I’ve recently been reading and enjoying my friend Tim Larsen’s A People of One Book: the Bible and the Victorians. Tim’s thesis is that in major and often unexpected ways, Victorian culture is built around knowledge of and regular reading of the Bible — and this is true across the theological and atheological spectrum. Even when it would appear that the uses of the Bible are ironic — as when Annie Besant says that discovering her vocation as a public proponent of atheism was like Isaiah’s taking up the task of prophesying to Israel — they are rarely as ironic as they might seem to us: Besant really did feel that she didn’t choose her role but was somehow, if mysteriously and explicably, called to it. Similarly, Thomas Henry Huxley was being utterly straightforward when he said that “men of science . . . have our full share of original sin.”

But even if you don’t buy Tim’s argument (which could only be explained by your not having read the book, but never mind that) there’s something fascinating to me about a vast cultural discourse, stretching across social divides and encompassing people of widely varying educational levels, based on knowledge of one book. A big and diverse book, yes, but one book, capable of providing — through names of persons, place-names, phrases, and what have you — reference that could quickly illustrate, and illuminate, almost anyone’s response to almost anything. Just consider Huxley’s remark when, in his famous debate with Samuel Wilberforce, he realized that the Bishop had inadvertently given him the best possible rhetorical advantage: “The Lord hath delivered him into mine hands.” There’s a world of meaning in that.

Today, it seems to me, there is no such truly common cultural currency. Instead, there is currency shared among small groups of initiates into certain mysteries, often meant to exclude others as much as to include the like-minded. This is what song lyrics and South Park quotes are for, after all.


  1. Ah… serendipitously I read this post just after closing Jaron Lanier's You Are Not A Gadget on pp. 46-47, where he talks about Google Books and the threat that it will turn us again into a society with a single book. Not by way of commentary or criticism, but simply to note it, here's the paragraph that concludes that particular argument:

    "The one collective book will absolutely not be the same thing as the library of books by individuals it is bankrupting. Some believe it will be better; others, including me, believe it will be disastrously worse. As the famous line goes from __Inherit the Wind__: "The Bible is a book.. but it is not the only book." Any singular, exclusive book, even the collective one accumulating in the cloud, will become a cruel book if it is the only one available."

  2. In order not to be convinced of Tim's thesis, in addition to not having read his book, one would also, I think, never have read a Victorian novel, or virtually any other book.

    (As a Victorianist, I think the omnipresence of Biblical language/reference is the biggest challenge in teaching these texts–even more so than their sheer length.)

  3. Much of the comedy of Wodehouse, also, is unintelligible without a familiarity with the English Bible — and with hymn-texts, as well!

  4. Is there *more* enjoyment to be derived from reading Wodehous? That can't be!

    I was quite struck when I started reading pre-20th Century literature in English by what even I could tell were constant references to the King James bible. Oddly enough, Italian literature doesn't have that at all, outside of few colloquialisms which hark back to episodes of the bible. (My favourite being lazzarone, the word for lazy, which must come from people hearing "arise, Lazarus" and thinking the guy was simply bone idle. Come to think of it, is that where lazy comes from?).

    But yes, anyway, that: which I guess is not strange at all, simply a consequence of not having had the Reformation.

  5. Our western language, culture, and societal norms would be (and often are now) severely lacking without an intelligent reading and thoughtful pondering of the Bible. We have not only become Biblical illiterates but we've lost our social and moral absolutes as well. And if you had read the New testament you would know what happens to houses built on sand. No other text has the wisdom or power of the Bible.

  6. Richard Dawkins, in his postmodern mythology The God Delusion, devotes a few pages to the influence of Scripture upon the English language and seems to wax a little nostalgic about it. Despite it being ignored by the NY Times bestseller list for eons, despite famous people tearing out its pages, despite burnings, bannings and beheadings, being ignored, edited, commented upon, derided, scorned, blogged about, circulated, translated, reprinted, it's still around. It's still our Book.
    So when culture does once more embrace it full- scale,it would do well to remember the words of L.L. Cool J, who once said of his own resurgence in popularity "Don't call it a comeback, I've been here for years."

  7. My apologies for the unclear pronoun reference in the above comment. "Despite it being ignored…" The "it" is in reference to the Bible, not Dawkins' book.

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