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A few years ago, I read the Bible, cover to cover, and my general response was “These people were out in the desert sun too long.”

I mean, you must slice off bits of your private parts, but you must never cut off your sideburns? You cannot wear cotton blends without risking being stoned to death or eternally damned? If you have a flat nose, you cannot go to your house of worship? I mean, either you have to allow the possibility that in 40 years in the wilderness of the Sinai Desert, someone suffered sunstroke, or that perhaps the manna from heaven was actually some sort of psychotropic mushroom.

Or, you can read the so-called prophetic books and ask yourself, is this some sort of occult conspiracy gibberish? It too often reads like word salad. There is some sanity in the gospels, but then you descend back into paranoid craziness with St. Paul.

I can think of no better prophylactic against religion than actually reading the Bible. Those who profess belief too often cherry-pick the parts they like and ouija-board interpret the prophesies and ignore the batshit nutjob stuff that surrounds it all.

So, I hope I have established my bona fides as a non-believer when I say I am against removing the Bible from public schools. That’s right — I believe the Bible should be taught in school from an early age. Not for religious indoctrination, and also not for religious inoculation, but rather to familiarize the upcoming students with the stories from the book.

The Four Evangelists by Jacob Jordaens

When I was teaching art history, many, many years ago, I was surprised that my students knew so little about the subject matter of the paintings we were studying. Renaissance and Baroque paintings are suffused with biblical imagery, and to understand what is going on in many of those paintings, you need to know the cultural context — i.e., you need to know the Bible stories.

But, in a test, when I asked “Who were the four Evangelists,” only two of a class of 22 knew. One of them half-remembered, “John, Paul, George and Ringo.”

It hardly mattered if the students considered themselves Christian, or even merely generally religious. They were by and large, astonishingly ignorant of their cultural patrimony.

Abraham and Isaac. Cain and Abel. Lot’s wife. Jacob and Esau. Potiphar’s wife. Jacob’s ladder. Aaron’s rod. The golden calf. Balaam’s ass. Joshua and Jericho. David and Jonathan.

There are tons of stories that were once the common well of cultural reference for all European and Euro-American peoples, and by extension and the African-American church, for Black Americans, too.

It isn’t just Renaissance paintings, but in everything from Medieval illuminated manuscripts to the poetry of W.H. Auden. It shows up in sculpture, in novels, in dance, in symphonic music and Baroque opera.

The Slaughter of the Innocents by Rubens

Daniel in the lion’s den. Boaz and Ruth. Jonah and the great fish. Paul and the road to Damascus. The massacre of the innocents. The wedding at Cana. The raising of Lazarus. The giving unto Caesar. Doubting Thomas.

The loss of these stories in popular parlance isn’t just a loss of religious faith, but a casting off of hundreds of years of art, literature and mores.

When Herman Melville begins his magnum opus with “Call me Ishmael,” we need to understand who Ishmael was in the Bible if we want to feel the depth of the meaning of such a simple statement. It resonates.

When John Steinbeck titles his book, East of Eden, do we know what geography he is laying out for us? When William Jennings Bryan exhorts us not be be crucified on a “cross of gold,” do we feel the mythic undertones of his rhetoric? Everything we say has resonance, more and less, with the long line of cultural continuity. We have lived with the Bible, in one form or another (depending on denomination) for nearly 2,000 years, and the Torah, for even longer and the residue from it has colored almost every cultural effusion since the Emperor Constantine decided to change the rules for the Roman Empire.

Of course, it isn’t only the Bible that needs to be taught. All of Greek and Roman mythology is equally part of our cultural inheritance. It should also be taught. How can you read Shakespeare or Milton — or John Updike — without it? I would recommend that everyone by the 8th grade have read Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

What I see is a rising population of those cut off from their past, from their inheritance. They are like untuned strings, with no fiddle or lute to provide resonance. And it is this resonance that is so important. A familiarity with our cultural origins allows meaning to open up when you read, that emotions become complex and connections are made. The world is electrified: A switch has been turned on and a darkened room is lit.

