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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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The Educational Value of Great Books: The Bible

by W. Osborne Brigstocke
Volume 14, no. 7, July 1903, pgs. 489-494


A word of explanation may be necessary to excuse the title of this paper. It must at first sight seem that nothing really useful can be said with regard to the educational value of the Bible—the very phrase sounds hollow, meaningless—much the same as the idea of a discussion concerning the life-giving properties of life. And it certainly never occurred to me to include the Bible in this series until I came across two articles—the one in the Daily News on Mr. Balfour's speech at the great meeting of the Bible Society—the other, the translation of Count Tolstoi's Appeal to the Clergy, published in the Revue Bleue. As my excuse for venturing to select such a subject, let me quote from both.

The Daily News reported:—"The Bible approaches the human intelligence in several ways. It appeals as a magnificent collection of literature, combining in one volume masterpieces of narration, of moral teaching, of poetry, and of the purest imagination. In one volume we have the plain matter-of-fact-history of the Chronicles and the fiery denunciations of Isaiah; the sombre pessimism of Ecclesiastes and the dream picture of the Revelation. We can trace the genesis of Christian morality from the stern Mosaic code, through the ethical flashes of the prophets, to the cherished sayings of Christ and . . . those marvellous letters by which His followers spread the light from Judea to Asia Minor and Europe. What a range of literature is there! It is not a book, it is a library. It is the purest product of the English language, the story that transformed the world . . . It is not solely as a religious book that 180,000,000 Bibles have been accepted from this society, and that a steady flow of 16,000 a day pours forth from their depots."

Tolstoi, in his Appeal to the Clergy, takes an entirely different view of the matter. After giving a brief summary of the contents of the Bible, he says:—"If this history of the Old and New Testaments were taught as a fable, even then a teacher might hesitate to read it to children or adults whom he wished to enlighten. And yet this myth is presented to men incapable of reasoning, as being the true account of the universe and of its laws, as the authentic history of the life of our ancestors, the infallible fount from which must flow our knowledge of good and evil, of the nature and virtue of God and of the duties of man....And men speak of harmful books! Is there, in all Christendom, a book which causes more harm than the one entitled 'The Holy Scripture of the New and Old Testaments'?"

A strange question for a reasonable man to put, so strange that at first sight it seems only worthy of contempt. But is Tolstoi a man who can be treated with neglect? He has, I believe, a limited number of disciples in England. But even if the vast majority of Englishmen could say that such stuff should not occupy attention, it may be as well to turn for a moment to that interesting report of Mr. Balfour's speech, and to the marvellous account of the demand for Bibles.

Many books are said to be "a literature"; as a matter of fact, the phrase is more or less fitting to many great books. But surely no one book deserves the title so entirely as does the Bible. What vistas are called up even by a perusal of the index! To look but at the beginning, in the books of Genesis and Job-probably two of the very earliest we have-we see the young earth and listen to echoes which seem to come from some unknown past. The words, "I know that my Redeemer liveth," seem to mingle with the assurance that "God saw everything that he had made and behold it was very good." What thoughts this one coincidence must suggest even to the most casual thinker, the more so if the words of the Revelation are borne in mind, "I am the first and the last . . . Behold, I make all things new." And what can be the effect on a young mind that hears the assurance that in the beginning God saw that everything was very good, and, as it were to answer the perplexity such a statement is bound to cause, the assurance that even in that so distant past, so wholly out of ken, a man could say, "I know that my Redeemer liveth." I ask—but the answer is too palpable.

To turn a page or two-to the murder of Abel. What could be more full of terrible warning to any child than the fact that the first murder was a fratricide? "But I say unto you, that whosoever is angry with his brother without a case . . . " Indeed an awful vision. Or, again, the Deluge, which seems so full of strange interest, whichever way we look at it. "The windows of heaven were opened" because it grieved the Lord at His heart that He had made man on the earth. It is as wonderful that God should have repented as that a man should have cursed the day of his birth, as Job did. There was something very wrong with the world-and yet Noah walked with god; and there must have been something very much amiss with Job-and yet the Lord accepted Job. How can we help loving a book which gives so deep and loving a solution to all our yearnings and difficulties? And how secretly familiar to us all is the desire to build a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and yet, can we ever feel that longing "let us make us a name" without remembering the startling information that "the Lord came to see"?

Thus to collect instances of what the Bible index may suggest is to enter on an endless task, which you can all continue for yourselves far better than I could. It is, to use the quaint words of an old German divine, a gathering of pearls from a deep ocean, deeper than the profoundest depths, deeper even than a bottomless well.

