We are all a “People of the Book”

I am a son of Dutch immigrants, a people whose spiritual and cultural centre was the church. The Christian Reformed Church espoused a stern Calvinist theology, emphasizing frequent and close reading of the Bible. Three meals a day ended with scripture. Two sermons on Sunday plus weekday youth groups and catechism classes forged children into bible scholars. In English class at the public high school, I was the one who caught the Eden symbolism of the two rivers in John Knowles’ A Separate Peace. No one spoke of business on Sundays, but as a boy I was hired part-time by at the garage owned by church friends. Church members sent work to one another. They looked after one another, in business and spirit. You could say we were a “People of the Book.”

The Book imprinted deeply. Movies and dance were forbidden but books were always permitted. I believed myself clever escaping into forbidden reading, The Lord of the Rings or Catcher in the Rye. In university I imagined myself free of the influence of the religion, but I always signed up for long essay courses of a philosophical bent. In graduate school, I published my own book, Slow Reading, about the benefits of reflective reading. Books, always books. I was imprinted with a need for deep reading and metaphysical thinking. I was a person of the Book.

The expression, “People of the Book,” is Islamic in origin, applied variously to Jews, Christians and other religions that emphasize scripture and a monotheistic God. It is a friendly term, encouraging tolerance among people of like beliefs. I wonder, though, who among us is not a person of the Book? Whose beliefs differ so much as to be outside its influence? Most of us grew up in a print culture. Many books are not religious, but most have a single author, an authority to which the reader is expected to submit. The content is organized into a hierarchical table of contents through which truth is linearly revealed. Every book implies a Biblical worldview. To some extent, we are all a people of the Book.

Atheists are a minority but this is changing, especially among millennials. This change coincides with the advent of digital technology. Think about it. Websites are compilations of multimedia content, created by many, dynamically changing, constantly remixed and reinterpreted in in different ways. Digital media lends itself to complex truths and knowledge. Today, I am atheist. I still read books, but they are diminishing in favour of digital reading. I am no longer a person of the Book. I believe that embracing diversity of thought allows for even more peaceful coexistence.