Atheists should be thrilled that the Gideon Society wants to distribute copies of the Bible in our schools. Secularists of all stripes should cheer, never mind the recent ban on such handouts by the Bluewater District School Board in Ontario.
Even those who support religious expression in public institutions miss the best argument for these giveaways. While the society’s fundamental motive is to promote Christianity, the books themselves are innocent of intention. To begin with, they contain not just the Christian testament but the Jewish Bible as well, and provide a platform for the Koran. More to the point, they simply document a cultural disposition. They are anthropological artifacts, a prototype narrative expressing how we Westerners explain the world to ourselves.
The Hebrew and Christian sacred books are genetically embedded in our history, informing how we express ourselves every day, and against them we evolve our modern, more scientific and individualized views and feelings. The Bible founds belief systems, but reverberating with stories and narratives and fables, it resists narrow application. It is first and foremost literary.
Ignorance of its narratives, and of those that precede and overlap them in classical literature, makes it virtually impossible to really understand most of Western history and art. Even the imagination of Western atheists, not to mention their personal ethics and morality, is informed by the Bible, if (with some) only in how they react against the biblical ethic. Probably not a day goes by that we don’t use some form of words derived from the King James Bible (Authorized Version), whether we realize it and whether or not we have religion.
In the homeland of Northrop Frye, the Rocket Richard of literary theory and education, we should be vividly aware of this. As Prof. Frye put it in The Educated Imagination, a series of lectures he gave on the CBC, “in ordinary experience, we’re all in the position of a dog in a library, surrounded by a world of meaning in plain sight that we don’t even know is there.” Being aware of how shared metaphor informs our society’s world view is the first step toward civilization.
When I was a teenager, long before I took Prof. Frye’s course on the principles of literary symbolism at the University of Toronto, I appropriated a Gideon Bible from a hotel night table. I hadn’t been a believer for many years but, for a long time afterward, the book served as a reference, foundational to what I read and heard. It was indispensable to understanding Shakespeare and Milton and even The Chronicles of Narnia or The Little Prince or A Man for All Seasons – even Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast – and also to what people meant by a good Samaritan, a Jezebel, the patience of Job, East of Eden, Jacob’s ladder, Joseph’s coat of many colours, turning the other cheek, the Four Horsemen, the Final Judgment …
Even if, like William Blake, you rebel against a top-down or paternalistic world, you must first understand what such a world looks like, and that you come from it. Before Picasso was a cubist, he was a formalist; before Charlie Parker played bebop, he played classic swing. So did Prof. Frye constantly start his lectures by drawing a basic paradigm on the board, with heaven at the top, earthly paradise next, the world of experience after that, and finally hell.
It didn’t mean that we literally conducted ourselves according to some model featuring a sky father raining his seed down on an Earth mother and that, as earthlings, we were all mortally tainted with original sin. He was speaking of the metaphorical landscape of our minds, of our collective unconscious. He would explain how this “apocalyptic world view” was but the starting point for the deeper, persistent structures of Western culture.
Today, we might put something such as The Global Village or Inclusive Societies at the top of the paradigm. Always in our literature, as in our culture, we hearken back to the biblical prototype. Even when we seek to improve it with science or politics, we yearn nostalgically toward Eden in a fallen world, understanding that only in some other world can there be anything like perfect – “heavenly” – justice. This has nothing to do, necessarily, with religion, and everything to do with an educated mind.
Jeffrey Miller teaches law and literature at Western University. His latest books are The Structures of Law and Literature (forthcoming) and the comic novel Murder on the Rebound .
The Bluewater District School Board in Ontario -- not the municipality -- has ended the distribution of Gideon Bibles in its schools. The King James version of the Bible has as its more formal name "the Authorized Version," not the Revised Standard Version. Incorrect information appeared on Friday's print page and earlier online versions.