And what do you get without this resonance? I fear you need only look at the White House and its current occupant (and I use the word advisedly: an “occupant,” like an anonymous piece of junk mail rather than a “resident,” which implies roots.) For without resonance, you have simplicity instead of complexity, you have response without consideration of consequence. If someone insults you, heck, punch him in the face — a simple and simple-minded response. And a dangerous imbecility in the face of the complex cross-forces and dangers of the interconnected world.

Tower of Babel, by Pieter Brueghel the Elder

Resonance is complexity. It is the plate tectonics under the surface geography.

A great deal of art and literature has something important to say to us, and the best of it resonates within the sounding board of 6,000 years of cultural development, with each layer built on the last and a through-line of meaning. Without it we are intellectually, emotionally and morally naked.

missionariesThe time was, that when Mormon missionaries or Jehovah’s Witnesses rang my door, I would argue with them. Not angry arguments, but bantering ones, at least on my part. It was a pleasant form of entertainment.

“Did God create the animals before he created Adam? Or did he create Adam first? The Bible has it both ways, you know.”

Or: “Where in the Bible does it say that it is the inspired word of God? Is that belief not as deeply buried in tradition — unexamined tradition — as the Catholic saints that you disparage or the veneration of Mary?”

I’ve read the thing from end to end, and while I can see why the faithful might come to the belief that it is inerrant — just as the Islamist believes in the Quran or Republicans in Fox News — nowhere have I found a Bible verse that makes that claim.

Some of those door-jambers would argue points, some would be flummoxed and a few would engage in genuinely interesting dialog. I enjoyed the back-and-forth.

Mainly, they wanted to know if I had been “saved” and I could never quite understand what I needed to be “saved” from. Being human?

They were usually so earnest, I eventually came to feel bad toying with them.

I was a proclaimed atheist at the time, and although I didn’t recognize it then, those door-frame debates were the rituals of atheism, as regular in form as the Eucharist or full-immersion baptism.

Then, at some point, I lost interest. I gave up arguing; it had become repetitive. At that point, I would say to anyone who asked, that I was a “lapsed atheist.” Not that my beliefs had changed, but that I no longer participated in the rituals.

I was happy for anyone to believe anything they wanted; I still am. But I cannot share those beliefs. They are something I cannot partake of. While much of the world goes on slaughtering each other for using the wrong name when addressing their deity, or for not eating fish on Friday, or eating pork chops on any day, or cutting or not cutting off tender bits of anatomy, or whether God does or does not turn into a loaf of bread, my current response is a sigh. After all, some of these people believe a three-personed god surrounded by winged godlets and opposed by an evil god named Satan somehow counts as monotheism. One scratches one’s head.

Most peculiar to me: God killed his son because he loves us so very very much. Is this something God’s dog told him to do, like Son of Sam? It’s as if God were schizophrenic; we lock people away who contemplate such things. For good reason.

These are not the only peculiar things that human beings believe, and it seems that a need to believe is inbred and genetic.

The question of god seems so unnecessary. I suppose when the DNA was handed out, the part of the sequence that causes one to believe was left out of my portion. I just don’t see the point; and now, I don’t see the point in arguing over it. You can have whatever supernatural beings you want, as long as you leave me out of it.

I certainly recognize that for some people, the need for a deity is intense, and I cannot gainsay their belief. Again, I see such sincerity in their quest, in their faith. But there is nothing in me that responds to the same issue: an invisible man who lives in the sky and grants your wishes?

Nowadays, I just say I have no religion; I’m not even an atheist.

Because, let’s face it, for most people who make the claim, atheism is a religion. It is a creed that needs to rebel against Big Daddy and destroy him. Atheism on this level feels adolescent in impulse. For me, it seems just as silly to deny something that doesn’t exist as it does to pray to it. Simply let me go my way and you can go yours. Just, please, don’t slaughter me over it.

mormon miss 1

The time was, that when Mormon missionaries or Jehovah’s Witnesses rang my door, I would argue with them. Not angry arguments, but bantering ones, at least on my part. It was a pleasant form of entertainment.

“Did God create the animals before he created Adam? Or did he create Adam first? The Bible has it both ways, you know.”

Or: “Where in the Bible does it say that it is the inspired word of God? Is that belief not as deeply buried in tradition — unexamined tradition — as the Catholic saints that you disparage?”

