John Muir and Biblical Literacy
John Muir’s A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf chronicles his journey, oftentimes on foot, from Indiana to Florida and finally to Cuba. His adventure begins on September 1, 1867 when he departs Indianapolis by train for Jeffersonville, Indiana on the banks of the Ohio River. The next day he crosses the Ohio River and begins walking south from Louisville with minimal provisions and an interest in collecting local plants. In his journal, Muir says, “I set forth… joyful and free, on a thousand-mile walk to the Gulf of Mexico” (A Thousand-Mile Walk 1). Along the way, Muir recounts stories of meeting locals, discovering new flora, narrowly avoiding dangers, sleeping in a cemetery, traipsing through swamps, and battling severe illness. When Muir processes his experience, he frequently filters those experiences through the lens of Scripture. To fully appreciate all the nuances of Muir’s reflections requires that the reader have a well-developed level of biblical literacy.
On September 10th, Muir crosses the Cumberland Mountains and seeks lodging for the night around Jamestown, Tennessee. After some effort, Muir finally finds a blacksmith and his wife who are willing to host him for the evening. At dinner, the blacksmith asks Muir about his journey across the south. Muir explains that he is collecting botanical samples for his personal interest, not for any governmental agency or private business. The blacksmith finds this perplexing and challenges Muir, saying, “Surely you are able to do something better than wander over the country and look at weeds and blossoms. These are hard times, and real work is required of every man that is able” (23-24). Undeterred by this criticism, Muir defends his actions by citing the Bible. First, Muir argues that King Solomon conducted a plant survey based on his reading of I Kings 4:33. Then, in a masterful stroke of biblical interpretation, Muir connects the story of Solomon’s interest in nature to Christ’s words in the Sermon on the Mount about Solomon and the lilies of the field (Mt 6:28-29). Muir summarizes his rebuttal in this way:
Now, whose advice am I to take, yours or Christ’s? Christ says, “Consider the lilies.” You say, “Don’t consider them. It isn’t worth while for any strong-minded man” (25).
The blacksmith is convinced by Muir’s biblical logic and acknowledges “that he had never thought of blossoms in that way before” (25). When Muir recounts this interaction in his journal, he does so without any footnotes, parenthetical references, or direct citations of the biblical text. It is clear from this passage, and other passages in his journal that allude to the Bible, that Muir assumes his reader already knows these Bible passages. Throughout the book, Muir weaves scriptural quotations and allusions into his reflections on nature and life. Rarely, if ever, does Muir explicitly explain those biblical connections. Instead, Muir clearly counts on the reader having a high level of biblical literacy and the ability to follow his allusions with minimal explanation.
The Importance of Biblical Literacy in a Secular Society
Given John Muir’s role in creating the US National Park Service and founding the Sierra Club, one of the most important nature conservation groups in US history, nature lovers of all types would find it well worth their time to read some of Muir’s writings. However, in order to fully appreciate Muir’s work, one needs some level of biblical literacy. Whether or not a person identifies as Christian, and whether or not a person even identifies as religious or spiritual, knowledge of the Bible is a prerequisite for being able to appreciate many forms of human intellectual achievement. Muir himself, based on his own words and biographical sources, could recite by heart the New Testament and most of the Old Testament by age 11. Although, sadly this extensive biblical knowledge was imposed harshly by a domineering father.
Given the academic advantages of knowing about the content of the Bible, Muir’s writings are an important reminder that biblical literacy remains relevant even in a secular, modern society. Knowledge of the Bible is necessary to appreciate the literary work of non-religious authors such as Kurt Vonnegut (God Bless You Mr. Rosewater) and Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451). Musical artists such as Arcade Fire (Neon Bible) and Iron & Wine (Our Endless Numbered Days), who do not openly identify with any organized religion, routinely use the Bible as a muse for their lyrics and album themes. Even blockbuster video games like Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End will incorporate biblical stories and motifs into the gameplay and plot. In this particular game, the story of the two thieves crucified along with Jesus (Lk 23:32-43) plays an important role in the narrative.
In addition to Muir’s spiritual reflections on nature, A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf, contains a fascinating look into the post-Civil War south. As a northerner, Muir is sometimes greeted with suspicion by the people he meets. In one particular encounter, Muir has to earn a Florida man’s trust before being welcomed to stay in the man’s home for a number of days. The book, which is firmly rooted in ideas of its time, also offers a window into topics related to race and society. Even in the wake of the Emancipation Proclamation, progressive and open-minded individuals like John Muir were still given to harboring traditional ideas about race and the place of blacks in public society. Some readers may even find a number of Muir’s remarks offensive in light of modern ideals, but it is important to read Muir in light of his cultural context. While A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf offers readers an intriguing look into spirituality, nature, history, and race, a full appreciation of Muir’s writing necessitates that readers be conversant with the biblical text. Having some level of biblical literary, which facilitates a greater enjoyment of Muir, opens the door to a lifetime of appreciating literature and other forms of human creativity.