The facts of the case are familiar to almost everyone. A few months ago, as winter was setting in, Judge Roy Moore, the chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, was removed from office for his refusal to heed a federal court order. U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson had instructed Moore to clear the state judicial building's rotunda of a 2.6-ton granite monument to the Ten Commandments, arguing that the monument violated the constitutional principle of separation of Church and State. The monument had been placed in the rotunda by Moore in 2001, and he had ignored all entreaties to get rid of it.
The saga of "Roy's Rock" followed a predictable pattern. Liberal and secular groups railed against the intrusion of an overtly religious symbol into the highest state court in Alabama. Moore's supporters argued that the Ten Commandments broadly represent "the moral foundation of law." As the controversy raged, atheists asked to have a monument of their own placed in the court's rotunda: a statue of an atom. Judge Moore turned them down (though there would have been more than enough room for a life-size rendition).
Well, the battle is over now. What remains, as always, is the double life the Bible leads. On the one hand, it is obviously a religious document—for believers, either literally or "in some sense" (as a squirrelly Anglican might have it) the very word of God. On the other hand, it is a foundational text of our culture, an artifact that has shaped even secular aspects of Western civilization.
What pretty much everyone agrees on is that whatever its nature, the Bible is a collection of many bits of writing, representing many kinds of literature, and that its various pieces came into existence at different moments over more than a millennium. As the Ten Commandments case sputtered on, I began to indulge a fantasy. Suppose a committee were formed and given this charge: select a collection of texts in English, written over a period of centuries, that somehow fulfills the same functions as the books of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament—the Next Testament, it could be called. What would be in such a collection? To be clear: the charge would be not to compile some new "canon"—some kind of Great Books course—but, rather, to assemble the raw materials for something that would have the same cultural feel a few thousand years hence that the Bible has now.
Start with, say, the Book of Genesis—the classic creation story. Scholars explain that the book as we know it is probably an intertwining of work from three main ancient sources—one author designated J (the "Jahwist" or "Yahwist" source, because this writer refers to God as YHWH), the second designated E (because this writer refers to God as Elohim), and the third designated P (the priestly source). The creation story in our new, modern Bible might be woven from sources known as W, H, and D. W would refer to the physicist Steven Weinberg's The First Three Minutes, an account of the Big Bang. H would refer to Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time. W and H have plenty of the requisite awe, menace, and wonder, and although both eschew theology, they have things to say about meaning. (From W: "The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.")
The oldest of the sources for the new Genesis, D, would be Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species. D is by far the most humane of the three writers—warm, observant, a superb anecdotalist, similar in some respects to the old Bible's J. And he would provide knotty issues for future scholars to argue over. For instance, which version of Origin's last sentence should be accepted as orthodox? Should it be the first edition's "There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been Originally breathed into a few forms or into one ..."? Or the second edition's version, in which after the word "breathed" D inserted the words "by the Creator"?
The biblical books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy are largely collections of laws, rituals, and recommended practices—the ingredients of a coherent social order. The Next Testament version could be fashioned from several sources—Jane Brody's Good Food Book and The Joy of Sex, perhaps, but also the Internal Revenue Service's Form 1040 information booklet, The Rules, the U.S. Army's Ranger Handbook, the columns of Ann Landers, and the Mayflower Compact.