I’ve read the thing from end to end, and while I can see why the faithful might come to the belief that it is inerrant, nowhere have I found a verse that makes that claim.

Some of those door-jambers would argue points, some would be flummoxed and a few would engage in genuinely interesting dialog. I enjoyed the back-and-forth.

Mainly, they wanted to know if I had been “saved” and I could never quite understand what I needed to be “saved” from. Being human?

They were usually so earnest, I felt bad toying with them.

I was a proclaimed atheist at the time, and although I didn’t recognize it then, those door-frame debates were the rituals of atheism, as regular in form as the Eucharist or full-immersion baptism.

Then, I at some point, I lost interest. I gave up arguing; it had become repetitive. At that point, I would say to anyone who asked, that I was a “lapsed atheist.” Not that my beliefs had changed, but that I no longer participated in the rituals.

I was happy for anyone to believe anything they wanted; I still am. But I cannot share those beliefs. They are something I cannot partake of. While much of the world goes on slaughtering each other for using the wrong name when addressing their deity, or for not eating fish on Friday, or eating pork chops on any day, or cutting or not cutting off tender bits of anatomy, or whether God does or does not turn into a loaf of bread, my current response is a sigh. After all, some of these people believe a three-personed god surrounded by winged godlets and opposed by an evil god named Satan somehow counts as monotheism. One scratches one’s head.son of sam

Most peculiar to me: God killed his son because he loves us so very very much. Is this something God’s dog told him to do, like Son of Sam? It’s as if God were schizophrenic; we lock people away who contemplate such things. For good reason.

These are not the only peculiar things that human beings believe, and it seems that a need to believe is inbred and genetic.

The question of god seems so unnecessary. I suppose when the DNA was handed out, the part of the sequence that causes one to believe was left out of my portion.

I certainly recognize that for some people, the need for a deity is intense, and I cannot gainsay their belief. Again, I see such sincerity in their quest, in their faith. JehovahBut there is nothing in me that responds to the same issue: an invisible man who lives in the sky and grants wishes?

Nowadays, I just say I have no religion; I’m not even an atheist.

Because, let’s face it, for most people who make the claim, atheism is a religion. It is a religion that needs to rebel against Big Daddy and destroy him. Atheism on this level feels adolescent in impulse. For me, it seems just as silly to deny something that doesn’t exist as it does to pray to it. Simply let me go my way and you can go yours. Just, please, don’t slaughter me over it.

adam and eve

OK, so then what is the “canon,” with which we should all be familiar?

There are scores of lists, put forth by scores of people, ranging from insightful critics to close-minded boobs (Yes, Bill Bennett, I’m talking about you). Such lists usually share the usual suspects: Here’s Hamlet, there’s War and Peace, and over there is the Recherche of Marcel Proust. All of them worthy of your deepest attention and capable of inciting the most delightful pleasure.

But as I’ve written before, the purpose of engaging with the canon of Western culture is to understand who your grandparents were, whose cultural DNA you were born to — the common inheritance of all of us in the modern world, our Adams and Eves.

Through most of my youth and into my adult life, my version of the list has grown and grown. I have, after all, at least 50 films on my Top Ten list. I could not do without hundreds of books I have read, paintings I have seen in the flesh, music I know by heart.

But, as I have grown old, I have jettisoned more and more baggage. “Simplify, simplify,” Thoreau said. I’ve given away books, CDs, DVDs. I’m tempted to dump even more. Those that were important, I have internalized; those I want to keep are those I reread and reread.

Under even those, however, is a foundation level, the cultural footings on which I have built my intellectual life, and that the civilization I have inherited was founded upon, almost as its Constitution.

So, I am proposing a canon. A very short one, but an essential one.

First, there is Homer. Everyone should have read the Iliad, at least. The Odyssey is initially more fun — or at least the chapters that chronicle the wanderings of Odysseus — but the Iliad is one of the founding documents of Western civilization and provides a necessary backdrop for everything that has come since.

I reread the Iliad about once a year. I try different translations, because any bit of ancient Greek I used to study has evaporated. The newest translations are usually the best, not because they are more literary, but because they speak the language I use. Older translations sniff of their age, smelling of linsey-woolsey or gaberdeen. I can sense the antimacassar oil on the Lang-Leaf-Myers translation. I sense the Cold War in the Lattimore.

