The End of the Word as We Know It:
A Personal Introduction
I remember mom’s bible especially well: the feel and smell of the dark red pebbly leather cover, the heft of it, the delicate paper, gray and silky-soft at the corners from countless careful turns, the way it flopped over her hands when she opened it. Like other Bibles in our home, its value as a holy thing came not only from its quality of materials and craftsmanship, and not only from our familial faith in the words on its pages as the inspired Word of God, but also from years of daily, devotional attention. It seemed both sacred and mundane, a hallowed object, demanding my highest reverence, and an everyday tool, lying open on the kitchen counter like an old phonebook.
Growing up conservative evangelical in the 1960s and ’70s, mine was a childhood steeped in biblical devotion. Our two-story house in the foothills of the Chugach Mountains, outside Anchorage, Alaska, was filled with books, good for the long, dark winters. But no book was more treasured than the Bible. It was the cornerstone of our family’s spiritual well-being, the go-to source for any serious question we might have, from sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll to heaven, hell, and why bad things happen to good people.
Mom and Dad were models of biblical fidelity, of daily living in the Word. My strongest childhood memories of them testify to the high value they placed on Bible study and reflection: Mom, awake before sunrise, kneeling before the living room recliner as if it were a prie-dieu, reading her Bible while our cat lay purring and pawing on her warm back; Dad, leaving early for breakfast Bible studies and meetings of the local chapter of the Gideons at Denny’s; the two of them, at the end of the day, sitting together on the sofa in the TV room, or lying side by side in bed, propped up on pillows, silently reading their Bibles.
My parents’ biblical faith was by no means sentimental or simplistic. It was as seriously intellectual as it was devout. On drives home from church, they discussed the preacher’s biblical interpretations in rigorous detail. When we got home, the discussion often continued, with Bibles open on the kitchen table. Mom studied Greek in college, and sometimes she’d pull out her old Greek New Testament to see how else the text might be translated. Stereotypes of conservative evangelical Christians as anti-intellectual notwithstanding, the Bible culture in which I was raised fostered serious, reasoned, critical engagement with the Scriptures. Biblical interpretation demanded all your heart, mind, and strength.
Magic 8 Ball Bible
My own youthful version of biblical faith, however, shaped at least as much by the emerging Christian pop youth culture of the 1970s as by my parents, was considerably less sophisticated. I tended to approach the Bible as though it were a divine oracle of truth, the ultimate Magic 8 Ball. Ask it a question and it would give you God’s answer. I’d close my eyes while flipping through it like a dictionary, stop at random, and point my index finger somewhere on the open page, trusting that it would land on the passage I needed to read at that particular moment. This mode of biblical divination remains popular among kids as well as adults to this day. Many people tell miracle stories about how it gave them exactly the life-changing answer they needed. For me, not so much.
"Does Joanne like me?"
Flip, flip, flip. Stop. Point.
"He that is wounded in the stones, or hath his privy member cut off, shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord" (Deuteronomy 23:1).
Eventually I learned to flip far enough through my Bible to avoid the long legal discourses on skin diseases and crushed testicles in Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. But I still didn’t find what I was looking for.
The biblical Magic 8 Ball game revealed more about me, about my hopes and wishes for the Bible, and especially my idea of the Bible, than it did about biblical literature itself. I conceived of the Bible as God’s book of answers, which if opened and read rightly would speak directly to me with concrete, divinely authored advice about my life and how to live it.
This way of thinking about the Bible was not just my own private notion. It was, and still is, the most common understanding of the Bible: the literal Word of God, God’s own book, The Book of all books, plainly revealing who God is and what God wants me to do and believe, from everyday things like dating and diet to ultimate things like heaven and hell.
Think of the hundreds of instruction books and manuals that are called Bibles, from The Bartender’s Bible to The Curtain Bible to The Small Game and Varmint Hunter’s Bible. What does it mean to call something "the Bible"? What does this title claim for a book? What does it promise? What is the cultural meaning of "the Bible" that a publisher claims when it publishes something like The Hot Rodder’s Bible? What does "the Bible" mean?
It means authoritative. A book called "the Bible" is the ultimate authority. It is the first and last word on the subject.
