The hidden assumptions of protestant secularism

I was browsing in a local bookshop yesterday, and noticed the growing range of titles in Dorling Kindersley’s “The ––– Book” series. I took a look at two that I hadn’t seen before: The Mythology Book and The Bible Book.

A couple of features drew my attention. In The Bible Book, it’s quite clear that the Bible we’re talking about is the Protestant Bible.  There is not a single hint in the table of contents that the deuterocanonical / apocryphal books exist. In the introduction it says bluntly (and very conservatively in its dating):

By the first century BCE most Jews had come to recognise the 39 books of the Hebrew Bible, written in Hebrew and Aramaic, as God’s written word. … The 66 books of the Bible are divided into two main sections … (p12)

When it does mention the Apocrypha, noting that there are other books which Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians use, it does so in extraordinary terms.

These seven books, plus additions to the books of Daniel and Esther, were primarily written in Greek between 400-300 BCE. They are not regarded as scripture by either Protestant Christians or Jews, who argue that these books deny there was any prophetic word from God (the characteristic of scripture) during the period in which they were written. (p13)

It’s quite a feat to get that many errors into such a short paragraph. If the books of 1 & 2 Maccabees were written between 400-300 BCE, they’re amongst the most accurate prophecies ever delivered, as they describe events from a couple of hundred years later. Further, it’s impressive that we get additions to the book of Daniel some 200 years before most scholars think it was written.

You can tell this is not a book I’ll be recommending in a hurry.

But then there’s The Mythology Book. It embraces the world, looking at myths by region from Norse myths to the Aboriginal. In this wide ranging romp, the Ancient Near East (ANE) is joined to Asia, and only gets three myths in: the descent of Inanna, the story of Marduk and Tiamat, and the epic of Gilgamesh.

One glaring omission is any treatment of the Israelite versions of those myths found in the primordial history that opens up the book of Genesis. They are, of course, themselves polemical critiques of the ANE myths, retold to express a very different theology.

It seems that myths are what other cultures have, and the same conservative Protestant assumptions which underpin the Bible Book are subtly at work here too. The Bible doesn’t do myths in the conservative Protestant worldview. So, ironically, the most influential myths in the history of humankind are omitted from an introductory reference book on mythology.

What makes this particularly fascinating is that this series is a secular series. Yet as a publisher DK seem oblivious to the confessional stance which defines the Bible as a Protestant collection of books, then insists on a very conservative dating of the Jewish books, and finally has a carelessly impossible dating of the Greek ones. And surely the same stance underpins the idea that Christianity, and especially its Bible, doesn’t do mythology. Myths are for other religions.

This stands in a series whose books on politics, sociology, astronomy, science and so on, show the common procedural secularism of the academy. It suggest to me that modern secular culture still has deep roots in a Protestant understanding of the Bible, and the Bible that is not believed is a very literal and conservative one.