As communities of Christians prepare to celebrate Easter the world over, some in the English-speaking world may be surprised to learn that a new “Bible” has appeared and has quickly rushed to be the top-seller on Amazon’s spirituality category.
It is not, however, the Bible with which Christians are familiar. Rather, it is a bible assembled for humanists, secularists, atheists and erstwhile religionists.
A noted British scholar and philosopher at the University of London, A.C. Grayling acknowledges that the Bible familiar to Christians has exercised an extraordinary influence on Western history and culture, but he wonders what the history and culture might have looked like if together with, or in place of, the Bible, a different set of seminal influential texts had been assembled and consulted for moral guidance and social development.
With this question in mind, Grayling set out to assemble such a collection of writings, and it has just been published with the eye-catching title, “The Good Book: A Humanist Bible.”
The book is a collection of more than a thousand texts written by hundreds of authors reflecting the wisdom and values of persons in social communities, some more distant in history and geography than our own.
The texts are taken from the prose, poetry and philosophy of the Western and Eastern traditions, and are, as Grayling says in the opening epistle, “distillations of the wisdom and experience of humankind.”
Now I can think of at least three reasons why some Christians will not be happy with this new “Bible.”
First, the worldviews and moral values embedded in these texts do not originate in either the Jewish or Christian religious traditions. They are rooted neither in a divine revelation nor the sacred traditions that emanate from it. They express perceptions, values and principles disconnected from Judeo-Christian understandings.
According to the publishers, the collected writings are “meditations on the origin and progress of the world and human life in it,” with “attention to the question of how life should be lived, how we relate to one another, and how vicissitudes are to be faced and joys appreciated.”
To be sure, these writings have contributed to forming the virtues needed to attain well-being in human community – virtues like integrity, compassion, justice and responsibility.
Second, the book’s structure is inspired by the layout and style of the Bible. Grayling has organized his texts thematically, with sections like Genesis, Wisdom, Parables, Proverbs.
The publishers regard it as “offering to the nonreligious seeker all the wisdom, insight, solace, inspiration and perspective of various secular humanist traditions.”
Some will take this as a parody of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, a mockery of the collection of sacred writings that has been handed down to believers from century to century.
Rather than look at it as a parody, one can see it as an expression of the literary influence the Bible has exercised on collections of writings.
Third, Christians may object to the title and subtitle itself: “The Good Book” is a piece of vernacular that in Western societies, especially in the United States, is taken as a euphemism for the Bible. Some will undoubtedly object to the adjective “humanist” in qualifying the noun “Bible.”
The word “Bible” is not copyrighted. In its Greek, Latin, French and Middle English forms, Bible refers to a collection of writings.
While it might appear pretentious to call Grayling’s edition a “Bible,” it will undoubtedly function that way for many. It is intended to suggest that its contents are exemplary if not authoritative, influential if not normative, for readers who seek understanding of the course of human history and community without the encumbrance of religion.
Arguably, such knowledge and understanding without religion – or without its influence – is not possible to achieve.
The Christian community acknowledges that the bedrock of the normative status and function of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures is twofold: their inspiration by the divine Spirit of God and their narratives and ethical instruction regarding the ways of God with God’s creatures.
The publishers of “The Good Book” see it as “a powerful, secular alternative to the Bible.”
Grayling, an atheist, notes that this collection is “another contribution to the conversation that mankind [sic] must have with itself.”
Grayling and his publishers know that this is not religiously sacred literature, but it is literature nonetheless that has shaped and influenced human societies.
“The Good Book” cannot be faulted simply for the fact that it is not the Bible; neither should it be rejected simply because it disavows deity and privileges humanity and humanism as normative.
It reflects an outlook increasingly evident in the postmodern West, one with which faith communities must engage as co-inhabitants of pluralist societies.
The quest for meaning in personal and social life applies to all, whether they are religious or not. The literature birthed by both social and religious traditions can teach us a thing or two about cultivating the common good.
Christians who live in and out of the gospel narrative would do well to familiarize themselves with the nonreligious narratives that continue to shape our shared worlds.
Douglas Sharp is dean of the Academy for the Common Good, an initiative of Protestants for the Common Good, a progressive voice that brings a biblical and theological perspective to critical public issues. Sharp is an ordained minister in the American Baptist Churches-USA.