The Good and the Good Book: Rev­e­la­tion As A Guide To Life

Samuel Fleis­chack­er
  • Review
By – March 14, 2016

Adam Gop­nik begins his intro­duc­tion of The Good Book: Writ­ers Reflect On Favorite Bible Vers­es by ask­ing How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? And how should we read the Bible in a sec­u­lar age?” For the many mil­lions of reli­gious fun­da­men­tal­ists and lit­er­al­ists who con­tin­ue to read the Bible lit­er­al­ly in the face of sci­en­tif­ic evi­dence to the con­trary, this is not a ques­tion that even needs to be asked. For oth­er believ­ers in the Divine truth of the text who also accept non-lit­er­al read­ings of prob­lem­at­ic pas­sages, it can be answered to vary­ing degrees of satisfaction.

Gopnik’s essay intro­duces Andrew Blauner’s col­lec­tion of reflec­tions of the Bible by an impres­sive list of writ­ers, activists, and pub­lic per­son­al­i­ties who are all firm­ly ensconced in the sec­u­lar world. They large­ly iden­ti­fy with Gopnik’s claim that noth­ing that hap­pens in it actu­al­ly hap­pened, and that its mir­a­cles, large and small, are of the same kind and cred­i­bil­i­ty as all the oth­er mir­a­cles that crowd the world’s great gra­nary of super­sti­tion.” Yet the Bible pul­sates and res­onates for them, inform­ing poignant moments, con­nect­ing gen­er­a­tions, fram­ing lives, mak­ing demands, and offer­ing direction.

Gop­nik him­self sketch­es four con­tem­po­rary styles for read­ing the Bible. The first is aes­thet­ic, empha­siz­ing the myth­ic truth of its sto­ries and char­ac­ters. These include Daniel Menaker’s post­mod­ern read­ing of the ambigu­ous con­clu­sion of Jon­ah, or Robert Pinsky’s poet­ic homage to Isaiah’s mes­sage of hope and rebirth inter­min­gled with apoc­a­lyp­tic fury.

An accom­mo­da­tion­ist read, such as A. J. Jacobs’s reflec­tion on the exam­ple of Nahshon, first to jump into the Reed Sea, explores how Bib­li­cal sto­ries pro­vide direc­tion and reflect con­tem­po­rary life to read­er — though this sto­ry is midrashic, and not actu­al­ly includ­ed in the Hebrew Bible. Lois Lowry sees echoes of Ruth in her family’s sto­ry of inter­mar­riage, World War II, tragedy, and redemp­tion. Samuel Freed­man explores the Val­leys of Dry Bones in East New York and the pas­tors who revived them, and Al Sharp­ton finds a par­tic­u­lar­ly poignant call for rev­o­lu­tion and jus­tice in the Psalms.

An anthro­po­log­i­cal read­ing, such as Lydia Davis’ analy­sis of Psalm 23 or Jay Parini’s pars­ing of the Ser­mon on the Mount, explores what the texts teach us about peo­ple in gen­er­al, both those who wrote the texts and those who still read them. Final­ly, an antag­o­nis­tic read­er strug­gles against the texts, find­ing mean­ing and direc­tion in the ten­sion. In this vein, Michael Eric Dyson push­es back against Bib­li­cal lit­er­al­ism, trac­ing Abraham’s rejec­tion of Ish­mael and Hagar, and his attempt­ed sac­ri­fice of Isaac, onto the con­tem­po­rary vio­lence direct­ed at the African-Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ty from with­in and from the out­side. An ordained Bap­tist min­is­ter, Dyson’s pas­sion­ate­ly writ­ten call to res­cue” the nar­ra­tive from the grasp of the pow­er­ful and the parochial, as we read them to res­cue in our­selves the excite­ment and vig­or of fresh inter­pre­ta­tion,” is as much a part of his civ­il rights strug­gle as his aca­d­e­m­ic work and activism.

A fifth approach, not con­sid­ered by Gop­nik, is intro­duced by Samuel Fleishack­er, pro­fes­sor of Phi­los­o­phy at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois-Chica­go. The Good and The Good Book is a short vol­ume with a well devel­oped, incre­men­tal­ly build­ing argu­ment. He dis­tin­guish­es between sci­en­tif­ic truth, which can be test­ed and dis­proven, and truth as the Bible means it. When it comes to how to behave in dai­ly life, which he defines as moral­i­ty, we tend to fol­low ratio­nal rea­son­ing. How­ev­er, when it comes to ulti­mate ques­tions of mean­ing, or what it means to live a good life,” super­nat­ur­al rev­e­la­tion is no less plau­si­ble a guide than any­thing we can come up with on our own.

Even in today’s world, he argues, the Bible can still be regard­ed as true, in the sense of serv­ing as a reli­able and trust­ed eth­i­cal guide for one’s life. Its lan­guage is poet­ic, so that it is always some­what obscure and in need of active inter­pre­ta­tion. It pur­ports a super­nat­ur­al source, so that it is always a bit beyond us. It presents a vision of a final goal which always remains a lit­tle mys­te­ri­ous, but fits with what we would expect that vision to be. In oth­er words, we can project our high­est goals and aspi­ra­tions onto the Bible, and yet always look at it and try to find a bit more. It does not give us the answers, but allows us to keep ask­ing the ques­tions that push us towards self-improve­ment and introspection.

In a way, Fleis­chack­er com­bines Gopnik’s first two approach­es, but goes a step fur­ther. Instead of stop­ping with find­ing mean­ing or res­o­nance in the Bible, he argues that it is rea­son­able to sub­mit to it and to the God who revealed it — even if that rev­e­la­tion nev­er actu­al­ly hap­pened in history.

Gop­nik cor­rect­ly asserts that each of us engages with the Bible through the ten­sion cre­at­ed by the idea of faith and the fact of doubt. These two very read­able books pro­vide a series of snap­shots depict­ing how that ten­sion plays out in the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry. As a tal­ent­ed group of writ­ers let us into their hearts and minds, we can imag­ine, through them, how their expe­ri­ence was just as true 2,000 years ago, and will con­tin­ue to be long into the future.

Relat­ed Content:

Avra­ham Bron­stein writes fre­quent­ly on top­ics of Jew­ish thought, con­tem­po­rary issues, and their inter­sec­tion. A past Assis­tant Rab­bi of The Hamp­ton Syn­a­gogue and Pro­gram Direc­tor of Great Neck Syn­a­gogue, he lives with his fam­i­ly in Scran­ton, PA.

Discussion Questions