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by William H. Benson

May 3, 2012

     In January of 1604 the English King, James I, instructed a committee of 54 men, “That a translation be made of the whole Bible, as consonant as can be to the original Hebrew and Greek.” Seven years later, on May 2, 1611, 401 years ago yesterday, that committee published the authorized English version, the King James Bible, and it remained preeminent until the latter half of the twentieth century.

     Most religions, such as Christianity, are based upon texts or Scriptures, usually writings that originated in the distant past, much like the King James Bible. People then will extract from those texts certain principles, doctrines, creeds, covenants, interpretations, and supplemental works, which they then expect other people to believe. This is the case for literate people of all ages.

     For example, in ancient Greece, people read, studied, and believed Homer’s Iliad with as much intensity and devotion as Christians read and study the Old and New Testaments today.

     The subject of literature is equally textual-based. People of the past wrote down words, and their words have been read and studied by generations of people who wish to understand that writer’s mind. There were the Greeks—Plato and Aristotle; the Christian writer—St. Augustine; the English writers—Chaucer and Shakespeare; the French writers—Montaigne and Balzac; the Russians—Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Dostoyevsky; and the Americans—Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Whitman, Melville, and Twain.

     So we have religion with its Scriptures, and we have literature with a secular scripture, the Western Canon. The first is reserved for the church, synagogue, meeting-house, and temple, and the latter is restricted to the library, college, and the university. The two rarely meet or communicate.

     The literary critic seeks to find, according to the Yale scholar Harold Bloom, that “irreducibly aesthetic dimension in plays, poems, and narratives,” or in other words that which is beautiful, close to the ideal. The religious critic “must seek for the irreducibly spiritual dimension in religious matters.”

     Another difference is that literature does not ask anyone to believe in a life after death with punishments or rewards to follow, or in the existence of divine beings. Literary critics can only go so far. They can point out the flaws in a writer’s work, can identify the plot’s winding intricacies and the skillfully-drawn characters, and they can either approve or disapprove of a writer’s attempts to tell a story or write a poem or present a history, but those are the limits of their authority.

     In the horse race between literature and religion, religion wins every time. People are far more attracted to religion than to literature, mainly, I think, because religion offers hope, a life beyond the grave, a point that the great works of eminent writers lay no claim to. It is with that conclusion that we can then say that “literature . . . can seem oddly irrelevant. It is religion that matters.”

     Thomas Carlyle said, “A man lives by believing something, not by debating and arguing about many things.” Seneca said, “Every man prefers belief to the exercise of judgment.” And George Bernard Shaw said, “Reading made Don Quixote a gentlemen, but believing what he read made him mad.”

     Literature is meant to be read, not believed. A man, woman, boy, or girl, seated in a library’s corner alone with the text, reads in order to know that author’s mind. Sometimes literature, such as a play or a poem, is performed on stage, and those in the audience may experience that which the ancient Greeks called a catharsis, a release of that tension which the characters by their voices produce.

     Americans watch a dozen or more movies and programs every week for what? To see a mystery solved, a killer identified, a guy and a girl driven apart by circumstances but then magically reunited, and other dire human problems all sorted out in the show’s final three minutes.

     But that form of quasi-catharsis is a far cry from that which worshipers experience at a church service, when, according to William James, “they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.”

     Some things are better off left unwritten. So said Plato. “He who has knowledge of the just and the good and beautiful . . . will not write them in ink, sowing them through a pen with words, which cannot defend themselves by argument and cannot teach the truth effectually.” Now that is profound.

     Overshadowing both literature and religion though is politics, because it is now, immediate, right in your face. The politicians can transform our lives, take away our jobs and security, upset our comfort levels, and sequester our bodies into a place we would rather not go, simply by imposing higher taxes, dragging us into a war, or carting us off to prison. Politics trumps all texts.


     Albert Einstein said, “One must divide one’s time between politics and equations. But our equations are much more important to me, because politics is for the present, while our equations are for eternity.” Literature and religion, like Einstein’s mathematical equations, are also for eternity, or at least for as long as the human species survives.