“The Bible is the greatest book ever written.” I have heard this declaration countless times in my life. I completely disagree with it. The Bible is not “a book." Rather, it is a collection of many diverse books from even more sources covering more than 1000 years.
One key danger of thinking of the Bible as just one book is to read it in a vacuum without any context, or worse yet, to consider the contexts of its many parts and sources irrelevant.
Some might think of every word in the Bible as God’s direct communication to answer all questions for all generations, just as it is and without any inquiry or study. This problematic approach makes the Bible God and invites misuse, such as using parts of it as a sword of judgment and persecution.
In contrast, when we dig deeply with an open mind into the Bible’s separate pieces and varying historical contexts, we gain a richer understanding. This is much harder than arbitrarily opening it and reading any part as God's direction for now.
Truly working at Bible study, including seriously contrasting its parts and learning about its various contexts, provides stronger grounding. This blossoms into prioritizing certain emphases over an expanse of time, such as the prominence of loving and caring for others and pursuing justice. We can then potentially live a more meaningful life.
As a Christian, I revere the Bible as a sacred collection of books inviting us to use our God-given minds to study all of its parts in the light of our own life experiences and opportunities.
So, the Bible aside, what is the most important single book ever written? That is a matter of personal taste that changes in seasons over time. I nominate Viktor Frankl’s "From Death Camp to Existentialism" as one of the best books ever written. Originally published in the late 1950s, Frankl’s book is known now as "Man’s Search for Meaning" (Beacon Press 2006). I discovered Frankl’s compelling masterpiece as a graduate student in religion. I now read it every year or two.
In short, Frankl’s book captures his personal experience and observations as a prisoner and psychiatrist in Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps during World War II. Many Holocaust accounts focus on atrocities and multi-million murders rooted in a political culture of discrimination, hatred, racial arrogance, extreme nationalism, and diabolical leaders, starting with Hitler.
Frankl focuses on his experiences and observations in the extreme suffering. How did any of the victims survive? In a nutshell, they focused on a will for meaning and surviving. In his words, they were also "lucky."
Frank’s book is important for all people in every generation, not just those whose ancestors mercilessly suffered and died.
Everyone must never forget this extreme tribal-based hatred and its gross affiliation with inauthentic religion, what we might call the German national church. Too few Christians and others opposed the unforgivable horror and tried to help the oppressed.
Some did. Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a prominent example. He opposed the Nazis and participated in a plot to assassinate Hitler. This cost him his life when the Nazis hung him a matter of days before the Allies arrived to liberate his prison.
Will we ever learn that religion never mixes well with government? While we would welcome political leaders exercising compassion, humility, inclusiveness and other characteristics of authentic religious faith, that is usually not the case.
In contrast, merging so-called religion with government usually results in extremes of judgment and drunken power. At the height of German power and oppression, for example, some leaders misused snippets of the Bible to support their arrogant Aryan supremacy and anti-Semitism, such as characterizing Jews as "Christ killers." That is not only evil; it is grossly misinformed. Spending five or ten minutes in the New Testament clearly indicates Jesus was a Jewish rabbi and championed the absolute best of his Jewish tradition, which is the root of Christianity.
Frankl’s personal story is a model of selflessness. As he wrote in the preface to his book’s 1992 publication, the American Consulate provided him an immigration visa to the joy of his parents after Hitler occupied his home land, Austria. Frankl chose instead to let his visa expire. He stayed behind to honor his mother and father by trying to help them in light of the escalating persecution.
Finally, the substance of Frank’s book is instructive for all of life’s challenging circumstances. He indeed has “standing” to address dealing with any kind of suffering. Per Frankl, in any and all circumstances, people have the freedom to choose their attitude and response: “…everything can be taken from a [person]but one thing: the last of human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s way.”
Frankl focused on hope and memories of his wife. In a moving passage, while being driven by rifle butts in the cold morning — emaciated, malnourished, and abused — Frankl noticed signs of the sun arising. With thoughts of his wife "more luminous than the sun," he "grasped the meaning of the greatest secret" in life: "The salvation of [mankind] is through love and in love.“
Religion, including lessons learned from seriously studying and reflecting upon the books of the Bible, can help us make good attitudinal and other ethical life choices.
Reading and re-reading Dr. Frankl’s book reminds us of the evils that can result when we fail to lash out and speak up against demagoguery, including within institutionalized religion of any kind in politics.
Walt Shelton is a part-time professor at Baylor Law School and an environmental attorney in Austin. He leads discussion groups in association with Highland Park Baptist Church in Austin and also speaks with other groups. His book, “The Daily Practice of Life: Practical Reflections Toward Meaningful Living,” will be published later this year.