David Plotz, writing in Slate, describes a recent visit to The Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem, which houses a collection of the Dead Sea Scrolls. His article is an interesting recounting of the history of the Scrolls, the Essenes, and the fortress at Masada. But the following paragraph really caught my attention.
The difference between the Jews and the Canaanites, Moabites, Edomites, and all the other Ites who bedeviled us in the Bible is that we wrote the book, and they didn’t. Jews survived not because we went forth and multiplied—we didn’t—but because we kept going to the library. Again and again, Jews as people have barely survived extermination, skirting wipeouts at the hands of the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and the Romans. We were scattered by diaspora, savaged by the Inquisition and Holocaust. If you are religious-minded, you may believe that Jews persisted because God chose us. But even if you’re not, you must acknowledge that the holy books are the root of our survival. Jews endured because our book endured. We remained a people because we preserved a culture, and we preserved a culture because we kept a book.
This is an excellent defense of the power of literature to preserve a culture, despite every effort to wipe it out. This prompts a couple of sobering thoughts.
First, it might explain why Christianity is in decline across much of the Western world today. Christians on the whole no longer look to “the Book” — the Bible — as the lodestone of their faith. The Bible is routinely disparaged and ignored as the source of guidance and hope — and that by the very people who ought to be zealously defending it.
Second, on a broader level, this concept portends doom for a nation whose education system no longer honors its literary heritage. Children who pass through our education system today are not exposed to the literary genius of earlier English and American authors like they once were. The result is a generation of young Americans who look with disdain on anything older than last week’s edition of People Magazine as outdated and irrelevant.
Literature is to a culture what blood is to a human body. When we lose it, we die.