Sunday, 8 April 2012

Sunday Sermon: Read a Book

Everything, good morning. Thank you for the gifts of life and love on our beautiful earth. May we not take these gifts for granted, and help us to do them justice. Thank you for the gift of language, for the privilege of education which it is our sincere endeavour to spread to all people, and for the gift of mind with which to build ourselves and one another. We are truly spoiled and for that we love you. Amen.


Happy Easter holiday everyone, whatever it means to you. If it means nothing to you at all, happy days regardless.

I am going to quote the Bible a bit today which I wish to be clear is, qualitatively, no different to quoting any text to find and tease out meaning. The other thing I'm going to do a bit of is critically engage a particular Christian idea. Bear with me please.

"All books are breathed by God and are profitable for teaching, insight, correction and character building."* (II Timothy 3:16) The context is the apostle Paul toward the end of his life (tradition is that Paul was writing from prison before his execution) writing to his young student Timothy.

Now this is the verse that Christians will quote every single time as their evidence that the Bible in particular, exclusive from other texts, is 'inspired by God'. In arguing for the idea of the canonisation of the 66 books into the Bible, it is about all the Christians have actually.

Now I'm going to forgive the immediately obvious thing that will occur to intelligent readers straight away - that it is a circular argument. It is almost embarrassing to point out that, 'The Bible is inspired because the inspired Bible says so', just makes zero sense. It's very silly in fact.

More interesting to me is that the verse says exactly the opposite of what they want it to mean anyway. Let's note that there was not even an established 'Old Testament' canon at the time the verse was written, that the New Testament, apart from a few letters by Paul himself, had not been written at all, and that the New Testament quotes all sorts of books and versions of books that did not end up in the official canon.

Paul, who was clearly a reader, was advising young Timothy to read widely and critically. This interpretation is backed up by the rest of the letter, which also admonishes to "Study to show yourself approved by God, a workman without shame, rightly discriminating what is true from what is false." (2:15) It is also supported by the observation that Paul did quote very widely, including from Greek literature. It appears indeed to be an extension of Paul's theme of pushing Christian thought and practice away from Judaism alone and making it relevant to the rest of the world which, for Paul in practice, meant the Hellenistic (Greek speaking) world.

It's an easy proposition to test. If this was Paul's meaning then we would expect that early Christian writers would have known that and hence themselves quoted and placed importance on Greek as well as the full variety of Jewish literature. They did, in the biblical writings themselves as well as the writings of church fathers. Augustine, who argued at one point that Aristotle was 'saved', is the most famous of many examples. It was centuries later, with the canonisation of the Bible for church-political reasons, that 'non-canononical' literature began to be de-emphasised if not actively repressed.

Despite this tradition however, to be clear, book burning of hated texts (books about "curious arts") was begun early (Acts 19:19). I suppose they thought this was an extension of "rightly discriminating what is true from what is false." It is hard to see that Paul, writing much earlier than the author of Acts (essentially a historical fiction which, although featuring Paul, has virtually zero correlation with the letters of Paul), had this in mind. Sadly the tradition survives today among modern Christians. According to the Landover Baptist Church, "burning a book is one of the most loving things a Christian could do for a person they really care about." It seems to me, far from being 'loving', to be a very lazy and dishonest way to defend archaic and otherwise indefensible beliefs.

Generally however, early Christianity was not a religion 'of the book' but was a religion of books. It was a religion that practically fetishised literature and indeed reworked the already ancient Greek idea of logos as something incarnated on earth in the man Jesus. So when John the gnostic said that "The word was God" (John1:1) and that "the word became [Jesus] and dwelt among us" he was referring to a mystical identity of literature itself, a profound (if ludicrous) idea and one of the key Christian ideas that was used to seduce the Greek audience to this new version of Judaism.

It was canonisation of literature, which occurred more-or-less simultaneously in Judaism and was later followed by Islam, that was the single most disastrous wrong turn for Western religion. From that point on, there was no 'living word'. From that point on the 'word of God' for these religions was ossified, dead, unresponsive to change and history, and eventually downright absurd and dangerous. To the extent that the Middle Ages were 'dark' and regressive, the blame can be squarely laid at the feet of canonisation.

Literacy, regardless of the texts involved, empowers people. The House of Every embraces the 'Great Commission' of spreading the word of God to all lands, because to us this means spreading literacy to all peoples, and hence opening up the world of literature of all types to all people. Right now the most compelling reason for this imperative is that literacy (as long as women are not left out) is the single biggest factor in reducing fertility rates and hence stabilising the world's population. Universal literacy is a critical task.

But books change us. Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin played an enormous role in bringing the reality of slavery, and hence broad empathy for slaves, home to all sorts of people who otherwise were able to ignore the issue. Let's note that the Bible didn't help there at all. Similarly Dickens' Oliver Twist brought the reality of child labour home to people and is widely considered a factor in the public demanding an end to the practice. These works aided in empathy. In Christian terms they made real the edict to "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you" because they showed people what they as a society were doing unto others. Add Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five and any number of others. George Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm remain for us a warning of what can go wrong in society if we are not vigilant against the control of ideas (including book burning). Literature changes us, makes us better people. No good if you can't read, though.

It is common for Western religionists to read 'the book' (Bible, Torah, Koran) a little each day. If the content was not so limited, it would be a good practice. The House of Every recommends that we read a good, challenging book regularly. There's no formula as to how much or often, but let's say half an hour to an hour a day as a yardstick for practice. There's also no formula as to what to read, especially as everyone is different in both interests and level of literacy, but make it something a bit challenging: not so difficult as to be tortuous and not so easy as to be a waste of time. To be sure, many people (including me) use easy formulaic reading (whether crime fiction, sci-fi or romance) as a way to recreate and escape, and the last thing I want to do is suggest we shouldn't, but this is not the reading I'm talking about. I'm talking about reading as a deliberate practice for self-improvement, and a little every day, or every other day, might be a good practice.

Read widely. Read critically. Read alone or with a friend or friends (reading aloud, using voice and breath, has a whole range of its own benefits). But it's no chore I'm suggesting. Enjoy. If you're not enjoying a book, try another one.

I think it is nice to end these sermons with a song, and I intend to do so from now on. This is a fun celebration of the book:


Everything, bless my readers. May they not be betrayed by any errors or limitations in my own humble contributions to your logos. May they develop not only in their knowledge but in their faculties of comprehension and criticism, that they may separate the wheat of my words from the chaff and, in their respective paths, grow in wisdom, understanding and capacity for your great work in the world. So be it.

* All translations are my own, but are not intended to subvert the meaning of the King James Version but to make the meaning clearer through modern language.

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