Monday 5 January 2009

'To dwell in a mean street...'

'The danger with which we are faced is... that the greater part of the educated men and women of the nation will necessarily grow up in ignorance of the foundations on which European society is built.' That's from the findings of a government report on the position of Classics in the education system in... 1918. Ninety years on, that minatory vision has, it seems, come to pass. Classics in any solid form has all but disappeared from state education, and in all manner of other ways, ignorance of the foundations is being positively encouraged. See, for example, this.
That government report of 1918 is cited in Laurence Binyon's eloquent introduction to a remarkable volume published just before the Second World War - The Bible Designed to be Read as Literature. Binyon argues for the necessity of overcoming the fetishising of Scripture, freeing the Bible from its obtusely unhelpful, even unreadable presentation, and re-presenting it as the collection of richly various texts it is. He is particularly good on Hebrew poetry - how it places man in the larger life of the natural and spiritual world, tracing the harmonies and correspondence between these worlds in a language that follows the rhythms of thought as well as of sound. But he ends by again picking up the theme of the loss of the past: 'We are witnessing today a break with the past, the mental and spiritual past of the race; we can see the gap growing. Will it be completed? Or will some profounder instinct of self-preservation produce a recoil and turn the race back to recover the riches of its inheritance?... Come what may... it is certain that to forgo the opportunity, accessible to all, of frequenting this surpassing literature of the Bible, with its grandeur and abundance... is as if one should resolve of set choice to be poor in the midst of plenty and to dwell in a mean street.'
Well, we now live in a country where most young people have only the sketchiest knowledge of the Bible and have probably never voluntarily read a word of it. For vast swathes of the population, the 'gap' has indeed been completed and the streets are mean...
To end on a positive note - as well as being helpfully and readably presented (the text taken mostly from the glorious Authorised Version, sometimes from the more accurate Revised Standard), The Bible Designed to be Read as Literature is a notably beautiful book, handsomely designed and printed in the superb Gill Perpetua font. If you have only one Bible in the house, this should be the one.


  1. Guilty as charged, Nige; my knowledge of the bible is embarassingly poor. I don't hold any religious beliefs, but I suspect that the same is true for many of today's self-described christians. I had the misfortune lately to attend a couple of christian talks at a university (a friend of mine is an avid fan of Dawkins, Harris et al.) which soon turned into quite fierce debates. What surprised me was that the christian approach to the bible was near identical to that of the athiests, it was seen as a simple manifesto or rule-book, verses thrown about simply to support (or demolish) cartoonish metaphysical propositions. With one exception all the discussions were equally sterile and superficial. The lone dissenter, my favourite, a vicar I think, spoke like he was discussing poetry, or literature. My nu-athiest friend disliked it thoroughly, said it was 'bafflement and obscurantism'. I happily agreed.

  2. I have been taught and tried to teach parts of the Bible as Literature and found the whole business horribly difficult. It's a matter, I think, of having the right selection, the right guidance, and of looking at its relationship to other works, both modern and ancient. Reading the Romantics with a Bible to one side is illuminating, as is reading the Bible in terms of its place alongside other myths. I have also learned more from those people who are fiercely religious without 'having' religion, if you see what I mean.

  3. This is a perfect post for me today. I am currently reading (preparatory to teaching) "Gilgamesh," and will soon revisit Job and the four Gospel boys.

    And I'm now seriously jonesing to get to the British Museum again as most of the cuneiform tablets of the Babylonian epic are gathered there. Assyriology is a fading discipline now, but it shouldn't be: There's still a lot of literature yet to be found, yet found it eventually will be: Clay tablets, unlike papyrus, don't disintegrate.

    Your country's George Smith was a genius. Where is his like today?