a textbook of rhetoric was ordained, since the translators were every one a university-trained language scholar with a far more extensive formal education in rhetoric than Shakespeare…”
Not that we should expect any of this to impress the fashionistas of GQ, but we Christians should know the debt we all owe to Holy Scripture. Though we are often reluctant to examine the literary aspects of the Bible because we think that it might detract from its theological merits, it is nevertheless true that Scripture sets the literary benchmark for Western Civilization, especially in the English language. As Saint Jerome commented: “Ignorance of the Bible is ignorance of Christ.” Likewise, we can observe, ignorance of the Bible—or a lack of appreciation for it—is ignorance of good writing.