I arrived a few minutes late for the meeting with the hippie roofer.  Two many DUIs had cost him his driver’s license, and I had to take him to the home-improvement store.  “Been to church?” he asked.  Dressed in a suit at 10:30 on Sunday morning, I was forced to admit the fact.  “I’ve read the Bible; I’ve read both bibles,” he said in a tone that suggested he was just making conversation.

“Both bibles?”

“Yeah, your Bible and Anton LaVey’s.”

“You mean The Satanic Bible?”

“Yeah, is that a problem?  I’m not a Satanist, but, you know, they’ve got a legitimate point of view.  Does that offend you?”

“Stupidity doesn’t really offend me, but let me ask you a question: Why would anyone want to identify with a being, when the only sources of information we have about him—the Jewish and Christian traditions—make him the enemy of the human race?  If the Bible is just fiction, then so is Satan, but if it is more or less real, then Satan leads the pack of demons ‘who prowl through the world seeking the ruin of souls.’  It stands to reason, doesn’t it, that anyone who puts himself on Satan’s side will do you any harm he can?”

The budding Satanist pretended to be convinced, but I was not at all surprised when I caught him trying to steal stuff he claimed to have forgotten to pick up from the store.

For nearly two millennia, there has been great contention over the origins, composition, authenticity, and meaning of the Bible.  Since the Renaissance, the ancient argument has reopened about the very nature of the Scriptures.  Are they the record of divine revelation or a compendium of errors and superstition?

The answer given by the modern scribal class depends on their sense of job security.  In the 19th century, Harvard professors spoke in enigmatic and oracular terms about the mysteries of the Bible, which they tended to treat as a crude reflection of the deeper truths revealed in the Upanishads or Buddhist texts.  Since World War II, however, tenured faculty, responsible neither to the taxpayers nor to the university’s trustees, have been able to air their contempt with greater freedom than Diderot and d’Holbach ever dreamed of enjoying.  And, since it is the mark of the academic mind never to know what it is talking about, the profs who most despise the Bible are precisely those who know it the least.

Such serious questions are too deep for a humble man to ponder.  It is enough for a Christian (whether priest or layman) to do as he is told, heeding the wisdom passed down by men wiser and better than I am or (to tell the plain truth) wish to be.  There is one little controversy, however, that does lie within my feeble grasp, and it is this: Whatever we think the Bible may be, should we all still be reading it, in and out of school?  The conventional response is to say that Christians by all means should read their own Scriptures, but they should not impose this burden on non-Christians, especially atheists or those cowardly atheists who take refuge in the term agnostic.

The opposite, actually, is closer to the truth.  It is Christians who should be most cautious about reading the Good Book.  If it is really the divine revelation they say they think it is, then they had better drop all those free and easy references that pastors and priests and Sunday School teachers are so wont to indulge in.  When I listen, sometimes, to Billy Bible trying to talk some scriptural sense into Joe Sixpack, I wonder who is kidding whom—that is, who is less respectful.

Think about it for half a minute.  For Christians of every stripe, the Bible represents a power far greater than all the nuclear weapons ever made, but these missionary Billys have no hesitation about drawing out trivial meanings from difficult passages or prooftexting their way through the Scriptures to prove that welfare-state socialism or democratic capitalism, music-free church services or abstention from alcohol, are of divine institution.  They put up cutely sanctimonious billboards that are as blasphemous as a George Carlin routine.  If familiarity with the Scriptures breeds such contempt for the Bible, perhaps they would be better off memorizing a cut-and-dried catechism and leaving the Scriptures to people who take the text seriously.

Putting all questions of the Bible’s truth, authenticity, and inspiration aside—if I were a philosopher (Stoic or phenomenologist) I would say I was bracketing them—I am going to make the very simple statement that the Bible is a classic of Western culture, perhaps even the classic.  In diminishing its stature and in discouraging familiarity with it, anti-Christian atheists have done far more damage than they have by their rather puerile attempts at philosophy.

The word classic has been so degraded that it can refer to a 1930’s dress or a 1950’s comic book.  Strictly speaking, a classic is a literary work that is indispensable to a people and its culture.  The West has some very great literature, but only a few of our books can be described as indispensable in the sense that we would live in a different sort of culture if we lacked them.  That is, or should be, what we mean by the term literary canon: not an arbitrary set of pretty good books or even great books, but a set of works that not only set the standard of excellence for all time but define the character and quality of the people who are brought up on them.

Apart from the Bible, the epics of Homer and Vergil are ancient classics; so are the plays of Sophocles, the dialogues of Plato, and the odes of Horace.  The literary canon is not fixed permanently like the scriptural canon.  The Greek comic Menander, whose work was once essential reading, was known for 1,500 years only by way of Latin imitations.  Big chunks of his plays were recovered in the past century, but poor Menander has been sent to the showers, probably permanently.  People lucky enough to have learned Greek preserve the ancient reverence for Pindar and Aeschylus, but they had little direct influence on the Renaissance (and then, not always a wholesome influence), and they do not translate well.  Let us say, preserving the baseball metaphor, that they are on the disabled list.

If some classic writers have been benched, rookies have come in to take their places. There is a short list of more recent classic writers—Dante and Shakespeare would be on it, and, if one is French or can at least read French, Racine and Molière.  Each nation has its own peculiar classics—for the Italians Manzoni’s I promessi sposi is more important than any single book in English is for English-speakers, while we Americans have to content ourselves with the thinner gruel of Melville, Hawthorne, and Twain.