It means univocal. A book called "the Bible" speaks for itself in one, unified voice, without contradiction.
It means practical. A book called "the Bible" promises to serve as a reference manual and a dependable guide for how to proceed along the path its reader has chosen.
It means accessible. A book called "the Bible" promises to speak to anyone and everyone clearly and simply, without ambiguity, in terms "even I can understand."
It means comprehensive. A book called "the Bible" claims to cover everything human beings may ever possibly need to know about its subject, past, present, and future.
It means exclusive. A book called "the Bible" admits no rivals, no alternative perspectives. It is complete unto itself, closed, self-contained within a single book, A to Z, alpha to omega, Genesis to Revelation. Nothing may be added or taken away.
This is what I call the iconic cultural meaning of the Bible. And it is this meaning that publishers claim for any book they call "the Bible." The Bible is above all an image of divine authority, the perfect Book by the perfect Author.
Nearly all Americans are familiar with this idea of the Bible, and most endorse it. According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 78 percent of all Americans say that the Bible is the "word of God," and almost half of those believe that, as such, "it is to be taken literally, word for word." Polling data from the Barna Group indicate that nearly half of all Americans agree that "the Bible is totally accurate in all of its teachings" (88 percent of all "born-again" Christians believe the same), and the Gallup Poll finds that 65 percent of all Americans believe that the Bible "answers all or most of the basic questions of life." These statements are shorthand descriptions of the idea of the Bible as God’s magnum opus, the first and last word on who God is, who we are, why we’re here, and where we go after this—depending, of course, on how well we follow The Book, aka B.I.B.L.E., "Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth."
The Rise of a Cultural Icon
A cultural icon is different from a traditional icon. A traditional icon is a particular material object that is believed to mediate a transcendent reality, and its power to do so is created and maintained by the various rituals people practice in relation to it. An example might be a Bible used to swear in a new president, or a handwritten Torah scroll presented to a congregation in a synagogue. A cultural icon is not so concrete. It is not tied to a particular material object, visual image, or ritual practice. Its outlines are a little vague, hard to define sharply. It’s a condensation of what people who identify with it believe in and value. It says something about the culture in which it holds iconic power. The American flag is a cultural icon of patriotism. The four-wheel-drive truck is a cultural icon of American independence, toughness, and, most of all, masculinity.
The Bible is a cultural icon of faith as black-and-white certainty and religion as right-and-wrong morality. It’s no accident that the most common visual image of the Bible is that of a closed black book. The cultural icon of the Bible represents religious faith as what closes the book on questions about the meaning and purpose of life. It puts them to rest in the name of God. Faith is about believing the right things, and the Bible is the place to find them.
This idea of the Bible as a divine manual for finding happiness with God in this world and salvation in the next is so familiar to us today that we might well assume it’s been around forever, that it’s as old as Christianity itself. It’s not. In fact, its genesis was in nineteenth-century Protestantism, where the Reformation ideal of sola scriptura, "Scripture alone," combined with a popular Protestant evangelistic movement, sometimes described as a new Puritanic Biblicism because of its romantic idealization of that earlier, seemingly simpler form of Puritan Christianity, to promote the Bible as the key to solving all of industrial America’s emerging problems. The Bible, it was believed, could integrate immigrant populations in the new big cities. It could heal factions among Protestant churches and denominations. It could keep husbands sober and hold nuclear families together, even under new stresses of urban poverty and isolation. Rooted in nostalgia for the mythical, romanticized image of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Puritan piety, this movement believed that the Bible was the solution for all modern social, familial, and individual ills.
Writing in 1851, theologian and biblical scholar John W. Nevin described this movement’s then-novel idea of the Bible this way:
In this sacred volume, we are told, God has been pleased to place his word in full, by special inspiration, as a supernatural directory for the use of the world to the end of time; for the very purpose of providing a sufficient authority for faith, that might be independent of all human judgment and will . . . The great matter accordingly is to place the bible in every man’s hands, and to have him able to read it, that he may then follow it in his own way. The idea seems to be, that the bible was published in the first place as a sort of divine formulary or text book for the world to follow . . . so that the dissemination of its printed text throughout the world, without note or comment, is the one thing specially needful and specially to be relied upon for the full victory of Christianity, from sea to sea and from the river to the ends of the earth.
