50 books to read before you die discussion

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Book Discussions - 50 Books > Why to read the Bible (even if you're an atheist)

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message 1: by Falina (new)

Falina Everyone should read the Bible, even if they're not religious. I think this not because it's the best book I've ever read (although at times I am very impressed with the writing and story), but because it is by far the most influential book I've ever read. It is a great work of literature, it is a history book, and it is a political treatise. I see echoes of our culture in nearly every page, and I am by turns fascinated, amused, and infuriated by the complete subjectivity with which people have loved, killed, and organized our world based on some passages, while completely ignoring others. Really, this may be the most holistically educational thing you ever read. Do it.


message 2: by Lisa (new)

Lisa (lisadannatt) | 743 comments What do you think about reading other religious books like the Quran or the Torah?
I was surprised the BibLe was on this list and not another religious book at all. I wondered if the list was compiled by votes or numbers of books printed and sold.


message 3: by Falina (new)

Falina Well, my understanding is that the Torah is included in the Old Testament, so you're reading the Torah if you read the OT as well as the NT. But that is a good point. I wonder if we would also notice the same cultural resonance if we read the Quran.


message 4: by Steve (new)

Steve mitchell | 51 comments I agree its a bit crazy that a book whose main theme is peace and neighborly kindness causes so much misery and war. what is the old saying more evil has been performed in the name of religion than any other reason? something like that. but yes the bible is the book of books and to not read it simply because you don't agree with the truth of it is narrow minded I read many books that going in I know I don't subscribe to.


message 5: by Lisa (new)

Lisa (lisadannatt) | 743 comments Steve wrote: "I agree its a bit crazy that a book whose main theme is peace and neighborly kindness causes so much misery and war. what is the old saying more evil has been performed in the name of religion tha..."

Neither of us said that we don't agree with it. I'm simply quizzy that no other religious texts are included on these lists. If this bookmark was created by a population poll, this tells us a bit about the population. If you compiled a list of household best books in my country, there'd be some interesting inclusions here.

I confess to ignorance around reading other religious texts, but that could be a very interesting study. I find religions fascinating. Was recently an introductory text to Hinduism that is waiting to be read.

There's more to the Torrah than the Old Testament as far as I know but I'm now curious and will check.


message 6: by Longhare (new)

Longhare Content | 107 comments The first five books of the Christian Bible are the same five books (attributed to Moses) that are contained in the Torah. Muslims also include these books among their sacred writings, though they are not part of the Quran. The Bible is the key religious text in western literature, so it makes sense, given the rest of the list. If the list was heavy on eastern literature, it would be helpful to have some understanding of eastern religious texts.

At one time, the Bible was pretty universally familiar to people in the West, and a religious education was not restricted to the children of devout households. Most of the other books on the list are informed in some way by the Bible. As society has become more secular it has lost a common cultural touchstone. The symbolism in Melville or even Hemingway can be explained to modern readers, but the extended meanings of those symbols are no longer part of our collective psyche--for example, the weighted irony of Rose-of-Sharon's name in Grapes of Wrath.

Chaucer's humor and the sharpness of his satire are best understood if you can put yourself in Chaucer's head, which is hard to do if his religious ideas are alien to you. Dante got inventive with doctrine when he wrote the Comedy, and Dickens diverged from it, but how to appreciate all that? Annotations can only clear up some textual details, but sometimes even the scholar providing the annotations botches an allusion. I recently watched a lecture by a professor at a top university try to explain the symbolism in a Flannery O'Connor story. The prof correctly identified a number of Christian symbols but imbued them with meanings that would probably have surprised O'Connor.

The Bible has a fascinating history and was one of the drivers in the move from scrolls to pages. The King James Bible was the product of more than 50 translators, and they were not flunkies. They were the best scholars England had to offer. Remember, this was the England of Shakespeare, so if you don't like Shakespeare you are going to find the KJB heavy going. Some translators were definitely more gifted than others, and pity the poor chaps that got stuck translating the census data. Much of the Bible, however, is gorgeous, and the stories are archetypes of western culture.

A word of caution. The Bible is a bloody, ancient collection of texts that takes place over many centuries. Don't expect the prophets to be preaching a love-your-neighbor message while tribal warfare and competition for land and resources is the rule of the day. Don't worry about agreeing with a ban on lepers or whether parents should really have the right to stone their own children for mouthing off. Consider instead that these were ancient peoples slowly pulling together the social order we inherited.


message 7: by Steve (new)

Steve mitchell | 51 comments Lisa wrote: "Steve wrote: "I agree its a bit crazy that a book whose main theme is peace and neighborly kindness causes so much misery and war. what is the old saying more evil has been performed in the name o..."

I didnt mean to imply what you think or meant Lisa, I made that a blanket statement in general. I agree its inclusion is mainly because of western beliefs, and there ought to be a few others if millions/billions of people follow it.


message 8: by Falina (new)

Falina Longhare wrote: "The first five books of the Christian Bible are the same five books (attributed to Moses) that are contained in the Torah. Muslims also include these books among their sacred writings, though they ..."

One thing I definitely have noticed so far (I finished the OT and am two books into the NT) is how violent and vindictive and yes, petty, God and Jesus often are, and how contradictory their messages can be at times. They're very human. It's made me realize that the messages of the Bible are unclear, despite the assertions of the people who use passages from it to try and shape the conduct of others.


message 9: by Longhare (new)

Longhare Content | 107 comments It's made me realize that the messages of the Bible are unclear...

All religions require study of scripture far above and beyond the study of any other work of literature. That's why there are churches and seminaries and in part why the Bible used to be part of the public school curriculum. The Talmud is a compilation of rabbinical texts examining the books of Moses (another piece of the Torah that Lisa referred to). Religious people read and study a lot, often daily. The focus of much of this study is the reconciliation of those contradictions. This is why in Christianity there are so many denominations, each with a different interpretation.

From a literary standpoint, those contradictions make for a richer text. If God were merely the bland, bearded spirit of perfection, there would have been no fall in Eden and no call for literature at all. No Paradise Lost, no Inferno, no Wife of Bath, no Cool-hand Luke. The writers of the Bible recorded human behavior and ascribed the drama to the controlling hand of God, searching for an explanation for the whys and wherefores of a violent existence. Yet there is an accompanying aspiration for a more enlightened, more just society.

On a different note, one thing I find really interesting is the jump between the last book of the OT and the NT. During the several hundred year interim, the Roman Empire has popped up and taken over the world. Jesus is born during the reign of Augustus, and the worldview of the NT writers is very different from the old prophets. It's distinctly more modern. (When Paul goes to Asia Minor, he is surrounded by the fading but still incredible glory of Greek civilization, and when he appeals to Caesar, it's Nero, the decadent old fiddler himself.)


message 10: by Steve (new)

Steve mitchell | 51 comments I agree with Longhare, as has been proven before, if you have 10 people who all see the exact same thing, you will still get 10 different interpretations and stories and perceptions of what actually happened. If I tell one person to stay off the grass and then tell another person the same thing, they may or may not stay off the grass, but what they think the reason is or whatever add ons and interpretations are theirs and that is how you get the varying accounts.

I subscribe to the 10 commandments because I think they are about as good a set of belief system and way to live as any, I dont judge or push anything on others, I figure if there is a God he will handle that in due time.

Regardless of belief these texts are great historical and literary documents to be read, make what you want of them.


message 11: by Lisa (new)

Lisa (lisadannatt) | 743 comments Steve wrote: "Lisa wrote: "Steve wrote: "I agree its a bit crazy that a book whose main theme is peace and neighborly kindness causes so much misery and war. what is the old saying more evil has been performed..."

Thanks for clarification.

I really do get and appreciate the historical context. Just curious about the others.

Thanks Longhare


message 12: by Longhare (new)

Longhare Content | 107 comments I would really love to read the Bhagavad Gita. I picked it up once, felt completely lost, and decided I needed some help.


message 13: by Steve (new)

Steve mitchell | 51 comments I would be down to start a spiritual reading group, picking all the different ideas/beliefs and read and discuss them, that sounds good to me, anyone, anyone buelller!


message 14: by Falina (new)

Falina Steve wrote: "I would be down to start a spiritual reading group, picking all the different ideas/beliefs and read and discuss them, that sounds good to me, anyone, anyone buelller!"