So, the Robert Fagles translation is my standard, although the most recent re-read was in the even newer Stephen Mitchell version.

In Homer, you find the myths that have been re-used and re-energized in all the books written since, that outline the archetypes, give us the parameters of story and narration. The scope of Homer is the widest: from the bee’s tongue to the planet’s motions among the stars.

This is all beside the wonderful enjoyment gotten from reading it, 2500 years after he (or she) set it down.

The second book in my canon is the Bible. Not for any religious reason; I’m completely an atheist and have no use for religion. But the Bible is, like Homer, one of the founding documents and underlies all that has followed. I may wish otherwise, and may often wonder if the Bible wasn’t really authored by a group of people who have spent too long out under the desert sun. It may have been written by white bearded patriarchs under the influence of sunstroke, but they are our grizzled patriarchs.

There are two important considerations when approaching the Bible.

The first is the translation. The King James version is the primary one, and it is the organ-pipe tones of the KJV that underpin our own ideas of language, of majesty, of ritual and solemnity. It is the KJV you hear behind the sentences of Melville and Thoreau, behind the speeches of Martin Luther King.

But the King James is also miserably out-of-date, with usages that are no longer current and oftentimes either misleading or downright incomprehensible. So, a more modern translation may make the stories of the Bible easier to assimilate.

Even so, I prefer mixing the King James and a modern translation with an interlinnear word-for-word translation that demonstrates how much any translation of the Bible is de facto an interpretation. I have valued greatly the Everett Fox version of The Five Books of Moses from the Schocken Bible. Any version of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles is a moving target.

The second thing is that you should read the whole Bible, not just the familiar parts. Some of it is heavy slogging, but you should have read the whole thing. It’s one of the best ways to counteract the baleful influence of all those fundamentalists that would have you believe only their way. You see how they pick and choose only the parts they want and that reinforce their prejudices. You will be astonished at how many things are held to be “an abomination.” You will scratch your head over most of them.

The Bible stories are the Semitic balance to the Hellenic myths and between the two, they are the parents of all that followed.

Finally, in my canon, are the plays and sonnets of William Shakespeare. Ideally, one should see them on stage, in an excellent production (since a mediocre production can be the kiss of death for someone whose language is a florid and baroque as Shakespeare’s), but the fact is that it is as text on a page that Shakespeare has most influenced the course of Western Civ. We read Hamlet, Lear, Othello, and their words continue to astonish the attentive reader with their fire, their brilliance, their wit, and their expansiveness. The “sirrahs” and “prithees” may certainly feel dated, but everything else is bursting with life.

It was after a long-ago divorce that I first decided that if I was going off into exile, I needed to pack only three books: The Iliad, the Bible and a complete Shakespeare, and that somehow, if the world were destroyed all around me, I could resurrect an entire civilization with just these three.

And we would see everything that followed.

Blake_ancient_of_days

I’ve always been interested in the way things translate from one language to another. Of course, that also means from one culture to another, and, as in the case of Bible translation, from one era to another. Time changes, language metamorphoses, and our world-views alter with our understanding of the world around us.

There is no question that the most powerful translation of Genesis can be found in the King James version, but words that meant one thing in the era of Shakespeare may very well mean something different now. And the verse forms of ancient Hebrew are different from our expectations of poetry, now.

So, I’ve always wondered, what does the original Hebrew mean in the Torah? Is there a way to make a translation that hews closely to the original meaning, the tribal meaning of the language?

I’ve gone through several interlinear translations, several translations in clear text, and lots and lots of footnotes to come up with something that gives me as close as I can tell, what the original Creation story meant in its Hebrew iteration, uninflected by several millennia of religious interpretation, sectarian wars and violence, pogroms and anathemae.

In the interests of disclosure, I should admit up front that I have no stake in this game: I am not a believer (when asked, I usually say I have no religion, I’m not even an atheist), so I’m not trying to persuade anyone that the Bible is true, or not true, or that this or that dogma is the “true” one. This is just my attempt to understand what metaphors and language was used in the ancient Middle East as they slowly came to terms with what would become their religion.

