The Deep, Deep Reading

To be sure, there are a host of rather shallow criticisms to be leveled at religion (just watch Religulous). However, once you get past the literal interpretation of various stories and parables, the messages of which are generally easy to understand, there yet remains a very troubling fact about religion: even the devout and studious proclaim that it is extremely difficult to understand. The great Samuel Johnson pronounced “the New Testament, the most difficult book in the world, for which the study of a life is required.” Now, for the devout Christian this might seem comfort enough, but for the agnostic or those still searching this is not just an arduous homework assignment, but an impossible request. Not only is the agnostic being asked to read “the most difficult book in the world” for the remainder of his days (or until he finally “gets it”), but he must necessarily make his decision regarding religion at the outset, for nearly every such sacred text could boast of the same description. Even Johnson would have a hard time making a case for why the New Testament is more difficult to understand than the Koran, the Tao Te Ching, or the Vedas. He would, however, probably disregard the utility of such an attempt in much the same way that he disregarded the Chinese language, asserting that “it is only more difficult for its rudeness; as there is more labor in hewing down a tree with a stone than with an axe.” Perhaps all other religious texts are difficult to interpret owing simply to obfuscation. However, the faithful in every other religion seem equally just in claiming, as Johnson did, that their religious text is the most difficult on account of its remarkable depth, instead of its clumsy language. Johnson, having devoted his life to the study of only one sacred text could hardly claim to have good reasons for disregarding every other sacred text, even if he had read them all! Obviously not even a scholar of religion can claim to have read and understood all of the worlds religious texts if each requires “the study of a life[time].” It is simply a practical impossibility to make a choice between religions based on even a lifetime of study. This makes the defense that “you just didn’t understand it” all the more infuriating to the honest and curious agnostic who is nonetheless skeptical even after investing the time to read through a given religious text. Given that it takes a lifetime to master, why would anybody go to a religious text for wisdom? Would this not be like trying to chop down a tree with a stone instead of an axe? There are plenty of fathomable texts from philosophers, psychologists, and writers of good literature who somehow manage to communicate wisdom and truth without requiring a lifetime of study. The faithful might respond that “one looks not simply for wisdom, but for salvation and god.” Fair enough, but for those who have claimed to have made such an investment and found something, why is it always so impossible to put into words? One would think that Johnson, or Aquinas, or C.S. Lewis could have pulled it off. Why does it always come down to “you just have to read it yourself, possibly for the rest of your life”? It would seem that god has more interest in us performing exegesis on his book than on actually living! If there is a strong case for the deep, deep reading of the New Testament, the one that only some of us can find only with a lifetime of study, why can’t this case be stated clearly? One starts to think that the “deep, deep reading” argument is simply a crafty ploy to get you to subscribe to their taste in sacred literature, thus fulfilling their obligations to spread the faith. Moreover, this argument can never be sufficiently countered, because if you didn’t “get it,” then you didn’t delve deep enough. Many defenders of shoddy art make use of this feature of the “deep, deep reading” argument when they claim, for example, that Mulholland Drive is a great piece of art. If you didn’t get it, you just weren’t smart enough, didn’t pay enough attention, or didn’t watch it enough times.

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