I'm in!


message 15: by Falina (new)

Falina But probably not this year, since my reading goal is to finish reading the 50 books on this list :)


message 16: by Ernesto (new)

Ernesto (netoben) | 2 comments I believe it is interesting to read it because of the impact it has on the society we live in.

But if the impact in our culture is the main feature, we should consider the questions that brought it to its influential position:

What is the book's composition? Who put it together? Why the organization that put it together did it that way? When did they do it?

and then, through out the history... What political forces (countries, organizations, kings, etc) used the bible to rule? why? how did they do it? who conquered whom and which religion won and prevailed to our days? How has it changed during time?

I believe that those are the real interesting questions about the bible.

However, on a literary level I don't find anything extremely special about it (not enough for 2000 years of interest). I have only read parts of it, like the Genesis, and the new testament. Some parts are beautiful, for sure. Some others just don't make sense at all and I believe people force it and overcomplicate it in order to make it "current" and valid.

Having so many good books of so many talented authors in the world, I doubt I'll ever finish reading it. I believe the real value is literature in general, and not in this particular book.


message 17: by Longhare (new)

Longhare Content | 107 comments But if you are speaking of "literature in general" I don't think you can separate out the Bible into a different category--any more than you can any other significant work of philosophy or the Epic of Gilgamesh or even Grimm's Fairy Tales. You CAN subdivide literature into more coherent categories and remove the Bible from the one labelled Novels. Ancient works, and even Jacobean works, require a certain kind of interest and diligence. Personally, I've always had trouble with Whitman and Joyce. Whitman bores me excruciatingly and Joyce makes me impatient. The fault, however, is in myself rather than in the quality of their works. As you say, there is just too much else to read.


message 18: by Carol (new)

Carol Steve wrote: "I agree its a bit crazy that a book whose main theme is peace and neighborly kindness causes so much misery and war. what is the old saying more evil has been performed in the name of religion tha..."

Woah...so true - your first sentence. I found it a hard read, too much interpretation on the part of the reader, yet you must keep an open mind.


message 19: by Longhare (new)

Longhare Content | 107 comments My daughter called from college to express some frustration she was having with a German art history class. There is a lot of Christian symbolism in some of the paintings her class is studying, and it is impossible to correctly interpret the painters' intentions without help from the professor. I'm thinking of compiling a cheat sheet for her, but it would have to be the Hot 100 or some meager sampling.


message 20: by C.J. (new)

C.J. Mendoza (cjoseph17) | 6 comments Falina you have it exactly right. People should first and foremost take the Bible for what it is... a book. At least in the context of the whole world, being that there are a substantial amount of both Christians and non-Christians. Everyone interprets even the plainest words differently especially with books. How you interpret the teachings of the Bible could never be said to be "wrong". We are all entitled to the way we receive information. And if the information in the Bible doesn't teach you to be a Christian... it generally supports the reader to be a better person. Choices in life are made by a cloud of influences that you have gained. Even though I am not a devout Christian, I still see the worth of what the Bible promotes. Not word for word of course but overall lesson to believe in something anything.


message 21: by Asta (new)

Asta You should read it because it gives you the basic knowledge on something that has shaped many societies today. Even though I, myself am an atheist I do have great respect for the bible, but I don't think I would ever be able to read it, simple because I would never be able to get through the old language. I do think even atheists like myself would get something out of this book.


message 22: by Longhare (new)

Longhare Content | 107 comments There was a very beautiful translation of some parts of the Torah by David Rosenberg a few years back. The original Hebrew text was written in an ancient poetic form, which he tries to evoke--but in modern English. It's titled The Literary Bible, and though it looks huge, there is very little text on each page. He provides some commentary on the original texts and on his own translation choices. If you struggle with the KJB or cringe at modern translations, this one is a good way to go--at least for many of the foundational stories in Genesis.


message 23: by Lisa (new)

Lisa (lisadannatt) | 743 comments Longhare wrote: "My daughter called from college to express some frustration she was having with a German art history class. There is a lot of Christian symbolism in some of the paintings her class is studying, and..."

I cold help with a cheat sheet


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