Wednesday, 6 July 2011

An Atheist’s Favourite Bible Verses: #1

Why would an atheist enjoy reading the Bible?  I’m not talking about the kind of smirking enjoyment some people seem to get by cataloguing the verses where God commands his followers to do awful things.  Those kind of lists are useful, I suppose, but in anything other than a theological debate they miss the point: the Bible is first and foremost a story.  Like any story it has its moments of blood and violence, darkness and hopelessness, love and death.  It is interesting; it is beautiful; it is, on occasion, even true.  The King James Version especially is written incredibly well, and it is from that that I wish to draw a verse that is both poetical and insightful.
I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
Ecclesiastes 9:11
This is, coincidentally, the verse that George Orwell – famously agnostic – cited as an example of excellent writing.  In his essay Politics and the English Language he renders that verse in ‘modern English’.  I believe that the best way to appreciate a skilfully-crafted sentence is to see it in contrast with a sentence of worse quality, so I will reproduce Orwell’s rewording here:
Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must be taken into account.
There may, of course, be someone who considers this second version better, but I would not wish to discuss poetry with them.  Some of the merits of the original verse – directness of language, clarity of expression, richness of examples – should now be clear. 
Let’s look at the cadence or rhythm of the verse. Each middle clause has two distinct areas of emphasis – and saw under the sun | that the race is not to the swift – which are linked together by meaning.  The first clause – I returned – can be read as a kind of warm-up to the beat of the next six clauses.  After the sixth we have the final clause, separated from the rest of the sentence by a semi-colon.  Rhythmically, I would read it as two iambs, a dactyl and an anapaest:
           but time and chance happeneth to them all.
The sound of it somehow brings a satisfying end to such a long sentence.  Try tapping the strong and weak beats out on a hard surface; it’s almost like a concluding drumroll.
What about the meaning of the verse?  Coming from the most existential chapter of the Bible – the chapter that brought us “vanity, vanity, all is vanity” – it’s a statement about the unreliability of everything.  Spend years building up your strength?  You still might not win the battle.  Study your whole life?  There’s still a significant chance you’ll end up poor and alone.  The verse gives no indication that God will protect the sufficiently devout. “Time and chance” are uncontrollable forces that can, in one stroke, ruin your hopes.
It’s a sobering message, expressed beautifully, and that’s why it’s my favourite Bible verse.  Even though I’m an atheist.

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