Biblical Illiteracy or Reading the Bestseller

There has been a great deal of froth lately about how "God Is Not Great" and how religions have made a rot of peace. The argument is fizzy yet hardly new: The world is a mess, and it has become so through those who believe in God. Well, fine.

No doubt God can take this notion on the chin and move on if He is indeed God. If there is a God, and for me—a confirmed Presbyterian—there is one, He isn't losing sleep over these polemics.

What I find interesting in all this is that in one principal regard I am allied with Christopher Hitchens, the thoughtful atheist, Harold Bloom, the conservative literary critic, and most recently, Stephen Prothero, the author of "Religious Literacy," because the lot of us seem to believe that God's book is, if not great, highly relevant.

In 1995, I quit being a corporate lawyer to write fiction. At the time, I was 26 years old, married for a scant two years, and childless. I was full of beans and certain that my novel would come fast and come excellent. Early each morning, I said goodbye to my husband who went to work as a junior salesman at a bank and then approached the desk.

The whole day stretched ahead of me like a blinding white canvas, and I had at least seven or eight hours before I did my bit of housework and cooking. I had written essays in high school and a few stories in college. I knew nothing about writing a novel.

What I was learning in this period was that you can't know how to write a novel until you actually write one.

Quite a conundrum. I was scared and literally alone.

The small apartment was painfully quiet. So I drank coffee, ate a bowl or two of oatmeal, then began my stack of reading: The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, a few letters of Vincent Van Gogh to his brother Theo from the Bulfinch three-volume set, then a chapter of the Bible.

Writers do many things to put off their writing: make tea, wash dishes, vacuum, fold laundry, bake cookies then eat said cookies. Well, I did those things, and I read, too. The newspapers connected me to the corporate New York world I had just left; Vincent's letters to Theo gave me a sense of companionship and instruction about what it meant to choose a life of art when success was impossibly out of reach; and the Bible—that's harder to explain.

It started because I'd read that Willa Cather, the early 20th century American novelist, began her writing day by reading a passage of the Bible. Cather was born into a Baptist family and converted to Episcopalianism when she was almost 50. She was an editor, a journalist and a novelist. No pious church mouse, Cather co-authored a critical biography of Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science.

It was so harsh that angry Christian Scientists attempted to buy up every copy. (That's one way to sell books.) I say all this here, because Cather, a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, a critic of a significant Christian group, a managing editor of McClure's, read the Bible regularly and admitted its profound influence on her work. And somehow, knowing that this great woman writer—a deep thinker and creative artist—studied this book habitually encouraged me to begin reading its stories.

I hate being told what to do. When I hear people talking about books I should read, the things I should know, behaviors I should adopt, places I should visit, I immediately and not so privately either, curl my lip and furrow my brow.

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