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"Biblical Illiteracy or Reading the Bestseller"

ABC News, June 2007

There has been a great deal of froth lately about how "God Is Not Great" and how religions have made a rot of peace. The argument is fizzy yet hardly new: The world is a mess, and it has become so through those who believe in God. Well, fine.

No doubt God can take this notion on the chin and move on if He is indeed God. If there is a God, and for me—a confirmed Presbyterian—there is one, He isn't losing sleep over these polemics.

What I find interesting in all this is that in one principal regard I am allied with Christopher Hitchens, the thoughtful atheist, Harold Bloom, the conservative literary critic, and most recently, Stephen Prothero, the author of "Religious Literacy," because the lot of us seem to believe that God's book is, if not great, highly relevant.

In 1995, I quit being a corporate lawyer to write fiction. At the time, I was 26 years old, married for a scant two years, and childless. I was full of beans and certain that my novel would come fast and come excellent. Early each morning, I said goodbye to my husband who went to work as a junior salesman at a bank and then approached the desk.

The whole day stretched ahead of me like a blinding white canvas, and I had at least seven or eight hours before I did my bit of housework and cooking. I had written essays in high school and a few stories in college. I knew nothing about writing a novel.

What I was learning in this period was that you can't know how to write a novel until you actually write one.

Quite a conundrum. I was scared and literally alone.

The small apartment was painfully quiet. So I drank coffee, ate a bowl or two of oatmeal, then began my stack of reading: The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, a few letters of Vincent Van Gogh to his brother Theo from the Bulfinch three-volume set, then a chapter of the Bible.

Writers do many things to put off their writing: make tea, wash dishes, vacuum, fold laundry, bake cookies then eat said cookies. Well, I did those things, and I read, too. The newspapers connected me to the corporate New York world I had just left; Vincent's letters to Theo gave me a sense of companionship and instruction about what it meant to choose a life of art when success was impossibly out of reach; and the Bible—that's harder to explain.

It started because I'd read that Willa Cather, the early 20th century American novelist, began her writing day by reading a passage of the Bible. Cather was born into a Baptist family and converted to Episcopalianism when she was almost 50. She was an editor, a journalist and a novelist. No pious church mouse, Cather co-authored a critical biography of Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science.

It was so harsh that angry Christian Scientists attempted to buy up every copy. (That's one way to sell books.) I say all this here, because Cather, a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, a critic of a significant Christian group, a managing editor of McClure's, read the Bible regularly and admitted its profound influence on her work. And somehow, knowing that this great woman writer—a deep thinker and creative artist—studied this book habitually encouraged me to begin reading its stories.

I hate being told what to do. When I hear people talking about books I should read, the things I should know, behaviors I should adopt, places I should visit, I immediately and not so privately either, curl my lip and furrow my brow.

I am close to 40 years old, and my inner adolescent sneers at prescribed reading lists. So if you told me that biblical illiteracy is shameful, because politics, art, literature, film and economics are all influenced by this text, I would nod, but it would hardly induce me to dust off a copy.

As a Christian, I am respectful of yet made uncomfortable by the infinitely wide-ranging religious interpretations of the Good Book and frankly, I am allergic to many of the Bible's staunch proponents. I have no interest in pushing the Bible on schoolchildren in the way we make them read Greek mythology or study immigration -- lovely, safer subjects. As a parent of a 9-year-old boy, I don't care for the Bible to be taught in private, parochial or public schools to children of a certain age -- even as old as middle school. If it were taught at a college level, I am far more in favor of it, but only because college-age students are highly skeptical creatures, and I rather like skepticism.

I guess, what I think gets lost in all this finger-pointing, nay saying, browbeating and one-upmanship about God, no God, He's great or not so great, is that the book is a terrific read. Can I give God a blurb? The book is fun, engrossing, a page-turner, five-stars, and it's an international bestseller with a deserved readership.

The first five books of the Old Testament -- the Pentateuch or Torah -- are glorious literature with characters fully realized, fallible, and far too human to be gods. The image of God Himself is prismatic to behold: He is worried, jealous, angry, delighted, loving, cuckolded, disappointed, grief-stricken, frustrated, patient, kind and eternal.

He is often hurt by His creation. Also, there is poetry, family rivalry, inheritance struggle, adultery, friendship, betrayal, incest, finance, architecture, military strategy, work, legal history and narrative of monarchies. Taken on its whole, the themes of irony, love, suffering, compassion, forgiveness, justice and vengeance abound.

The Bible is a book that is fully engaging, and it is crafted in exquisite prose. The authorship of the Bible is comprised of many different men (no women are known to have contributed) but it is argued by believers that all of the words are inspired by God Himself. If Americans had a higher level of biblical literacy, it is likely that we would better appreciate Tolstoy, Shakespeare, political speeches and yes, our current foreign policy. Sure. Absolutely. But that just sounds like more anodyne reasons to eat your greens.

It was 12 years ago that I quit being a lawyer. In that time, I have attempted four novel manuscripts—two in pieces and two in whole, and thank heavens, last month, my debut novel, "Free Food for Millionaires," was published.

Also in that time I have read what must be mile-high stacks of newspapers and the hundreds of letters of Van Gogh. And this morning, before I began my writing day, I read a chapter of the Bible—now finding myself in the midst of my third round of reading this fat book with its silvery onion skin pages from beginning to end.

Among others, Cather was influenced by the Bible, Virgil and Henry James. I have been influenced by the Bible and a host of 19th and 20th century writers including Cather. It pleases me to see our connection—a link I forged by imitating her small ritual of inspiration or procrastination. It pleases me also to share a knotty strand with Hitchens, Bloom, Prothero and Cather: We writers may disagree about some fundamentals, but we can concede to the fineness of a book.

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