The Curse of Literature

By: Derek Dyson

I can read Moby Dick once and get the gist of the story.  I can read it one hundred times and fully understand the words and phrases found between the first and the last page. But, if I wish to understand the full story of Moby Dick; its symbolic undercurrents and the thoughts of its author, would I not have to look deep into the life and times of Herman Melville?  Would I not need to understand heroic and romantic novels of the 19th century? What about the makings of a fishing community and the type men who worked within them?  An understanding of the role that sea creatures, fables and heroes play in the oceans of which these men draw their livelihood would also come in handy. Without such insight, just simply reading the story would never truly afford me the luxuries held within great literature.  No matter how many times I read those same words over and over, without context and outside information, they could never express the kind of man the author was or even what thoughts he meant the story to invoke in the readers mind. I could read it one hundred times and never truly understand the story.

Would reading this story alone make me an expert on Moby Dick or literature in general? Would I be qualified to teach others on the passions of Herman Melville or the basics of American Romanticism, solely because I had read Moby Dick, even if it were multiple times? The answer to this question is obviously no. I would need to expand my knowledge far beyond that of this single book and into many other fields if I were truly passionate about the subject. In doing so, I would probably run across other authors and novels of this period that were equally as entertaining to read, which may lead me to the conclusion that there are better novels out there; books that may mean more to me than this epic tale ever could have.

There is an old saying in Catholic circles “the Seminary leads you to the cemetery”, implying that the study of religion will eventually kill your faith.  This belief is widely held throughout the Evangelical community as seen in its obvious disdain of Academia or the “Liberal” educational system.  This Anti-intellectualism is seen as a virtue of faith in that the less you know, the more faith you will have.

I find it interesting that even the most learned theologians, the men who have spent their entire lives studying their particular religion, hold beliefs that would be unnoticeable by most if not all of the fundamentalists of that same religion.  The men who know the most about the texts, the authors and their context, actually hold the most liberal views concerning the divinity of those texts and the stories held within them. Yet, the majority of the followers of these same texts know nothing of them, other than the words found within their first and last page. They can quote favorites from Genesis to Revelation, but they know nothing of the authors, the culture of which they lived or the context of which it was meant for its readers.  They know nothing of missing texts, deleted and/or misinterpreted phrases or the political influences that haphazardly combined these stories over the centuries, yet they are content. They read the same chapters over and over, hoping to find new meaning, but never look beyond these pages for any real insight.

Why is this?  Is it because knowledge leads to unbelief? Or because learning that your faith may have been unfounded is hard to accept? It could be because it is easier to believe what you are told than to look for yourself.  I would say that each of these scenerios ring true on some level for the vast majority of Christians in America.  So with this in mind, how does a person who believes the Holy Bible to be the direct and infallible word of god manage to go their entire life without actually looking into the validity of such a claim? Why is it that I am a non-believer, yet more often than not I know more about biblical history than the believer sitting across from me arguing his case?  All the while, men like Marvin Meyers, Bruce Metzger and Bart Ehrman, men who have dedicated their entire lives to the field of New Testament studies, are vilified by mainstream Evangelicals because of the liberal views they hold on these very texts.  If these men are the experts how could they possibly be wrong?  More importantly, if they are wrong (with their advanced degrees and years of studying in the finest theological seminaries this world has to offer) how could a sane person argue that their background as a dentist or high school football coach or a youth minister somehow establishes them as an authority that can trump the views of these scholars?

The experts say that Mark was the first gospel written. Each of the other gospels borrowed heavily from it as it was the first source. These gospels were written at least 30 years (and as late as 120 years) after the death of Christ by men who never lived within 100 miles of him and more than likely had never heard his name uttered while he was alive.  These are the facts upheld by every major new testament scholar for the last 100 years. Transversely, the Evangelical believes that the gospels (which are the ONLY source we have to learn about the life of Jesus) were written by the followers of Christ, disciples and otherwise, who were with him his entire life.  They believe this despite the fact that none of the disciples would have been literate (fisherman and peasants in ancient Judea didn’t exactly need to be able to read) and certainly none of them would have written in Greek because they would have spoken Aramaic. This is important because every single early copy of any gospel we have is written in Greek exclusively, in a writing style that didn’t exist during the life of Christ. This simply means that when you look at the facts, there are no first hand (or even second or third hand) accounts of the things Jesus had done. We only have parables and anecdotes written at least 60 years after they supposedly happened by men who speak a different language and live in a different culture than he lived.  Not exactly reliable sources, but if you stretch your faith out, you could still believe these accounts were accurate. Then of course you would have to ignore the fact that a large portion of New Testament Scholars don’t believe that, but if you are an Evangelical, you’ve already been doing this for years.

So, what I’m getting at is this: It would be foolish for me to read Moby Dick and say that it is the most meaningful work of literature in the world, divinly transcribed by Herman Melville in an attempt to give my life meaning.  It would seem even more foolish if it was the only book I had read and all of this time I thought it was purely about hunting for whales; ignorantly missing the literary metaphors pointing towards mans struggle for meaning. It too is foolish for a person to claim that there exists a flawless book written by god when all of the evidence points to the contrary. It would be infinitely more foolish for that person to make such a claim if they had never cared to seek out the facts to begin with.