Nevin’s reference to "without note or comment" alludes to one of the movement’s most important organizations, the American Bible Society. Founded in 1816 and modeled on its British sister organization, the British and Foreign Bible Society, its sole objective was "to encourage a wider circulation of the Holy Scriptures without note or comment." The society’s initial address "To the People of the United States" is indicative of the missionary zeal surrounding this new movement to "claim our place in the age of Bibles."
This is no doubt of the Lord, and it is marvelous in our eyes. But what instrument has he thought fit chiefly to use? That which contributes, in all latitudes and climes, to make Christians feel their unity, to rebuke the spirit of strife, and to open upon them the day of brotherly accord—the Bible! the Bible!
Led primarily by Christian businessmen who made their money in the emerging fields of insurance and banking, the American Bible Society followed the latest industrial business models and was quick to adopt new innovations in the print industry, especially stereotype plates and steam power. Its highly efficient methods of management, production, and distribution led to tremendous success in fulfilling its mission to get the Word out, which its members fervently believed to be the only way to save American society.
The ABS’s stipulation that Bibles be printed "without note or comment" was central. It was an expression of commitment to the Puritanic Biblicist ideal that the Bible was complete unto itself, spoke for itself, and required no supplemental explanations or interpretations.
The fundamentalist movement that emerged in the late nineteenth century was the theological heir of the Puritanic Biblicism championed by the ABS and others. What distinguished it as a new movement was its reactionary character. It was first and foremost a defensive reaction to two intellectual revolutions toward the end of the nineteenth century, both of which challenged any reading of the Bible that treated it as an empirical account of human history or as the literal Word of God. The first, which is well known, was the rise of evolutionary theory in the wake of Charles Darwin’s publication of The Origin of Species in 1859. The second was the rise of German and British "higher criticism" of the Bible, which championed a deductive, scientific approach. It examined biblical literature not as the authoritative source for history, but as data for reconstructing history. That is, it examined biblical literature in light of history rather than the other way around. The most influential of these early higher critics was the German linguist and historian of ancient Israel, Julius Wellhausen. As notoriously irreverent in his social behavior as he was scientific in his approach to biblical literature, Wellhausen, rumor has it, would time his Sunday-morning stroll to the swimming hole to coincide with the letting out of church. But what most famously provoked the ire of many Bible-believers throughout Europe and the United States was his "documentary hypothesis," which argued that the first five books of the Bible were compiled from four different literary strands or "sources." He dated each of these sources to a different period of Israelite and Judean history, and believed that they had been edited together to form the narratives of Genesis through Deuteronomy at a later time, after the Babylonian exile. It was in reaction to this kind of dissecting and historicizing of the Bible that fundamentalism formed its doctrine of biblical inerrancy, which proclaims that the Bible is God’s literally inspired Word, entirely without error or contradiction, and therefore entirely authoritative. The Bible, it was asserted, must not be subjected to modern science or historical research. On the contrary, those disciplines must be subjected to it.
At the heart of the biblical fundamentalist movement was the Bible study, a small group of people that gathered in someone’s home or at lunch break for Bible reading, sharing, and prayer. Modeled on the "social religious meetings" promoted by the great preacher of the Second Great Awakening, Charles Grandison Finney, as a means of keeping spiritual fires burning after the revival meeting ended, these Bible-study groups facilitated focused reading and discussion beyond what people could get from a sermon, applying biblical truths to the spiritual challenges and moral choices individual group members were facing in their own lives. The idea behind them, again, was the conviction that the Bible, as the infallible and literal Word of God, spoke in clear, unambiguous terms that any "plain man" can understand and apply directly to his life. The Bible-study movement thus brought together fundamentalism’s rather dry intellectual commitment to biblical inerrancy and revivalism’s emphasis on personal piety and moral uprightness.
