Is a 'secular bible' good enough?

By Maggi Dawn
April 8, 2011

Professor A C Grayling’s new book has been published this week – The Good Book: A Secular Bible. Laid out in the same format as the real Bible, in columns with chapters and verses, he has taken non-theistic moral advice from writers down the ages, and edited it together with a good bit of his own writing.

Many of the writers he has drawn on are indeed great thinkers. But is it convincing to translate, rephrase and edit them together (without much clue as to their sources) as a replacement for the Bible?

Grayling apparently believes that what he has done by redacting these works and adding his own edits is quite the same as the Bible, except without the theistic element – thus providing an alternative moral code for those who don’t believe in God. There is nothing wrong with that as an aim, but it suggests that Grayling fails to understand either the nature and purpose, or the evolution of, the real Bible.

The real Bible , unlike Grayling’s alternative, was not edited together by one author who then added his own material. The various texts that make up the Bible were edited a number of times by whole schools of teachers, but none of these were even alive by the time the selection of the biblical canon took place.

The scriptures were chosen long after they were written as the books that had risen as the cream of the crop, those which self-evidently gave an account of the salvation of real, fallible, flawed and all-too-human people. If there’s one massive flaw in Grayling’s scheme to create a “secular Bible”, it is including his own writing: not one of those involved in selecting the Bible’s contents had the gall to promote themselves by including themselves in scripture. The Bible includes only texts that had been tried and tested by whole communities before being endorsed. What’s more, wherever a biblical author was actually known they were credited (one of the glaring flaws in Grayling’s text) – it was only the time-honoured community histories that were left as anonymous re-tellings.

Grayling’s text is a thin imitation of the Bible in terms of its historical evolution, then. But he also has a curiously caricatured view of its content – believing, it seems, that its main purpose is moral advice and instructions on how to live a good life. He also believes the Bible is irrelevant for the modern secular reader because he finds it unsympathetic to the reality of human experience. It doesn’t (according to him) acknowledge our sexuality or our human appetites, but warns us away from human experience “lest the devil get hold of us”.

What is needed, says Grayling, is moral advice to help us to moderate such weaknesses while acknowledging our human flaws. So, for instance, Grayling’s own Ten Commandments read: “”Love well, seek the good in all things, harm no others, think for yourself, take responsibility, respect nature, do your utmost, be informed, be kind, be courageous: at least, sincerely try.” Yet the Bible, in my opinion, actually does a better job than this of setting a standard for moral behaviour while also acknowledging human weakness – not by making its commandments limp, but by aiming for the stars but also including a record of endless, gracious forgiveness and second chances.

I am well aware that I am not perfect – but I still want to be challenged to greatness. There’s nothing inspiring in being told, “Try your best to be good even though I know you’re going to fail”. The real Bible endorses over and over again the goodness of human love, compassion, fidelity and justice; it calls for more freedom for women, children and slaves than the prevailing cultures in which it was written, and outright condemns the abuse of power by kings and lords. And when it comes to sympathetic understanding of human frailty, yes, it does that too. Jesus, the Epistle to the Hebrews tells us, is not ”unable to empathise with our weaknesses, but … has been tempted in every way, just as we are…” and therefore we are invited to approach God without fear, but “with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”

This first century writer clearly believed that human beings are full of weaknesses and need help – and that God is kind, empathetic, and willing and able to help us. But that did not stop the Biblical authors following through with the further inspiration to “Be perfect!” I don’t know about you but I want to be believed in, not patronised.

The Bible is full of human weakness and failure – indeed, isn’t it precisely the tales of human catastrophe and cruelty that atheists are always so upset about? The times when people murder and pillage in the name of God? But at the same time it’s full of one promise after another that the human race really can aspire to greatness, and that God will ultimately endorse and redeem all that is good. As Giles Fraser so neatly pointed out on BBC Radio 4 recently, the Bible is not a book of moral advice on how to live a better life. It’s an account of how very messed up, all-too-human people are saved, rescued, often despite themselves.

In seeking moral advice there would be nothing more disheartening, I think, than reading the words of someone who always knows better and is never, never wrong; nothing more patronising than being told to try your best to be good even though the author confidently predicts you are going to mess it up anyway. How much more inspiring to be dared to be excellent; how much more reassuring to read of the story of redemption of whole crowds of people – the failures and the misfits as well as the good and the wise – who were saved not by being smarter and cleverer than all the rest, but because they realised that without grace and forgiveness they didn’t stand a chance.

What A. C. Grayling never seems able to own up to, in his determination to rewrite human history without religion in it, is that religion is not something that we were born with that we need to grow out of, it is something that people create because they seek meaning. Perhaps that is why – for those who are not furious with religion - the Bible is still a great read and an inspiration even if they don’t believe in God. Writer Jeanette Winterson, for example, is quoted by Genevieve Fox as saying:

I do not think the inner life edited by AC Grayling is how I want to live. What secularists forget about Christianity is that belief in that system prompted the creation of an astounding body of imaginative work that in turn uplifts and alters the human spirit.

I do not believe in a sky god but the religious impulse in us is more than primitive superstition. We are meaning-seeking creatures and materialism plus good works and good behaviour does not seem to be enough to provide meaning. We shall have to go on asking questions but I would rather that philosophers like Grayling asked them without the formula of answers.

As for the Bible, it remains a remarkable book and I am going to go on reading it.

A book that aims to introduce the great philosophical writers is always going to be welcome – philosophy is a little harder to read than the back of a cereal packet. It is not the non-theistic philosophy that is dismaying in Grayling’s tome, it’s the sheer failure of imagination of someone who will dismiss the Bible as mumbo jumbo while putting their own uninspiring prose out there as an alternative.

That, I think, is why Bishop Mike Hill pokes fun at Grayling’s hubristic bluster. Grayling, says Hill, …apparently seriously believes that everybody can and should understand philosophy, “Anybody could read Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics in the bath, it’s great stuff”. And he thinks we’re away with the fairies!


© Maggi Dawn is an Anglican priest, writer, theologian, broadcaster and regular speaker at the Greenbelt Festival. She became Chaplain at Robinson College, Cambridge, in September 2003. Her latest book is The Writing on the Wall (Hodder and Stoughton, 2010). Maggi has kept a blog since September 2003, writing about theology and faith, the arts and literature, "and a little about life and random nonsense" - It is number 14 in the March 2011 Wikio Top Religious Blogs.

More on The Writing on the Wall: In an increasingly secularised society few people have a good working knowledge of the Bible. Yet a great deal of our culture is built on stories or ideas that come from the Bible. Literature, art, music, language and even the fabric of our society - such as our justice system - are built on Christian concepts and biblical references. The Writing on the Wall provides an introduction to the Bible's best-known, and most influential, stories. Each chapter gives some background to the text of the Bible, and shows how the stories have become enmeshed in Western culture. Adam and Eve, the ten plagues of Egypt, The Prodigal Son and Mary Magdalene all feature - along with how the Bible has influenced everyone from Shakespeare to Monty Python, and Caravaggio to Banksy.

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