Of the many influences that have shaped the United States of America into a distinctive Nation and people, none may be said to be more fundamental and enduring than the Bible. —Ronald Reagan
The men who wrote Scripture were prophets, not technological or cultural historians. Their concern was the unfolding of God’s covenant through His mighty acts in history. These prophets generally assumed that their readers were not stupid and that many things could be left unsaid. Rarely did they describe clothing or floor plans or the latest developments in technology. Several chapters of Genesis and Exodus are set in Egypt, but not once does anyone mention the pyramids or the sphinx. Yet they were there. The lesson is that we can’t tell what the ancients had or didn’t have because of what Scripture does not say. It’s also a mistake to assume a minimalist view of ancient culture because of the sparse cultural notes contained in Scripture. Noah and his sons built an ocean-going vessel, one about half the size of the Queen Mary. Think about it, these men were not primitives. They were carpenters, engineers, and innovators. What else did they build? What was the full range of the technology they had inherited and the technology they developed to build and outfit the Ark? And one more question: What would they have brought with them through the Flood into their new world?
Within a very few centuries of the Flood, technologically advanced civilizations were springing up across the Middle East and beyond. Egypt, Sumer, and the Indus Valley culture are among the better-known examples. These civilizations knew the sciences of mathematics, architecture, astronomy, and metallurgy. They practiced animal husbandry and agriculture. They had written languages. They engaged in commerce by land, sea and river. They learned all this from someone, somehow.
We don’t know what sorts of technology Noah stowed away on the Ark. I guess it doesn’t matter much. Even if he had a 4-wheeler or a laptop, what good would it really do him? In practical terms, the technological artifacts that Noah brought along on the Ark were not nearly as important as the books, tablets, or records that he brought.
The Generations of Noah
Noah, after all, was an author. As a prophet of the covenant, he wrote a brief history of the antediluvian world, a history from God’s perspective. He titled it The Generations of Noah (Gen. 6:9). It was the third book in a set that would eventually become Genesis. The first two were The Generations of the Heavens and the Earth (the creation account) and The Book of the Generations of Adam (see Gen. 2:4 and 5:1 for the closing titles).
The theology contained in these few pages is extensive and profound. The fundamental biblical themes of creation, sin, and grace appear in surprising detail. So do the theological underpinnings for epistemology, mathematics, cosmology, biology, ancient history (including chronology), psychology, and economics. The next two sections of Genesis, added later by Noah’s sons, lay further foundations for planetary geology, astrophysics and thermodynamics, ethnology, linguistics, geography, and political science.
Such was Noah’s theological library—at the very least. But he must have had other books as well—books on mathematics, engineering, and technology. Who knows? Remember Sumer and Egypt. Think of the pyramids. No doubt Noah wanted his descendants to value all of his books, but above all, he would have wanted them to have reverence for and obedience to the Scriptures.
Like a lot of kids, they didn’t. But they did thoroughly digest the technological journals, the engineering manuals, and the how-to books that Noah had preserved. Within a couple of hundred years, they built the first post-diluvian skyscraper and a city to surround it. That skyscraper or ziggurat was the Tower of Babel. It marked the beginning of mankind’s second great rebellion against God.
So Many Books, So Little Time
A question often pops ups at job interviews and in Internet surveys: What three books would you prefer to have with you if you were stranded on a desert island? The question is supposed to promote self-discovery. G. K. Chesterton gave the classic response when he said: “I would choose Thomas’ Guide to Practical Shipbuilding.” Some, with similar logic, choose survival books, Boy Scouts guides, and the like. The intent of the question is not always clear. Should we select books that we would need? Books that we’ve already read and like? Books we ought to read, but know we won’t until we have to? Common answers on the Internet include The Bible, The Complete Works of Shakespeare, Pride and Prejudice, Lord of the Rings, and of course Harry Potter.
A more serious take on this question appears at the end of the 1960 film, The Time Machine (MGM). The time traveler, H. George Wells, has gone back to a future he has already visited. His best friend, David Filby, believes he has gone back to rebuild and reconstruct that future. Here is part of the final exchange between Filby and George’s housekeeper, Mrs. Watchett:
“It’s not like George to return empty handed—to try to rebuild a civilization without a plan. He must have taken something with him.”
“Nothing… except three books.”
“Which three books?”
“I don’t know. Is it important?
“Oh, I suppose not. Only…which three books would you have taken?”
The question goes beyond issues of survival or resurrecting forgotten technology. Filby speaks of “a plan.” He is talking about a blueprint for rebuilding society and culture. In other words, “What shape would you give to the future? And what books might help you accomplish it?”
There was a time when Christians had a uniform answer for which book they would have chosen—the Bible. They saw it, not only as direction for daily living, but also as a blueprint for civilization and culture. It was their final authority for all of life. It was the word of God. Only books that took that important fact for granted would have qualified for second and third choices. Augustine’s City of God was such a book. It shaped the thinking of Charlemagne and Gregory the Great and was arguably the most influential book during the Middle Ages after the Bible itself. Twelve hundred years later, there was John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, the book that summarized, systematized, and exported the theology of the Reformation. The influence of the Institutes is incalculable. It provided the foundation for the Puritan movement on both sides of the Atlantic, the liberty of Scotland, the rise of the Dutch republic, as well as the birth of America.
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
British author and critic Martin Seymour-Smith has published a list of The 100 Most Influential Books Ever Written. He doesn’t provide a ranking, which is just as well considering his presuppositions. Most of his choices are traditional members of the Western literary canon. The City of God is strangely absent, but the Institutes has its proper place. After Calvin and Luther, however, the only theological work on Seymour-Smith’s list is the devotional allegory, Pilgrim’s Progress. It would be easy to chalk this up to secular bias, but the reality is that orthodox Christians have written precious few books in the last four hundred years that anyone would consider culture-changing. None has had the impact of, say, Newton’s Principia or Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. None can compare with Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations or Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto. None has significantly altered the course of Western Civilization or generated a new civilization in some other quarter of the world.
The truth is that Christians don’t often read, let alone write, difficult or profound books. And unfortunately, very few Christians think or write about the Bible’s cultural implications or the cultural impact it has had in past centuries. Very few consider the Bible a blueprint for anything, let alone a civilization. Culture sounds like worldliness, or stuffiness. Civilization surely has nothing to do with the gospel. Besides, reading is hard work.
Listen up: We reap what we sow. We do become what we think about most of the time. This is true for individuals as well as cultures. Take a look around. Look at headlines, watch the news. What have we thought about as a culture? What have we become as a people? Are we planning to build God’s Kingdom or are we busy building Babel? It’s getting late. What are you thinking about? What are you reading? Which three books would you choose?