Outside the intimate setting of the Bible-study group, conflicts between biblical fundamentalism and the new higher criticism were playing out in high public drama. In the early 1890s, the Presbyterian Church conducted a series of heresy trials against the Reverend Charles A. Briggs, a professor of biblical theology at Union Theological Seminary and champion of the new biblical critical methods. These highly publicized trials led eventually to Briggs’s suspension from ministry and Union’s decision to disaffiliate from the Presbyterian Church. But the most dramatic, and ultimately most humiliating, battle for the fundamentalist movement was its showdown with Darwinian evolution in the 1925 case Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes, which tried Scopes for teaching evolutionary theory in his high school biology class in defiance of state law. Although Scopes lost, the news media surrounding the so-called Monkey Trial succeeded in portraying the biblical fundamentalist perspective, championed by Presbyterian minister and three-time Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, as narrow-minded and intellectually backward.
In the aftermath of the Scopes trial, fundamentalism lost much of its former public respect. It began withdrawing from mainstream society and adopting a strongly separatist perspective, shunning the "worldliness" of modern liberal American culture. But it did not go dormant. Rather, it reinvented itself as a nondenominational grass-roots movement, built around newly formed Bible colleges and seminaries, radio broadcasts, Bible conferences, and networks of Bible-study groups, many of which operated as parachurch organizations, that is, independent Christian organizations that operate outside the structure and governance of a particular church or denomination. In the process of reinventing itself, moreover, the movement nurtured what historian Joel A. Carpenter describes as a deeply paradoxical sense of identity: on the one hand, they were outsiders, rejected by mainstream American society; on the other hand, they were the quintessential Americans, whose entitlement had been usurped by secular liberalism.
Needless to say, fundamentalism did not keep its light hidden under a bushel forever. By the late 1940s, it reemerged in the form of "neo-evangelicalism," a media-savvy parachurch movement that saw American popular culture as its mission field. Still firmly rooted in the biblical fundamentalism that had always been its hallmark, neo-evangelicalism denounced separatism and recommitted itself to engage the mainstream with its mission "to restore Christian America" by bringing it back to the Bible.
Central to neo-evangelicalism was the Youth for Christ movement, which began as a series of Saturday-night youth rallies that attracted hundreds of thousands of young people in big cities across the United States. These rallies were led by young, energetic preachers like Billy Graham (the first full-time employee of Youth for Christ) and were modeled on the big shows popular in the emerging secular entertainment industry. Organizers produced slick ads and created media tie-ins with mainstream radio and television to sell their programs. Some of the evangelists went so far as to adopt the voices and styles of celebrities like Frank Sinatra. Others, like Graham, soon had found their own distinctive star power. Thus began a new era for fundamentalism, reinvented as an evangelistic movement that sought to bring its biblical-theological perspective to a new generation by meeting young people where they were. "Geared to the times, but anchored to the rock," as the motto of Youth for Christ mixed-metaphorically puts it. Rather than rejecting mainstream popular culture altogether, they translated their message into its popular media forms. Same message, new medium. Thus was born the Christian entertainment industry.
By the early 1970s, neo-evangelical rallies were looking less like a Frank Sinatra show and more like an Aerosmith concert. In 1972 Campus Crusade for Christ, another parachurch organization much like Youth for Christ, hosted Explo ’72, a weeklong gathering of high school and college students in Dallas, Texas. The event culminated in what was later dubbed the Christian Woodstock, an eight-hour-long Christian rock concert in the Cotton Bowl that drew over one hundred thousand people. Controversial among more separatist-leaning fundamentalists, it is remembered above all for inaugurating rock music as a vehicle for evangelism.
At the same time, the big-rally approach to neo-evangelicalism was being supplemented by a new focus on creating local Bible-study clubs in high schools. Especially successful in this format was Young Life. Begun by a youth minister named Jim Rayburn in Gainesville, Texas, this evangelistic ministry treated neighborhood high schools as parishes, reaching out to kids in their own context rather than trying to bring them into the church. Central to Young Life were its weekly Young Life Club meetings, which integrated fun skits and games with more serious (if brief) prayer, discussion, and Bible reading. Kids who were ready to go more deeply into their faith became part of smaller core groups called Campaigners, who met in the morning or after school for more serious Bible study. Youth for Christ eventually adopted the Young Life model, calling its weekly fun meetings Campus Life Club, and supplementing them with more serious Bible-study meetings with student leaders.