I suppose that one of the secrets of the vast influence of the Bible in the world is the fact that it is one of the few great books which children are allowed-and made-to brood over and to study to their hearts' content,-the fact that the vital principle of allowing the child to go straight to the whole book has generally been observed only in the case of the Bible. Imagine, for instance, a child by itself, spelling out the story of the Creation. To say nothing of the literary perfection of that first chapter of Genesis, consider the workings of a tender mind in that gigantic conception of the origin of things. A little girl once said to me, "In the beginning it was all dark," and she went on to tell me how God made the light and land, the sea and stars, the birds, the fishes, flowers, beasts and man. What would you teach a child, if not such heavenly poetry as that great chapter? The nebular hypothesis? Why, that is all there already, together with a dozen other theories science has not yet dug up. I wonder if science has a sweet face—or cold? I think that must depend on whether or no her mind is primarily steeped in the great Book of books. Or, to take but one more instance, what can be the result of a child's making friends with Elijah? There is something so manly about this rough, good man, a thorough scorn of affectation and a dauntless resolution in the cause of God, tempered withal by moments of despondency-there cannot be much nonsense in a child who takes Elijah for his hero.

Again, why is it that most of us know more of the history of the Israelites than of all foreign history put together? Why is it that children find it so much more easy to do Scripture history than any other history? No doubt it is in part due to the fact that Bible history becomes familiar by means of frequent use. But there is something more than that. It is, I think, because the Bible is a perfect history, whereas the great majority of text books dealing with history are but more or less indifferently composed. Consider the art with which the salient points of Jewish history are brought into prominence, how the political and religious growth of the people is indicated, how the aspirations, the errings, the heroism, the fall of the nation-how all these successive stages are vividly described in the various historical and prophetic books. What a delightful history book we might have if some great writer were to conceive the idea of compiling a history on the same lines of the bible. He might being with a description of England in the earliest times and blend therewith the choicest of the olden tales and legends, such as we find in the great epic of the northern races, and in the poems of Beowulf. How much more fascinating than the dry strings of date—labelled paragraphs? And with what vividness might we not realise the survival of the Saxon spirit despite the successive invasions, if we had them detailed in the same manner as the sojourn in Egypt and the captivity. The more one ponders on it, the more does the beauty of the Bible history become apparent. We have the Doomsday book, the Magna Charta—our Numbers and Leviticus; we have our golden period, as the Jews had theirs, when David and Solomon reigned in splendour of religious, intellectual and material wealth. A collection of poems might be made-not by any means to be compared to the matchless lyrics called "the Psalms of David," yet worthy to represent the English mind. And have not we too our own prophets-men who in their denunciations not only reveal their own great personality, but the minutest thoughts and customs of their times. Such reflections, however valueless in themselves, may at least help us more fully to appreciate the beauty of the Bible from an historical point of view. Christians are too liable to consider it merely from the standpoint of religion.

As to the poetic and literary value, little need be said. Such books as the Psalms, Job, and many portions of the Prophets would stand pre-eminent amongst books even if they had not the seal of divine authorship to set them apart. No one, having learnt what poetry means at such a fountainhead, can have a vitiated taste. He may be deaf to music; at any rate he will not, cannot love what is not worthy of admiration.

But more important still, perhaps, is the training afforded by the Bible with regard to the imagination. To revert to some of the instances already chosen—how can any virgin mind fail to be extraordinarily impressed by such pictures as we find in the first chapter of Genesis, in the story of Elijah, in the prophecies of Daniel, in the sweet "reasoning" of Malachi, in the mysteries of the Revelation. Here is food for the most eager imagination, food, it is certain, which cannot give a mind any but an exquisitely spiritual conception of all that lies in or beyond our mortal ken. How would a mind thus nourished people the vast silence that surrounds us and all the wish-fraught loneliness of life and death? Will the earth roll on, an unsolved puzzle, a chance scrap torn from off a whirling sunstar, to go whirling on and on, from, through and into empty darkness, probably to some purpose—perhaps—? Or will earth's songs and prayers, man's faint expression of his joy or sadness, float, like the sound of evening bells across the bosom of a slumbering mere, out into the silent dark that wraps us—or even fall by chance in the earth's wake, to be caught up by angels, just as the fragments that a steamer casts into the sea are taken up by the gulls that fly behind? Will not the morning stars be heard singing for joy together, and the evening stars chanting to sleep with ever fresh promise of a fairer morn? Will not one golden ray of light pierce every darkness, one word of comfort assuage every grief—one brief assurance that death is mortal, life eternal? Can anyone desire to play some worthless ballad of the hour, when all the while this strange vast harmony of worlds is ringing in his ears? Can he be small when such great issues lie before him? Can he be useless in the earthly life, whilst he is striving to deserve the title of a citizen in that great city of our God?

As to the sinfulness of God's chosen people, to which some critics seem to take exception, I see no reason for wondering at its inclusion in the most holy of our books. All must acknowledge that sin and shame are solid facts which everyone must meet with soon or late. I can imagine no more heavenly way of teaching an innocent child the existence of sin than in the Bible words read by a father or mother.

If, as is most probable, my readers deem that I have written uselessly, praising what is beyond all praise, discerning only earthly worth in what is wholly heavenly, let them forgive my narrow standpoint, excusing me just as they might a youth who, hitherto accustomed to look on his mother with the instinctive adoration of a child, wakes once to realise that even if he stoops to judge with those who judge by earthly standards, she still is far supreme, his all in all, in life, in death, and in the love hereafter.


Proofread by Phyllis Hunsucker