Today, Bible bashing has become a popular thing to do, especially among our nation’s youth. “The Bible is just a bunch of religious, antiquated non-sense. Best to dump it in the trash or better yet, burn it.” And from the writers of the new atheist movement, “The Bible is “genocidal” (Richard Dawkins), “misogynistic and homophobic” (Sam Harris), and “xenophobic”(Christopher Hitchens).
For these, the sooner we rid ourselves of the Bible, the better. Try as they might, however, it is clear that the Holy Scriptures continue to influence people’s lives, even in such a godless age as ours. What is it about the Bible that gives it such enduring value? How is it that this book (or more accurately, a collection of books), whose textual origins stretch back 3500 years (1500 BC), still has something to offer our lives here at the beginning of the 21st century? Indeed, historically speaking, there is no other text as the Bible that can claim such antiquity: Chinese Confucianism began around 549 BC, the Greek poets and philosophers around the same time—5th & 6th century BC, and the Hindu Bhagavad Gita dates from the 2nd century AD. The only other religious text that can match the Bible in terms of age is the Egyptian Book of the Dead. But I for one have yet to see a single copy of the Egyptian Book of the Dead in a hotel room dresser drawer. Certainly, this is what irritates our irreligious friends so much: the fact that these ancient Hebrew writings defy the passing of the ages, like none other.
People today are hungering for an experience of the eternal that cannot be found in anything merely “scientific,” and this is what makes it truer than anything else. In the Bible, one can find an eternal truth that is expressed mostly through metaphor, poetry, and lyric prose. Some biblical words are to be taken literally, or better yet in the plain and self-evident sense, such as “Thou shalt not kill,” or “When you give alms, do not sound the trumpet in the marketplace.” Having heard these words, we are left with a very clear message about what is being asked and expected. But much of the biblical message is also wrapped (and sometimes hidden) in parables, analogies, symbolisms, and narrative stories. Consider, for example, what Jesus says in the Gospel, “If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it away”(Matt. 5:29). Anyone in their right mind knows that the Lord is NOT asking us to blind ourselves because we sin, but to become more deeply aware of an inner dynamic that cannot be adequately put into exact words and that has something to do with how the mind and the heart may see someone or something that leads them into sin. In other words, it is not the physical sight that is the problem, but the greed and the lust of the “inner man” which pollutes the eye from the inside.
The upshot of this is that the heavenly realities which the Bible reveals to those who have faith do not translate themselves all so easily into human language,that is, into mere words. As St. Paul writes, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor heart can comprehend, God has prepared for those who love Him” (1 Cor. 2:9). Here we are being taught that God’s riches and grace are so plenteous that it is impossible to account for them. The Lord’s use of parables is perhaps the best example of this: each of His parables conveys a second, allegorical meaning that lies beyond the actual text itself, as in the parable of the buried treasure, where the man who finds this treasure and “sells all” to buy the land from its original owner is analogous to a deeper and unnamed spiritual reality, that those persons who find the treasure of faith, in order to obtain such a “treasure,” must purposefully and decisively unmoor themselves from any worldly attachment that would hinder them in their transaction for that which is truly valuable.
The richness of this text cannot be underestimated. To his neighbors, a man who sells “all” for something hidden (that they deny exists) plays the fool. But in God’s eyes, he is most wise. The wisdom lies in the ability to discern those things in life which are to be prized above all—specifically, the treasure of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. And it is faith which leads the wise man to act in ways that will enable him to take the actual steps which will lead to a place where he will become unimaginably enriched (with salvation and eternal life).
These are just a few examples of why the Bible speaks to us in ways that other humanly constructed documents cannot. May we always be meditating upon the power and beauty of God’s Holy Word.
Fr. Paul Jannakos