There is an epidemic of people who bash Christianity but haven’t read the Bible.
I don’t care where you stand on faith. I’m not here to convert you. I’m here to improve how you think and educate yourself. If it gives you any comfort, know that I’m not a believer.
I do believe one thing strongly though: Reading the Bible is a contrarian activity that shouldn’t be contrarian at all. You rarely see it on lists of must-read books, partially because people assume there’s no “alpha” in a book that everybody’s read. Even if the Bible is the best-selling book of all time, the majority of highly educated people today, especially in major cities, aren’t familiar with it. Instead, they spend their time with contemporary writing that has a fraction of the depth you’ll find in the Old and New Testaments.
Academia is partially to blame. In the second half of the 20th century, university departments started to prioritize multiculturalism over the teaching of Western civilization. In theory, students would graduate with knowledge of all the major world religions. In practice, students now graduate with superficial knowledge of different cultures that barely goes deeper than anything you’d find on Wikipedia.
Though the intentions of “objective” multiculturalism were worthy, the outcome has been problematic. Universities have become secular cathedrals that mock religious folk instead of trying to understand them. Somehow, I was able to graduate from a top-tier private high school and a solid Liberal Arts university without ever opening the New Testament — half of the West’s most influential book.
I’m not the only one either. Travel through cities like San Francisco (where I grew up) and New York (where I lived for five years), and you’ll find a legion of “hyper-educated” people who have little first-hand knowledge of The Bible— and are proud to have kept it on the shelf.
Embarrassingly, I used to hold this delusional perspective too.
The Bible is a Tree Trunk
Elon Musk was once asked: “How do you learn so fast?”
He replied: “It’s important to view knowledge as a semantic tree. Make sure you understand the fundamental principles, ie the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.”
The Bible is the trunk that branches and leaves hang onto. For example, many of the most trivial and seemingly self-evident ideas come from Christianity. Though just about everybody supports human rights, most people don’t realize that it’s downstream from Judeo-Christian ideas. Human rights are downstream of America’s Declaration of Independence, which is downstream of the ideas in the Bible.
Childhood, too. Of course, we should protect children and give them special care… right? Not so fast. The historian O.M Bakke argues that children were considered nonpeople in ancient Greece, and fathers in Ancient Rome could kill their children for any reason, until they became of age. Only with the invention of Christianity did we start to condemn sexual abuse and infanticide — let alone treating children well. Though ideas like justice in the courtroom and forgiveness in personal relationships have been rationalized by logic, they stem from the Bible.
So much of our worldview unconsciously rests on Christian ideas that I describe them as the dark matter of Western civilization. Astrophysicists posit that there’s something like a mysterious substance floating in space. Though we don’t know exactly how it works, we know it exists because of the way it exerts a gravitational influence on the nighttime sky. Biblical ideas similarly hold up much of the modern world. It’s easy to assume you single-handedly arrived at manners and morality on your own, but every Westerner I know has the fingerprints of Christ all over their worldview. They overestimate the influence of government-ordained law over their life because they forget that even America’s founding documents were constructed through a Christian prism.
Just about every Western book written before World War II assumed Christian knowledge. Familiarity with the Bible is, therefore, a prerequisite for reading any piece of classic literature. How are you supposed to understand Dostoevsky or Paradise Lost if you’re not familiar with the Bible?
Even if you reject Christianity, the Bible is filled with stories that contain more depth than just about anything written today. Take the story of Cain & Abel. You don’t need to believe in God to appreciate its brilliance. In just 18 lines in the book of Genesis, it captures central aspects of the human spirit which cannot be explained by mere rationality. That’s why the story shows up all over the place. In the world of art, just about every major museum will have a painting about it. In the world of movies, the relationship between Scar and Mufasa in The Lion King directly parallels the envy that Cain feels for Abel, which helped it become the highest-grossing animated film of all time. In the world of literature, the Cain & Abel story shows up in the tension Shakespeare creates between Hamlet and King Claudius (in what many consider to be the greatest play of all time), and in the ongoings of the Trask family in East of Eden (which some say is the greatest novel of all time). Practically, Cain & Abel style rivalries are exactly what Peter Thiel tried to avoid when he insisted that every person at PayPal would be responsible for one thing and one thing only.
If you’re a student of history, the Bible is a barometer for the rate of cultural change because it’s a fixed object in a dynamic environment. These days, it feels like our entire culture is in flux. Cultural mores are changing so fast that if you escaped society for 10 years and returned to the average conversation, you’d be labeled as a bigot for saying things they used to take for granted. The same people who strongly condemn the past for their backward views don’t realize that the same thing is going to happen to us in the future. Perhaps, even stronger because we’ve become so unhinged.
When we blindly trust people’s changing interpretations of the Bible instead of pointing to the static text itself, we become like confused army ants. Since they’re blind, they rely on pheromones to keep up with the ants in front of them. Sometimes, the ants get off track and walk in a circular death trap until they die from exhaustion.
Go to the Source
Whatever you do, don’t take the shortcut of only looking at how Christians act. Doing so is lazy because every Christian falls short of the teachings of Christ, and the majority of them aren’t actually familiar with what the Bible says. Too many use the Bible as a self-help book that they read whenever they need a pick-me-up, while others use it mainly as a tool to manipulate others or make more money.
If you doubt the influence of Christianity on your life, remember that it’s so foundational that it even frames our perspective on time and space. We calculate the year by counting how many times the earth has rotated around the sun since the birth of Christ. When we talk about geography, we reference “East and West” in relation to Christ’s birthplace.
Ignoring the Bible is one of the biggest mistakes that smart people make — and they’re proud to make it too.
Familiarity with it is table stakes for becoming an educated person. Even if you think Christianity is the scourge of civilization, your crusade against it will be stronger if you know what the Bible actually says. A core teaching of any Debate 101 class is that you’ll be a much stronger participant if you understand the other side’s arguments better than they do.
There’s big upside in reading the Bible too. If you’re looking for alpha, you’ll find it between Genesis at the beginning and Revelations at the end, both because the ideas are so weighty and because so many otherwise educated people reject it.
The lesson is simple: Stop rushing towards hot new hardcovers and pick up the book that built Western Civilization instead. No matter where you stand on religion, if you don’t know what the Bible actually says, it’s time to change that.
Cover Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash