Monday, 9 July 2007

Biblically Challenged

The new series of University Challenge started today. I love University Challenge, becuase it's one of the few remaining bastions of aspiration in an increasingly dimwitted and negative British TV climate - and because I can sometimes get one or two questions right and feel superior to the common man. For those who don't know it, it's a quiz for teams from different universities who compete over a few months in knockout rounds until there's only one team left. It has a uniquely dismissive and browbeating host, Jeremy Paxman, who routinely reprimands the contestants for failing to answer what he considers to be absurdly simply questions (Example: "Which distribution emits a probability density function f (x) equals 1 over square root of 2 pi times e to the power of minus x squared divided by 2?"). And, needless to say, it's bloody fucking hard.

So I was surprised to see in tonight's episode that neither team were able to identify the author of the book Proverbs in The Bible - a question which even I consider to be absurdly easy. What was even more surprising was that Paxman didn't scoff mercilessly in his customary manner when the answer "Saul" was offered. He just let it slide and moved on to the next question. It was most disappointing.

It seems like knowledge of The Bible is on the wane. Another BBC product which I condone is Desert Island Discs, an extended interview in which the interviewee is asked to choose eight records they would take with them to a desert island. They are also given a book and a luxury of choice, and copies of the Complete Works of Shakespeare and The Bible. (A fascinating insight, by the way, into the Britain of 1942 when the programme first aired: then Shakespeare and The Bible were pillars supporting the roof of the nation - now they barely make the school curriculum.)

A trend I've noticed in recent years is that a lot of people (Ricky Gervais the most recent example) quickly announce, even as the words are leaving Kirsty Young's beautiful lips, that "I don't want to take The Bible" - the implication being that, as an atheist, the speaker would rather flog himself senseless than have to even touch a copy and find himself associated even in this fleeting way with the thought of Judaeo-Christian belief.

It strikes me as odd, and quite sad. Regardless of whether or not you believe that The Bible is the word of God, or even if it is a great book of instruction, Christianity and Judaism are still hugely important cornerstones of European culture - the very bedrock, perhaps, on which the whole thing is built. Even as an item of history, anthropology and art, the thing's worth is massive. No other book has occupied the thoughts of European people for as long, nor become as entwined with our culture. To say it is extremely important is to understate to a ridiculous degree.

Not only that; it's a fascinating and interesting read, full of blood, sex, mayhem and weird visions in the first three quarters, and impassioned rhetoric about faith, love and hope in the last. Why not take it to a desert island with you, then, even if you're the most devout atheist on earth? At the very worst, it'll stave off boredom for at least a year.

But it seems that the Good Book has practically been confined to the dustheap of history - as evidenced by the fact that eight of the supposedly most well educated people in the country don't even appear to know who King Solomon was, and probably don't much care.

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