I listened to a very cool NPR podcast today (yes, those words do totally go together). Talk of the Nation host Neal Conan was interviewing a young man named Avi Steinberg about his experiences working in the library of the Suffolk County House of Corrections near Boston. Steinberg has just released a book about the same topic.
During the interview, a former prison inmate called in to share his own story: he’d spent several years in the penitentiary, during which he discovered and further developed a love for 18th century Russian literature. Steinberg wasn’t surprised at all. He recounted his own love of “the classics”, which he attributed to his Orthodox Jewish upbringing. Growing up reading Talmudic texts, he explained, imbued him with a lifelong love of historical literature. He went on to say this: “There’s something about finding something familiar in an ancient text… Everything about it can be different [referring the culture in which it was written], and yet something about it seems familiar. There’s something profound about that.” Yes.
That’s exactly the revelation that I had when reading the Bible cover to cover for the first time last year. I was raised in church and have called myself a Christian for as long as I can remember, but I’ve never actually studied the Bible. I attended college at a Christian university that required me to take two semesters of Bible Survey, but even with a grade on the line I hadn’t taken the time to read any more than was on my study guide. I was missing out.
What I discovered while reading even the most ancient books of the Bible was that people are people are people. Job – namesake of what many scholars believe to be the oldest book in the Bible – could just as soon be a businessman living in the American Midwest today dealing with a bad economy, troubled kids, ailing parents, and a looming bank foreclosure.
Beyond escapism, the reason our generation watches so many movies and reads so many books is because we relate to them. We see people struggling onscreen with the same kinds of problems we have or read about it books and newspapers and we take solace in the fact that we’re not alone. The same principal applies to the Bible – to an even greater degree, I believe – because it also contains an illustration of the ideal to which we should hold ourselves. It’s chock full of stories that we can not only relate to, but in which we can find solutions to most of the problems we face. (Not easy solutions, mind you, and not necessarily relief from the pain of this life, but at least a way to thrive in spite of it.)
I’ve had a great time getting familiar with Biblical stories that I took for granted for a long time. Just like Avi Steinberg, it’s been profound to me to discover familiarity in something as old as the Bible. It’s amazing to think that I’ve got so much in common with the same people who actually wandered around in the wilderness with Moses and helped Nehemiah rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. And it reminds me how relevant the Bible is to us all.