Believe me, I don’t claim this is a good translation of the first Creation story in Genesis. But it is a defensible one.

King James is still the king, but its rather archaic feeling — which, of course, was not archaic when it was written — has unfortunately become the default diction and rhetoric of belief. (So much that Joseph Smith’s “Book of Mormon” is written in a botched imitation of the sound of KJV, albeit with lousy grammar and many gross lexical misunderstandings).

There are many points in the Hebrew text where scholars either disagree, or throw up their hands and say, “We just don’t know what is being said here.” They give it their best guess, like the bit about the stars being created for calendar use. The original Hebrew is obscure.

Anyway, here’s my version:

Genesis, the beginning

When it all started up, and the gods were arranging the sky and the ground,

When the earth was emptiness with darkness over the ocean,

the wind of the gods hung over the face of the water

The gods said:

“Let there be light,” and light happened.

And the gods said, “We did a good job.”

the gods split up the light and the dark,

calling the light “Day,” and the dark, “Night.”

There was a sunset; there was a sunrise — One Day.

The gods said:

“Let there be a bowl over the water and let it split up water from water.”

The gods made the bowl

and separated the water that was below the bowl

from the water that was above the bowl.

It Was.

The gods called the bowl, “Sky.”

There was a sunset; there was a sunrise — Two Days.

The gods said:

“Let the water under the sky be brought together in one place

and let the dry land be seen.”

It Was.

The gods called the dry part “Ground,” and the collected waters they called “Sea.”

The gods saw the craftsmanship was good.

The gods said:

“Let the ground sprout with growing sprouts —

plants that seed-forth seeds, fruits trees that fruit, according to their type.”

It Was.

The ground grew growing sprouts, seeding plants seeding seed plants, fruiting fruit trees.

The gods recognized they were well made.

There was a sunset; there was a sunrise — Three Days.

The gods said:

“Let there be lamps in the bowl of the sky to split up the day from the night, that they may be signs (Hebrew “difficult”) for a calendar, and let them be lamps in the bowl of the sky to provide light on the ground.”

It Was.

The gods made two big lamps:

The bigger lamp for ruling the day; the smaller lamp for ruling the night.

And the stars.

The gods placed them in the bowl of the sky to provide light on the ground and to rule the day and the night.

The gods liked what they saw.

There was a sunset; there was a sunrise — Four Days.

The gods said:

“Let the water swarm with a swarm of beings, and let the birds fly across the bowl of the sky.”

The gods created huge sea serpents and all the crawly things that crawl about, with which the water swarmed, after their type, and all the birds, after their type.

And the gods saw they looked good.

And the gods blessed them, saying:

“Grow fruit and be many and fill the water of the seas and let the birds be many.”

There was a sunset; there was a sunrise — Five Days.

The gods said:

“Let the ground bear creatures in types, herd-animals, crawling things, wild things of the earth, all divided by type.”

It Was.

The gods made the wild things of the earth, divided by type, and the herd animals, divided by type, and the crawling things in the dirt, divided by type.

The gods saw it was working out well.

The gods said:

“Let us make people in our shape, looking like us.

Let them rule over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, all the earth, all the crawling things that crawl on the ground.”

So the gods made people in their shape, so they looked like the gods,

male and female, the gods created them.

The gods blessed them and said to them:

“Grow fruit and be many and fill up the earth and conquer it. Have rule over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky and all the crawly things that crawl on the ground.”

The gods said:

“Here, we give you all the seeding plants that seed that are on the face of the earth, all the trees in which fruits fruit. For you they will be for eating. And also for all the living things of the earth — all the birds of the sky and the crawly things that crawl about on the ground — all green plants for eating.”

It Was.

Then the gods looked at all they had done with exceeding satisfaction.

There was a sunset; there was a sunrise — Six Days.

So, everything was finished — sky and earth, with all their entourages.

The gods had finished, on the seventh day, the work they had done

Then they stopped on the seventh day, all the work they had done.

The gods gave the seventh day their blessing and made it sacred, for on that day, they stopped working on all that they had done.

This is how it all began, the sky and the earth and all history.