I often sit and look at my books, rather untidily displayed on the four bookcases in my study. Sometimes I think briefly about organizing them according to some more logical system (this feeling passes quickly); sometimes I contemplate actually reading some tome or other that I know I should have read, but have never had the intellectual fortitude to tackle (Ulysses, for example). Mostly, though, I just sit and look. Books give me security, even those that I haven't read: they provide me with a sense--inauthentic, I vaguely know, but still comforting--that all the things I don't understand are nevertheless understood by somebody--the people who wrote those books. So, if I genuinely have to know something, I can always grab one of those volumes and find the answer.
I have never felt, however (at least not in my adult life) that any ONE of those books had ALL of the answers. It takes a whole bookcase...or so...
This morning, as I was staring at the "big book" section of my library, it occurred to me that the very fattest of the big books are, in fact, anthologies--compilations of writings by various authors: The Norton Anthology of American Literature; the Norton Anthology of British Literature; The Vintage Book of Contemporary Poetry; The Complete Works of William Shakespeare; Eighteenth Century French Plays--and, of course, the grandaddy of them all--The Holy Bible, containing the Old and New Testaments, with the Apocryphal / Deuterocanonical Books, New Revised Standard Version.
All of these anthologies, as I recall, contain some pretty good stories--and also a whole lot of junk (yes, c'mon, Coriolanus and The Winter's Tale!!!)--and all were put together by editors who had particular agendas.
Take the Bible, for example. Though various biblical books (and parts of books) had been edited and re-edited over the course of almost 1,000 years, the final and definitive editors were apparently the bishops and "dignities" attending the Synod of Hippo in 393 (whose anthology was, as it were, given a second edition by the Council of Trent in 1546--at least for Catholics ). What was the agenda of these ecclesiastical worthies, I wonder? Did they have to include "junk" just to satisfy current political or religious "correctness"? Probably.
But the stupid stuff shouldn't prevent us from appreciating the good stuff--from the OT: Ruth, Job, Ecclesiastes, stories about Moses and David and Daniel. From the NT: the Sermon on the Mount and the parables and the crucifixion accounts and a couple of Paul's "essays." These are good stories and they point metaphorically to important truths about the human condition.
But dang--they are not historical FACTS (though they may contain some facts) or literal truth. Why do people keep refusing to read the Great Anthology as a collection of meaningful STORIES--stories like Hamlet or Huckleberry Finn, stories that have themes and plots and protagonists and antagonists and messages but that are, nonetheless, essentially fiction--and sometimes rather flawed fiction.
Memory, too, is flawed, I know. We don't remember things as they really were, but rather as it is currently convenient to think they were. Hence, I can't be sure whether the following tale is what actually happened or whether it is a conflation of several related memories--(not entirely unlike most Bible stories, I suppose). Anyway, here's the anecdote.
When I was a teenager, my family belonged to the First Presbyterian Church of Lewiston, Minnesota. The pastor of this little congregation was a rather formidable giant (both physically and intellectually) named John Munchoff who, as I recall, preached tolerance and open-mindedness with a ferocity that was decidedly intolerant. One day, while dutifully affording pastoral counsel to a group of pious ladies (members, I suppose, of the "Dorcas Circle" or the "Martha Circle"), he found himself listening to the awe-inspired testimony of Jessie Jackson, who was excitedly recounting a "miracle" that had happened in her very home. Apparently Mrs. Jackson had made a large batch of dill pickles and had decided to transport them to the basement where they would be stored pending eventual consumption. Unfortunately, at the top of the staircase, she had juggled the jars in her arms and sent one of them tumbling down the entire flight of steps. But lo, the miracle had then occurred: rather than shattering and rendering its contents inedible, the Mason jar had arrived at the basement landing entirely intact. Mrs. Jackson had devoutly thanked Jesus for saving both herself and her pickles.
Reverend Munchoff, undoubtedly anxious to leave this prattling circle, said something offhand about "miracles"--opining that God probably had better things to do than suspend the laws of physics in order to save a jar of dill pickles. This remark, however jokingly offered, deeply wounded Mrs. Jackson. In her distress, she yanked open her Bible and, jabbing desperately at the random text, sputtered, "But the BIBLE SAYS there are miracles." Whereupon Munchoff grabbed the Bible out of her hands and flung it across the room at the wall. "Jessie," he thundered, "the Bible is JUST A BOOK."
In tears, Mrs. Jackson left both the room and the parish, joining--probably that very day--the Evangelical and Reformed Church, where pickle miracles were apparently acknowledged and where the Bible was not regarded as merely a book.