Someone finally has the guts to say it!
Holy books have generated a lot of faith, and a lot of strife. Some more than others, for sure. I won’t be going into all that here. What I’m interested in is which books have remained readable and salient despite thousands of years passing since they were written. Discovering which bits of wisdom have survived the test of time is really comforting, I think. It connects us to the past, and makes this whole human morality project seem less arbitrary.
For a little background, I am agnostic. I grew up in the Southern United States — born Catholic and then baptized Southern Baptist as a teenager (all the cool kids were doing it). At 16, sitting in church, I very suddenly thought, “Uh-oh! I don’t believe in God.” And that was that. I was a Dawkins-reading atheist, destroying believers with FACTS and LOGIC. Until my mid-twenties, when I discovered woo-woo spirituality. Now I roll my eyes at myself as I use words like “god,” and “my soul.” I don’t know what is literally true about anything anymore, and I don’t care! Higher powers are useful!
And for anyone who subscribes to any of these religions, and feels like your holy book should be higher — sell me! This list is based on my current perception and I would be happy to learn more. Also, lists are dumb and who cares.
Alright! Let’s start with number 5.
5. The Old Testament
Some brutal stuff in this bad boy, for sure. I was given some context for why this was such a violent and weird text: back then, life was violent, short, and weird. The people writing the book needed to make sense of their horrible lives, so God was brutal, but there was at least a reason. It wasn’t just random forces of chaos. An unbearable thought, even for most of us today.
When I was a kid, it was an inscrutable, ancient and, distant-from-my-life feeling book. I didn’t take a word of it literally, because I couldn’t figure out how to relate to it at all. I trusted the preacher that it basically said to not be a dick (or gay) and pray to Jesus. Two of my brothers coming out as gay made me question everything, not just the homophobia. Also, Jesus isn’t even in the prequel.
It makes number five because some of the stories are truly great. David and Goliath, Jonah and the whale, Daniel, Job — all huge influences on storytelling, even today. I didn’t appreciate them until later in life, because they weren’t really told in my churches. My theory is that a lot of these stories are about people questioning god and his supposed glory, and that isn’t exactly helpful to organized religion.
Too much of this tome, though, is unreadable dates and lists. Let’s get an editor on this thing, huh?
4. Bhagavad Gita
From my limited understanding, the book is a conversation on a battlefield between a prince and Krishna. The prince worries about the death and destruction that war causes, and Krishna talks him into it anyway, but from a spiritual angle. War can be just, and non-violence isn’t always an option.
It’s number 4 on my list, because it’s refreshing to hear Eastern spiritual talk with a more, uh — forthright attitude. I could see it being useful to think of our internal spiritual landscape in terms of a battle between good and evil. It is certainly more divisive than other Eastern texts, which seem to be more about making room for the shadows of life, rather than fighting them. I’m not sure what the right way is, but it is certainly interesting.
Also, this book has some great quotes:
“You are what you believe in. You become that which you believe you can become” ― Bhagavad Gita
3. Buddhist Texts
The top three are though for me, because I love them all.
The story of the Buddha is just excellent. I mean, a prince who never leaves his palace and doesn’t know about sick and old people? One day, of course, he sees sick and old people. Rightly disturbed, he sets out on the journey to enlightenment.
It teaches all the good stuff: be in the moment, you become what you regularly think, death is a part of life, etc. Great, actually useful wisdom, which is much harder to locate in the Western texts.
And, like 4, some great quotes to ponder:
“You only lose what you cling to.” — Buddha
2. New Testament
I feel like this is my most controversial choice. I could easily swap 2 and 3.
It lands position 2, though, because the story is my favorite. I could discuss the implications of the Jesus myth for hours and hours. It is the culmination of the idea of the “mono myth,” coined by Joseph Campbell. So many of the stories that we love are actually Jesus stories: Star Wars (the original trilogy), Harry Potter, The Last Airbender, and The Matrix. In fact, the Jesus story was itself probably copied from much older versions of the story, some of them from the East. Which explains the more Eastern vibe of the New Testament compared to the Old.
The story obviously strikes some nerve with our collective human spirit. It is told over and over, and the Bible is the most-selling book of all time. I know sales aren’t everything, but they are something.
Still, I have to put the thing in slot 2, because it is not a very readable text. A lot of what makes this story great has been distilled down to its core elements much more elegantly by the likes of J.K. Rowling and the Wachowski sisters.
1. Tao Te Ching
This is a more philosophical text, but it also counts as the holy book for the religion, Daoism.
This is the only book I actually recommend buying right now. The translation I use is by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English.
It’s 81 poems of insane wisdom. All of them feel extremely timely and useful, and can be read over and over. I like the book in particular because there is no fluff, unlike the other holy books. You can read a random poem a day, less than 5 minutes, and actually gain some insight. I cannot say that’s true for any on the rest of this list — not even close.
I personally subscribe to the Tao philosophy of Wu Wei, or not forcing life. A flower does not struggle to flower, after all. Why should a human struggle to human? Alan Watts explains it well here.
I’ll let a couple of poems speak for themselves:
“When you are content to be simply yourself and don’t compare or compete, everyone will respect you.”
“If you try to change it, you will ruin it. Try to hold it, and you will lose it.”
“Give evil nothing to oppose and it will disappear by itself.” ― Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
Originally published at https://www.taylorforeman.com on June 28, 2020.