There is a passage in the Old Testament book of Kings where the temple of God—the cultural centre of the people of Israel—is given a thorough cleaning and refurbishment after years of desecration and abuse.
In the midst of this cleaning of cobwebs and repointing of masonry, the book of the law—the other cultural pillar of the people of Israel—is re-discovered. The accidental nature of the find reads like an event that occurs when one cleans the dusty attic of a grandparent who has stored odds and ends there for years. The king's secretary says, "The priest has given me a book" as if he hasn't a clue of its importance.
I was reminded of this story when I came across an article about a new translation of the Bible that came out last year in Norway. The launch of the Bible "saw Harry Potter-style overnight queues, with bookshops selling out on the first day as Norwegians rushed to get their hands on the new edition."
Smemo Strachan, a member of the Norwegian Bible society which sponsored the translation, noted that "there were people sleeping outside the day before the launch because it was embargoed—it's a bit ironic seeing that the content has been available for quite some time now." The translation was Norway's bestsellling book in 2011.
A high percentage of Norway's population claims membership in a church—over 80% according to its national statistics—but Norway has an extremely low level of church attendance—about 3% according to its national church. In short, it's a country living off of a cultural legacy of Christianity, but which, as a whole, is quite post-Christian.
In the face of a culture which has largely turned its back on Christianity, what to make of the wildly popular Bible?
Perhaps it is, as Strachan notes, the fact that it is a compelling read. The Bible society published a version that did not contain chapter and verse numeration. The Bible is as popular as a novel because it reads like one.
There are those Christians who might scoff and note this as one further example of how deaf to the gospel the ears of Europe are. But I'm inclined to think of such an outpouring of interest in the Bible—even as a cultural artifact—as a good thing. The Bible is, as Marilynne Robinson notes, "the book of books," and interest in Scriptures, even if they are understood allusions,
demonstrate[s] that in the culture there is a well of special meaning to be drawn upon that can make an obscure death a martyrdom, and a gesture of forgiveness an act of grace. Whatever the state of belief of a writer or reader, such resonances have meaning that is more than ornamental, since they acknowledge complexity of experience of a kind that is the substance of fiction.
Robinson, of course, is speaking about the Bible's importance for literature, but is this not even more true for the lives of those who read Scripture directly? Scriptures "acknowledge complexity of experience of a kind" that is, in fact, the substance of life. One can only hope that as thousands of Norwegians "inquire . . . about what is written in this book" as Josiah did so many years ago, they will be struck by the strength of its story, and the gifts of grace—the gift of the knowledge of God—contained inside.