I collect religious books. So far, I have three Bibles – one a standard plastic-bound King James, another a hardback, illustrated copy of the same edition from the 1960s, and a third my late stepmother’s New International Version, hardback, and replete with colour pictures – as well as that mini red-leather New Testament and Psalms we Anglicans all received in high school. (Many of my peers defaced theirs, littering the rutted walkway past the playing field with shredded pages, which offended me as a bibliophile, if not as a Christian).
I also have a black-leather Mormon triple (which sounds like a deli sandwich or kinky threesome, but is actually a volume containing the three books of Mormonism: The Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and The Pearl of Great Price); a small black leather “Book of Offices” (Christian church services, c. 1930s) and just the other day, a gorgeous, green, hardback hymnbook, containing work by such human luminaries as Isaac Watts, John Milton and William Blake.
Beside these on my shelf is Rupert Graves’ Greek Myths, and on my Kindle are Butler’s Lives of the Saints and a free Koran, translated in the 19th-century by an English Christian priest. (Such older translations have introductions amusing because of the different culture informing them: mine has many offhand remarks about how we should appreciate Islam despite Christianity’s obvious superiority!)
I also have a Necronomicon, but I’m not sure that that counts as a religious text…
Even militant atheists like Richard Dawkins have accepted the importance of the Bible in understanding English literature; to paraphrase the great man, a knowledge of the former is fundamental to an understanding of the latter; skip to 3:36 and watch until 4:02 in this video for the original quote: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-0Ks4pCO5O8 As a skeptic who supports the prevalence of areligious (not anti-religious) morals at the state level, I’m fairly indifferent to and even sometimes dubious of theistic teachings.
But as a lover of language and literature, which I am above most else, I wallow in the poetry. Poetry, I think, is a spiritual bath where atheists and theists can soak together in harmony. For instance, whatever I may think about the philosophical and materialistic worth of this psalm by Isaac Watts, a 17th- to 18th-century English theologian acknowledged as the “Father of English Hymnody”, I not just appreciate but adore its literary worth:
“Palm 73, Part 1″
Now I’m convinced the Lord is kind
To men of heart sincere;
Yet once my foolish thoughts repined,
And bordered on despair.
I grieved to see the wicked thrive,
And spoke with angry breath,
“How pleasant and profane they live!
How peaceful is their death!
“With well-fed flesh and haughty eyes,
They lay their fears to sleep;
Against the heav’ns their slanders rise,
While saints in silence weep.
“In vain I lift my hands to pray,
And cleanse my heart in vain;
For I am chastened all the day,
The night renews my pain.”
Yet while my tongue indulged complaints,
I felt my heart reprove, -
“Sure I shall thus offend thy saints,
And grieve the men I love.”
But still I found my doubts too hard,
The conflict too severe,
Till I retired to search thy word,
And learn thy secrets there.
There, as in some prophetic glass,
I saw the sinner’s feet
High mounted on a slipp’ry place,
Beside a fiery pit.
I heard the wretch profanely boast,
Till at thy frown he fell;
His honors in a dream were lost,
And he awakes in hell.
Lord, what an envious fool I was!
How like a thoughtless beast!
Thus to suspect thy promised grace,
And think the wicked blest.
Yet I was kept from full despair,
Upheld by power unknown;
That blessed hand that broke the snare
Shall guide me to thy throne.
For those interested, Watts appears in the green hardback hymnbook I mentioned earlier, pictured below:
Those numbers in bold, above and slightly to the left of each hymn, call back to me those pulpit-plaques containing number cards for the hymns of the day. They’re as Anglican as public houses and nightclub fights…
“Palm 73, Part 1″ alternates beautifully between eight and six syllable lines, the latter following the former to create, alongside an ABAB rhyme scheme, an ebb-and-flow rhythm. Narratively speaking, it’s also a splendidly self-contained little religious fable, with some very strong, potent, even menacing images, my favourite being that of the evil man on a “slipp’ry place,/Beside a fiery pit”. (By the by, those apostrophes which replace letters, used to cut down a word’s syllable count for the sake of rhythm and meter, are all but gone from recent poetry, which I think is a shame.)
Actual sacred texts, meanwhile, also have their share of alluring poesy. One of my favourite descriptions of Satan is “the stealthily withdrawing whisperer”, a name he’s given in Sura (chapter) XIV – http://www.infoplease.com/t/rel/koran/sura114.html – of the Koran, which is like one long poem, Allah’s prophet Muhammed perhaps being more of a poet than a storyteller. The book is filled with charming poetic images, many of which depict Hell in a way grand enough to rival other religions’.
The constant political dramas surrounding religion blinds a lot of atheists, I think, to the literary worth of western and middle-eastern mythologies. If you leave politics aside (a thing I suggest people do more often) what you’re left with is some stunning poetry. If we can read and celebrate Homeric poetry without starting wars over whether Zeus exists, or what his message is, we shouldn’t gag our own rich cultural heritage.
Here’s another psalm by Isaac Watts, from which the fourth verse, beginning in 1757, is often omitted. This, I think, is a sin, because it’s a splendid verse which holds the poem’s strongest, strangest imagery. As a lover of horror and the macabre, I can ask little more of my literature:
When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.
Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God!
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to His blood.
See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
His dying crimson, like a robe,
Spreads o’er His body on the tree;
Then I am dead to all the globe,
And all the globe is dead to me.
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.
To Christ, who won for sinners grace
By bitter grief and anguish sore,
Be praise from all the ransomed race
Forever and forevermore.
Personally, I’d love to live in a world where people with Marilyn Manson CDs can also own books of religious poetry, as I do, with no-one thinking that strange. There was a great Welsh poet (and priest), R. S. Thomas, who once said this of his joint careers: “Some people were curious to know whether I did not feel some conflict between my two vocations. But I always replied that Christ was a poet, that the New Testament was poetry, and that I had no difficulty preaching the New Testament in its poetic context.”
That quote surmises everything I’ve been trying to say in this essay better than I ever could, even with a thousand more words. Christ was a poet. As was Muhammed, Joseph Smith and all the other prophets. No matter how dubious their teachings and lives might have been, they had a rhetorical gift which shouldn’t be forgotten, by believers or atheists. (Incidentally, Thomas was a Welsh nationalist who despised what he perceived as western greed and supported the bombings of English-owned holiday homes, evidence that extremism is by no means just a Muslim quality.)
So, in conclusion, let us return to that spiritual bath, Poetry, hand-in-hand and with songs in our souls, united not by ideology, but by beauty.
Hymnbooks: not just for hurling at pedestrians anymore!