The classics, then, are to be distinguished from what cultural conservatives like to call the Great Books, usually American novels like Moby-Dick or Huckleberry Finn.  If you talk to high-school English teachers, anything in the curriculum can be a classic: The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye, or even The Diary of Anne Frank.  I have good news for my readers: You do not have to read any of them.  Scott Fitzgerald was a fine novelist, of course, and J.D. Salinger, at his best, knew how to craft a pretty good story, but the civilization that chugged along for centuries before Gatsby and Catcher could keep on chugging for another millennium without them.  Raymond Chandler, when he was chided for not attempting more ambitious fiction, remarked that the great modernists were not exactly Pindar.  The creator of Philip Marlowe knew what he was talking about, since he had learned Greek as a schoolboy in England.

There are, in fact, two literary canons: the slowly evolving traditional canon that includes Vergil and Dante, and the modern revolutionary canon—which really should be called the anticanon—that includes whatever writers serve the revolution.  If your aim is to destroy sexual restraint and with it the family, then you absolutely must read Montaigne, Les Liaisons dangereuses, and the 10,000 feminist exercises in bad prose and false sentiment—from Kate Chopin to Alice Walker—that are promoted in college English departments.  If you are inspired primarily by hatred of Christianity, then Montaigne again can head the list (as he does every revolutionary list), followed by Voltaire, Sinclair Lewis, Anton LaVey, and all those dozens of creepy New York novelists we were supposed to admire a generation ago.  (Does anyone still read Philip Roth?)

Canons, as I observed earlier, can and must evolve, but when they are deliberately and dramatically altered, the object is cultural revolution.  The first attempt in this direction was contemplated by Christians.  How difficult it must have been to denounce the evils of paganism, while yet forcing Christian children to study the pagan classics.  Augustine, before his conversion, was a teacher of rhetoric and an amateur student of Plato.  He toyed with the idea of a purely Christian curriculum, but it was impractical.  How was an educated man, one who regarded Plato and Plotinus as divinely inspired, going to repudiate the literary traditions that had created him?  In the fourth book of De doctrine christiana, he tries to show that the poetry of the Old Testament, translated into Latin, and the rhetoric of the prophets and the apostles is superior to the Greek and Latin classics.  He refutes himself, first by using classical rhetorical terms as his criteria, and second, by telling Christians not to imitate the obscurity of the Scriptures.

Neither Augustine nor any other of the Fathers ever went further than to incorporate the Scriptures and the best Christian writers into the canon.  That is because the Christian religion is a spiritual and moral revolution and not a political, social, or cultural revolution.  While it is hard to speak of a medieval canon, Vergil and Cicero were always studied, along with the great Latin fathers (Ambrose, Jerome, and of course Augustine) as well as a miscellany of postclassical writers of varying quality.

Petrarch took the first steps toward restoring ancient civilization.  He purified his Latin style, sought out old manuscripts of important writers, and tried to learn Greek.  His disciples also reformed the medieval curriculum.  This need not have been the revolution it became.  Scholastic philosophers, who refined and improved upon Aristotle, should never have been proclaimed barbarous, and it was a serious mistake to turn a living tradition of medieval Latin into the glorious funeral monument it soon became.  In Petrarch’s time, the literate classes wrote and even spoke Latin; two centuries later, Latin prose and verse was being written only by the very learned, and the precocious young Erasmus was punished for writing Latin so eloquent and correct that his teachers could not understand him.

England, during her Reformation, completed the revolution that the humanists had begun.  The works of the scholastics and other medieval writers were burned, and every effort made to efface the thousand difficult years in which good men had worked to keep the Faith alive and transmit it in coherent form.  However, the Bible, now the only source of religious authority, not only came through unscathed, but became, unquestionably, the most widely read book in Europe.

The Greek and Latin classics were not touched by the double revolution of Renaissance and Reformation: During the Renaissance nothing was more avant-garde than a good Latin style and a command of Greek.  Even the leaders of the French Revolution, obsessed as they were with the models of ancient Rome and Sparta, were enthusiasts for classical learning.  Robespierre had won prizes as a student, and the part-Greek poet André Chénier, something of a prodigy, beat out Camille Desmoulins for a Paris-wide prize.

The Bible was a different story.  The leaders of the revolution, in secularizing French education, institutionalized the Enlightenment.  Robespierre’s civil religion, which rested on rational deism, had little use for a difficult and complicated set of scriptures that could not be reduced to simple principles derived from Descartes and the encyclopedia.  Bibles were publicly burnt in many parts of France, and Joseph Fouché (“the butcher of Lyons”) tied one to an ass’s tail and had it dragged through the streets, a humiliation normally reserved for moral offenders.

It was not in revolutionary France but in revolutionary America that the first shots against the classical curriculum were fired.  More radical democrats denounced the classics, on which Adams and Jefferson still doted, as incompatible with the needs of the New Democratic Man whom Franklin and Paine were promising.  Paine, who is still revered by many American conservatives, inveighed against the stupidity and errors of the Christian Scriptures, and his spiritual descendant, Abraham Lincoln, composed a book lampooning the Virgin Birth and other Christian “myths.”  The tradition of these revolutionary skeptics has been kept alive by the village atheists who make up the faculty of every major university in America.

There was a time, not so long ago, when one could be a Christian and yet applaud the wisdom of Montaigne and celebrate the statesmanship of Lincoln; one might even defend the First Amendment rights of Howard Stanton Levey (to give the old humbug his real name).  For good or ill, those days are gone, and willy-nilly we make our choice, for the canon or the anticanon, the Christ or the Antichrist.