The Guardian published an article last Saturday in which Richard Dawkins eulogises the ‘Authorised Version’ of the Bible. It should be read and taught as great literature, he claims, even though what it says should be ignored or even corrected.
Actually, it’s not such a great shock, he covers much the same ground in The God Delusion. It’s disappointing, though, that he has not increased his knowledge of what Christians actually believe, during the intervening few years. I think I know more about evolution than Dawkins knows about religion.
Of particular interest is the rather odd way in which he wants to separate out style and substance. The point he misses is this: the Bible is great literature because the people who have corrected the text and translated it down the centuries did actually believe it was true. Further, the reason they went to all that trouble was so that people could understand it. They were translating into the language of the time, not attempting to create a masterpiece that would be admired hundreds of years later.
Dawkins does not apply his principle in his own field. He does not claim that we should read Lamarck or Paley because they were good writers. He would claim, I think, that we should read Darwin because the author was right, or even better The Selfish Gene for the same reason.
A fairer example might be Shakespeare, which was written as literature rather than as science. However, that doesn’t really work. Shakespeare has a global following and has been translated into all the major languages of humanity. It is being performed in many of these for the Cultural Olympiad. The magic cannot be in the original language.
No, the greatness of Shakespeare is not just in the choice of words, but the ideas expressed. They connect up with human experience, and they are expanded through stories and characters that we can all understand. The Bible does the same but with the additional dimension of faith and a claimed reality beyond this world. Such things are greater than literary quality or any particular language. There is a huge demand today for the Bible in Chinese, and the biggest Bible printing factory in the world is situated in Nanjing. This does not bode well for Dawkins’ theory of literary greatness.
Almost anyone with any depth of knowledge of the Bible can refute Dawkins’ negative allegations about it. Literary merit is a great thing, but not so great as truth.