God’s Holy Library

The Bible is a book made up up books. It is, to say the same thing another way, a compilation. “Bible” points to the unity; compilation to the diversity. I think both notions are valuable and I’d like to think about then a little.

When I was young, the reader of the biblical text for the day would preface the reading by saying, “Listen to the word of God.” I didn’t have any trouble understanding that. The Bible is the word of God. He is going to read from the Bible and wants us to listen. Everything makes sense.

Then they changed it. They began to say, “Listen FOR the word of God.” I was very conservative as a child and that change bothered me. It implied that what you were reading is not really the word of God, but it it “contains,: or might possibly contain, the word of God.  I like the “for the word of God” formulation better now, but then I am no longer either young or conservative.

If the Bible has a unity, and for Christian believers it does, the unity is in the God who reveals Himself by means of all these kinds of books. “So it is,” records the prophet Isaiah, “with the word that goes forth from [God’s] mouth: it will not return to me unfulfilled or before having …achieved what it was sent to do.”[1] I said there was a unity and a diversity. There is the unity. It is God who speaks.

library 2But because the Bible is a book made up of books, it is also a kind of library. [2] That is why I flinch from conservatives who say, “The Bible says…” and then cite something the Bible says, about which the Bible also says something else. The double accounts of creation and the double accounts of David’s kingship and the double accounts of Jesus’s cleansing the temple are all famous, but there are many many more.

Then too, a lot of the Bible is offered in literary forms that are not meant to be taken in any propositional way. Did it really take three days to walk across Nineveh? Wasn’t the teller of that tall tale looking for guffaws when he ended the story with God saying, “So why should I not be concerned for Nineveh, the great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, to say nothing of all the animals?”

“…to say nothing of the animals?” Really? The notes that introduce the book of Jonah in my New Jerusalem Bible call it “A light satire, with no pretensions to being historical.” On the other hand, it has a point. And about the point, God may very well say that it [the story of Jonah] will not return without achieving what it was sent to do.

OK. That was the serious part. The Bible, being a library of books, does God’s will in all thelibrary 4 ways it must be done, including telling really great preposterous stories. So I got to thinking about the Bible as a library and then I got to thinking how you would classify various books if you gave them Dewey Decimal numbers. [2] That’s when the fun really started for me.

Here are some I liked especially.

Old Testament: Genesis I put in the 398s. Mythology. Designating something as “mythology” doesn’t mean it isn’t true. It means it isn’t true in the way an empirical study is true. It’s a broad brush account of our origins as a species and of the introduction of evil into a good world. There is a very good parallel in the movie, The Matrix. It shows you what questions need to be answered. When you go back to Genesis, you say, “Hey, that’s pretty good.”

Exodus would be in the 910s,  Travel. Also Isaiah. If there are sub-designations that specify travel in Egypt or travel in Babylonia, I didn’t look hard enough to find them. Egypt and Babylon are the two prominent foreign destinations of the Israelites. For Israel, a “foreign destination” is just “a place to return from.”

Jonah, as Fiction, goes in FIC, as most small libraries designate it.

I would put Leviticus and Numbers in the 340s, in the section for Law.

Song of Solomon would go in a section for Erotica if there were a single section for erotica. Here is the advice of Gwen B on Yahoo eight years ago: “The Sexuality section, usually around 306 and 612 in the Dewey Decimal system.”

Proverbs goes exactly in 398.9. That one is for Proverbs. Also there are lots of self-help designations that would work. I found Dealing with People You Can’t Stand at 302.3, so I might start at that shelf. Better to be poor and walk in integrity
than to be crooked in one’s ways even though rich. (Proverbs 28:6)

Psalms are Poetry, of course, so 809.1 would be a good place.

As a special treat, I will pass along that I found an odd designation at 256. It says “256, not assigned or no longer used.” I can think of a lot of biblical passages that meet those criteria. Different ones for biblical liberals and biblical conservatives, of course.

New Testament: There aren’t as many different kinds of books in the New Testament, but all the same rules apply.

library 1Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. “The gospels,” as we say. They aren’t biographies. The “life of Jesus” is not taught as if the writer wanted to tell us about what Jesus’s life was like. It’s more like a series of important things to know about Jesus, each of which is given a narrative form. [4] If it had to be located in the Dewey system, I think “Historical Fiction” would be the right place, but if they had a category for fictionalized history, that would be better. Best of all is the film designation “based on actual events.” I like that one because it is true and because it recognizes that the stories have been…oh…enhanced.

The Acts of the Apostles is clearly a story of Organizational Development. Again we find a lot of sources, so I chose Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t. I found that one in 658.

The Pauline letters could all be placed in Pastoral Counseling. There is a Christian Life and Practice designation at 248.4. Maybe there.

A library wouldn’t be better if it contained only books that are important in the same way. A really good library has fiction and non-fiction, prose and poetry, histories and letters, and so on. And each kind needs to be read with an understanding of the kind of literature it is so that we are prepared to receive as much as we can hold of the gift each has to give us. And if each kind were designated separately by a Dewey Decimal number, it might help us remember that.

[1] That’s Isaiah 55 as the New Jerusalem Bible translates it.
[2] Some readers will know that I am married to a librarian. For the record, Bette loaned me a book called Subject Headings in the Library Catalog by Dorothy G. Lewis and one called Cataloging and Classification by Susan E. Snyder, but she isn’t responsible for any of my categorizations.
[3] Melvil Dewey, I learned for the purposes of this post, was a librarian at Amherst College . He worked out the various designations using their collection as his guinea pig(s) in the 1870s.
[4] You could try this yourself if you have the discipline to do it. Pick a trait, e.g., Jesus has the authority to cast out demons, and then find a story that illustrates the general maxim. You can write nearly every event in every gospel that way. The stories Jesus told were probably collected in a different way, but then Jesus used them to illustrate points he wanted to make, so you get the same anchoring device.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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