Not sure I could identify the cause of it, but one way or another, I’ve found myself reading a few articles and editorials lately that deal with The Bible; specifically, adapting The Bible as literature. Like, I read a critique of Noah, and some examination of The Ten Commandments or something, and a few others. One thing jumped out at me: virtually all of these examinations were particularly critical of their subject matter (the adaptation of course, not The Bible) and in particular they were critical of any filmmaker’s or screenwriter’s hubris in thinking they could improve upon “The Greatest Story Ever Told”. The quotations and capitals are mine: invariably, when this statement is invoked by a believer it’s invoked casually, nonchalantly, as if this statement is a simple matter of painfully obvious fact.
I’m not here to start debates, and I’m not here to sermonize, or the opposite of sermonize, whatever that would be. I just like to point things out and let them clunk around the old bean, like a goat swallowing stones to aid in its digestion. Because language is important — it’s not just the what, but the way we say things that matters — calling The Bible “The Greatest Story Ever Told” is inherently problematic.
But let’s remain crystal clear. Calling ANY story “The Greatest Story Ever Told” is inherently problematic. It just gets bandied about a heck of a lot when referring to The Bible, so that’s the context I have to work with.
The problem with the statement — and let’s be specific, it’s the only real objective problem I see — is with the superlative. “Greatest.” Last time I checked, there were, uh, seven billion people living on the planet, give or take, and depending on whom you ask, as many as a hundred billion have ever lived. Hard to say how many of them qualify as “storytellers”, but you can bet your last donut that there have been billions of stories told by all of those people. More when you consider songs, poems, instrumental music, performance art, and anything else in addition to the hallowed novel as media for telling stories. But this story is “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” That’s not finding a needle in a haystack. That’s finding a grain of sand on the beach. Okay, you found a pretty good grain of sand, but you didn’t evaluate every grain of sand out there. So you either took as gospel (my apologies) the opinions of others, who presumably did evaluate these other grains of sand and found them wanting — which is dubious science in the first place, for reasons I’ll get into — or you found a grain you liked a lot and just decided it was good enough and called off your search, which is doubly bad science, because you ignored most of the sample.
(No, this is not where I’m going to open a science / religion debate. I’m just using science as a metaphor. Everything is a metaphor.)
Consider, also, that literature and its evaluation are incredibly subjective when it comes to determining what passes for “good”. This author uses “good” metaphors to tell a story, this author has “good” character development, this author can hardly string two words together before his reader wants to start stomping on puppies. Still, some norms are established. You’d be hard-pressed to find a student or teacher of literature who didn’t think Hamlet, for example, was a fairly impressive specimen of the five-act drama. But claim it’s the greatest story ever, and you will be beset on all sides by scholars pointing out Hamlet’s inability to act and drive the story forward, the strange progression of events offstage driving action more than events which the narrative describes, and others, I’m sure. Point is: the play is not perfect. No play is. No story is.
Speaking of Hamlet, some people hate it. Can’t stand it. The language is archaic, it has no place in modern literary canon, it isn’t relevant. Those people may or may not be right for reasons which make sense for them. Are they allowed to skew the narrative and say that Hamlet isn’t one of the best plays ever written? SURE, WHY NOT? Am I, a person who feels that Hamlet is a rather robust and pretty sterling play, allowed to discount this critic’s protestations and go on claiming that Hamlet is “The Best Play Ever”? SURE, WHY NOT? If literature is subjective (it is) and we have the freedom of choice to decide what we like and what we don’t (we do) then there’s nothing to stop me, or you, from claiming, proclaiming, haberdashery, even believing that Back to the Future is the best movie ever, or Gigli, or whatever.
The moment you step into a public forum and start announcing that Your Thing Is The Best, you open it up to attack from all angles. You have to listen to the opinions of others who might not agree with you (that’s how the world works, unless you’re a sociopath). You can argue about if if you want, you can cite all the sources who agree with you that you want, but ultimately “good, better, best” comes down to personal taste. Pretending otherwise is shortsighted and dogmatic. Pretending that you or your group — religious, literary, or otherwise — is in possession of the “Best Thing Ever” — be it story or wireless technology or frog-roasting method — to the exclusion of every other group out there is egocentric, narcissistic, and ultimately just flat-out arrogant.
“The Greatest Story Ever Told?” Don’t make me laugh. Believe it if you want, but it’s a big goldfingered world out there. There is no best, no greatest anything. And shouldn’t you be using more specific descriptors than “good” and “great” and “best” and “greatest” in the first place? Didn’t your high school English teachers teach you anything?