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A Year of Study - thoughts on the e-version
on 8 August 2015
Let's be honest. If you're reading this, you're probably thinking: three stars? Got to be an atheist writing a 'clever' review on how the Bible characters are two-dimensional, there's no gunfight, continuity errors are rife and the hero gets killed off partway.
I don't want to take that route. Yes, I'm an atheist. And no, my personal beliefs haven't changed since reading this book. But I'm going to try and give an honest account of my reading and feelings without attempting to insult or offend. Of course, I fully expect some of my words to do just that, but it's not what I set out to do.
So why would an atheist spend one year, as I have done, reading the Bible, a book I believe holds no truth about our origins or morality? 15 months ago, a knock on the door - and I spent a couple of hours chatting (and debating) with the local Jehovah's Witnesses. Their lack of understanding of science and their dogged determination to convert with a few verses spurred me on to do something I've mulled over for years, since school really - read the Bible and then I can SAY to doorstep callers that I've read their literature in full and remain unconvinced. And I must admit, it did intrigue me. Never having read it - what really WAS inside this book? I knew all the Bible stories they teach in school, the accounts of Jesus. But I've never seen Revelations or much of the Old Testament. So I sourced a website where I could read a few chapters a day, of my preferred version, and finish in 365 days. With a few missed and caught-up days, I followed this, and have now read the King James Bible (I decided to go, not with the oldest version, as I would have liked, but the most popular but still not-too-modern version).
I don't want to go into chapter and verse and talk about interpretation and meaning, this isn't the format for that. But I will say I was surprised by various aspects of the book that has historically converted millions, caused bloodshed and inspired masterpieces.
Firstly - it's not a fun read. Some mornings I would have to force myself to read that day's chapters. Verse after verse of begetting, or on how to build an ark or a temple. I really enjoyed finally seeing the non-child-friendly versions of the famous stories, such as Noah and Moses. Eye-opening in the detail that gets missed out in schools.
There were some lines of great beauty, poetry, but actually not as many as I'd been expecting, and definitely more startling references to bodily functions than I would have thought. A lot of sexual talk as well, with rape common.
But that was definitely more towards the Old Testament. And here I was surprised as well - the New Testament is only a third or less of the whole book. I had the impression that stories of Jesus would take up much more space than they do in reality. And of course, many of these are repeated, as the four gospels retell (with variation) the same stories of birth, miracles and crucifixion four times. For me, the book can't win here - if all the accounts tally then why are they all here? (This is rhetorical, please don't feel you need to answer), and if they don't tally, then why are they different anyway?
The Devil was far less present than I'd been led to believe. He's mentioned, but God himself does a lot of killing, and the Devil only seems to be of minor importance for most of the book. Hell features fairly strongly in Revelations, but from the films and books we've all seen, the descriptions we know don't all seem to come from the Bible. As the afterlife is such a huge part of the religion, and Heaven and Hell aren't very well described, I was puzzled somewhat.
The morality of the Bible really, really didn't appeal to me either. The rules and Commandments, some are good sense, others seem archaic to my modern mind, and the concept of both 'sin' and 'worship', I'm afraid are both abhorrent. Even the Jews in the Old Testament manage to a dozen times or more fall back on bad ways and become enslaved as punishment for not worshipping the God they've witnessed and spoken with, again and again they need correcting.
As I read, I made comments and made note of quotes on Goodreads, amounting to somewhere in the region of 500 notes (some seem now to have been subsumed by the sheer amount of them), and I don't want to rehash specifics.
I did find that as I read, other books I was reading were then placed in a different light. One in particular - The Book of Strange New Things, by Michael Faber (which I gave 5 stars to, incidentally) concerns a born-again Christian, a preacher, who goes off to a distant planet to spread the Word to an alien race about the Good News of Jesus. Reading the Bible while I read this novel brought it home to me, the smallness of our planet and culture, and the insignificance of it to another race on another planet. The irrelevance of fish, flocks and crosses to a desert-living alien race who had no idea what these things were made me think of the narrowness of (every) religion, how out in other galaxies - would stories of Middle East men mean that much?
To summarise a year's worth of reading and thoughts in a review is no easy thing to do, and I'm sure there are many points I'd want to raise but have forgotten completely. And some I've described in a haphazard way. If you're got this far, well done!
This was a task I set myself that nobody (my husband, parents, colleagues) seemed to think I would complete, and at times I did wonder myself. It has inspired countless conversations at work, at home and in my own head. I am glad I have read this book, and while I do take something from my year, I remain perplexed that my interpretation and feelings about the contents can differ so markedly from people who base their worldview on it.
A believer told me that reading the Bible won't make you a Christian. I know anecdotally that there will be contradictions to this, but on the whole I agree. I was raised by strong-minded atheists to think like an atheist. Usually the pattern goes that parents will indoctrinate their children into their worldview and religion and on the whole, children will grow up holding those beliefs. Books like the Bible serve to reinforce a set of beliefs. Looking at it from outside the religion does give a completely different take on the stories and message from one already firmly entrenched in the religion.
I'm just as confidently non-religious as I was 366 days ago, but glad I've given time in my life to a book that, true or not, has had an undeniable effect on the planet for two millennia, historically and culturally. It's one that I won't be re-reading, but I am happy I took the time each day to try to expand my own knowledge of the world and the people in it.