The debate about the Bible opened up by the former Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, has had some interesting responses – not least to my post yesterday (Bible and Motion). One of the amazing things, in my opinion, is the widespread ignorance about how texts work and how literature is to be understood. There are two elements to this in relation to the Bible:

1. The Bible and its stories provide the cultural backdrop to western society and our society cannot be understood any more without the Bible than it could be by ignoring the First World War. This is not an ideological claim and it is a view supported quite rightly by atheists such as Richard Dawkins. This should provide no problem for anyone with a shred of rationality about them. To deny it would be to regard as reasonable the suggestion that western cultural history can be understood without some nod towards the Romans, the Greeks or the Assyrians. In the same way that England cannot be understood without the Elizabethan Settlement or Germany without the Reformation, so Shakespeare cannot be understood without the Bible. This is not an ideological position – after all, I can acknowledge the role of Greek mythology in the formation of the western mind without having to believe that it isn’t a load of nonsense. Equally, I can learn to understand Nazism without having to agree with Mein Kampf.

2. However, the Bible is regarded as the source of truth claims by people of varying religious conviction. Those truth claims must be subject to public scrutiny and questioning. One element of such scrutiny will be its intellectual coherence – another will be the experience of those who claim its truth for themselves or the world. Within the community that regards the text as ‘true’ or ‘authoritative’ there will be endless debates about what ‘truth’ means and how the text itself conveys that truth. For example, the difference between ‘truth’ and ‘factuality’ will need to be explored: a parable can convey truth (about life, the universe and everything) without recording an event that actually happened.

To insist on the importance of the Bible’s role (1) is not to suggest that everybody should be subjected to blind acceptance of its truth claims (2). But here we hit on another problem. The ‘secularists’ (for want of a better category) seem to regard their worldview/understanding of what is ‘true’ about the world as somehow neutral, but see a religious worldview as ‘loaded’ (somewhere up the dangerous/loony scale). Yet, the secularist worlview is not always argued for, bears many assumptions which can neither be falsified nor verified, and arrogates to itself a position of unassailability in the public market place. It is simply assumed to be true for all people and suffers no deviation or qualification.

This is, I suggest, both irrational and absurd.

Andrew Motion’s critique applies to my first observation and it is to that that I applied myself in yesterday’s post. Maybe I should apply myself to the second observation in a future post. That would be the place to say something about how texts work, how they are understood variously in the course of time and how any text is a text in motion. Put briefly, the Bible is partly an account of a people’s growing realisation of who God is, how God is and how we should live together accordingly. Butchery might have seemed justifiable at one point in history, but not after some ‘motion’ a thousand years later after the cost of such butchery had been experienced.

Slavery was abolished in the teeth of Christian biblical opposition. But it was abolished because Christians such as Wilberforce read the Bible differently and compelled the readers of the text to read it differently. Which I realise is a bit embarrassing for those who would prefer it if Wilberforce had been an atheist.