Wednesday, July 18, 2007


This evening I was sitting at the cafe reading, and at the table next to me were a couple of men talking about their faith. One was avidly quoting to the other certain passages from the Bible, in a way that suggested that they were trying to understand the rules laid down by God on how to live. Perhaps the only parallel to this mode of discussion in my own experience is in trying to figure out the rules of a game, mathematical methods, or how a body of code works. They were trying to arrive at the simplest way of getting right with God--this, for them, was the way to figure out how to live, by a simple process of rote performance.

During their conversation, it became obvious that they were struggling with the meaning of many of the words, as they were using the King James version; words, like asunder, which I understand and use rather commonly. They talked about prophecies in Revelations, and I overheard one saying to the other "Gee, I hope that doesn't happen here." The other answered, "No, that probably won't happen here in Ottawa." I should perhaps also point out that they seemed to be rather heavily medicated, slow in speech and movement.

It is perhaps one of the greatest disappointments to those, particularly on the left, who would like to believe in human perfectability and the blank slate, that there are many people who simply cannot grasp the complexity of modern life, and who may reach desperately for a simpler model of reality. Raw intelligence, unfortunately, is a fixed quantity that resists all efforts towards radical enhancement. Many other things can be learned, but even these are capped by innate intellectual ability. Diligence will overcome much, and without it even intelligence will come to nothing, but certain limits are set at birth. I resisted this idea for a long time--it seems so elitist, and so undemocratic.

Those who are saddled with such restrictions must take as a great blessing the idea that there is only one book that need be mastered to understand life in all its complexity. Many of us who have read thousands of books still feel that we've only seen the tip of the iceberg, and still encounter daily ideas which leave us wondering, "Why haven't I ever heard of this before?" The more you know, the more you realize you don't know. But what must it be like to not even understand the words, let alone the ideas? It must seem to them that if they can just understand this one book, they can get a handle on all of it.

That book, however, is flawed, compromised, often dealing with subject matter that is reached for but never grasped, written in a code that has been lost, by disparate voices that can never be truly reconciled. It is archaic, sometimes brutally primitive in its ethical advice, poetic rather than descriptive, rife with factual inaccuracies, and in all liklihood is largely opaque to anyone who has not also read thousands of other books which deal with its influences, historical setting and references, issues of translation, and corrections to its long litany of mistakes. It is first and foremost an invitation, indeed an imperative, to learn, rather than an excuse to remain ignorant; the first step on the journey, not the destination. Nor is there any reason to assume that the journey leads anywhere remotely like the starting point.

But the Bible is also, first and foremost, a book of mythology. To understand the trick, you need to see it done. You must also read Homer, Shakespeare, Dante, Blake, and more recently, Frank Herbert, Neil Gaiman, Phillip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov, J.R.R Tolkien, J.K. Rowling, Ursula K. Le Guin, and other writers of fantasy and science fiction. You must understand that words may have power without being literally true, that to the ancients, the metaphorical mode of language was of greater importance than the merely descriptive. You must understand that a story can be just a story and still be true, but not in the way that a manual or a research report is true. And you must understand that there are other stories that are just as true, if not more so, and that inspiration did not end two thousand years ago.

And yet, this book sits alone, without warning, in hotel rooms all over the world, as if it were sufficient unto itself. Its very presence alone in a bedside table makes the most grandiose and misleading of claims: this is all you need.