Biblical Literacy: Essential Bible Stories Everyone Needs to Know

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Article Reviews
By Timothy Beal (HarperOne, 2009)

Timothy Beal wants you-to read the Bible. Actually, he's making the case that everybody should. His argument is simple. The Bible is the literary cornerstone of Western culture. It's quoted ubiquitously, from the corridors of politics ("Am I my brother's keeper?") to the neighbor's nightly card game ("The love of money is the root of all evil, pal"). Since scripture is literally inescapable, don't get left behind, Beal urges. Instead, give in, or at least give in to this neatly edited "Best of the Big Book" and find out once and for all why "the writing is on the wall."

One could offer another reason to read Biblical Literacy that the author doesn't advance: to fall in love with the Bible again. Even believers and long-time scripture fans will find plenty to woo them to this excellent selection of texts. Beal does a fabulous job of connecting the dots between pop culture, high-brow literature, music, the art world, current events, and biblical sources. Reading this book becomes a six-degrees-of-separation game: Do you know the link between a remorseful Bill Clinton and Psalm 51? What do William Blake and John Milton have to do with Chariots of Fire and the prophet Elijah?

Some of the connections are deeply consequential. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass found the will to oppose slavery from reading the Bible at age 8, and oppressed souls on every continent have discovered the path to liberation there.

The Bible's a dangerous book in the right hands, the author suggests, so it's wise to arm yourself in kind. And if ideological warfare isn't your game, then come to Biblical Literacy for the provocative questions: Is the story of Jephthah's daughter a noble wartime sacrifice or "a story of stupid death"? Come also for pleasure reading: mystery stories, romance, and high-stakes action. Or just come for the fun facts. Did you know that Joseph's coat wasn't multicolored? The correct translation is "long-sleeved." Who knew?