Neo-evangelicalism reinvented fundamentalism by repackaging its fundamentals. It aimed to make its gospel popular—pop fundamentalism, if you will. It revised fundamentalism, but not its Bible. At the heart of this revival was the same iconic idea of the Bible as the literal Word of God that had been born in the Puritanic Biblicism of the early nineteenth century.
The Way of Salvation
This is where my own life in Bibles ties into the larger history of the rise of the Bible as a cultural icon. My dad grew up attending Youth for Christ rallies in Lewiston, Maine, in the early 1950s, and my mom, who was four years younger, became a Christian while attending lunchtime Youth for Christ Bible studies in her high school in Spokane, Washington. After college, in the early 1960s, she served as a full-time Young Life organizer and club leader for high schools in Portland, Oregon. When I was in grade school, she and Dad led weekly Young Life Campaigner groups in our living room. After moving to Anchorage, Alaska, which was Youth for Christ territory, they were closely involved supporters and sponsors of that organization. I was a committed member of my high school’s chapter of Campus Life, participating in club meetings, attending weekly Bible-study breakfast groups, and serving as a student staffer on Campus Life on Wheels long-distance bike tours. I also was a leader in our church’s youth group, and went on various evangelistic mission trips, including a boat trip to coastal villages in southeast Alaska along with a youth group from Wasilla High School. (For all I can remember, Sarah Palin, who graduated from high school the same year I did, might have been onboard.) All that to say, I was steeped in the neo-evangelical culture and its understanding of the Bible.
Like my peers, I believed that the Bible was God’s Word written down for me, answering all my questions about who God is and what God wants for my life, from the mundane to the ultimate. Or at least I knew that was what I needed to believe. But that was not what I found when I actually opened the Bible up and looked around inside. The most famous biblical characters, so often lifted up as models of faith, seemed just the opposite: Abraham, who, unable to trust in God’s promise, twice passes off his wife, Sarah, as his sister in order to save his own skin; Rebekah, who plays favorites among her two sons, helping the younger, Jacob, steal the birthright of the elder, Esau; King -David, who repeatedly exploits those who love him, who takes whatever he wants, including women (married or not), who shows no remorse until he gets caught, and whose alienated son dies trying to kill him and take his throne; and Jael, Rahab, Ehud, and many other lesser-known biblical heroes and heroines who achieve greatness through trickery and betrayal. Often, "biblical values" struck me as foreign, as if they had come from a radically unfamiliar time and place. Which in fact they had. But that made me anxious. It worried me that I couldn’t get beyond the Bible’s strangeness to discover its purportedly timeless relevance.
Moreover, it didn’t seem like the Bible was always saying the same thing. One psalmist proclaims absolute confidence that all is right with the world and God is on his throne, while another cries out in despair, seeing nothing but chaos and divine absence (and that’s the kind Jesus quotes from the cross). One passage lays out a moral universe in which goodness is rewarded with blessing, while another asks why the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer. Indeed, the very image of God seemed to change from one passage to another: warrior, mother, father, husband, rock, whirlwind, rarely omniscient, often uncertain, frightening as -often as comforting, mysterious more than informative. Moreover, there appeared to be many inconsistencies: conflicting versions of key events in the Gospels, such as what happened at the empty tomb, for example, and different accounts of creation that were not easy to sync. I knew what Bible answers I was supposed to find. But actually opening and reading the Bible was undermining my belief in it.
I remember getting into a heated argument about the opening chapters of Genesis with one of my more secular-liberal friends while playing pool in his basement. He was pointing out a serious contradiction he’d noticed when reading Genesis for world history class: in one, humankind is created last, and in the other, a single human is created first. "So which is it?" he asked. As I struggled in vain to answer, his smug grin grew. My blood began to boil and I almost threw the cue ball at him. At which point we both knew I’d been bested. I knew he was right, but I was not ready to acknowledge it consciously. Doing so would have threatened my whole belief in the Word—as I knew it.
I got my first Bible when I was five. It was my prize in Vacation Bible School for being the first to recite the names of all the biblical books in order. But the first Bible I really bonded with was one I got when I was in junior high. It was called The Way: The Living Bible Illustrated. First published in 1972, it was the result of an innovative collaboration between a new publisher, Tyndale House, and the editors of Campus Life magazine, a slick, popular publication of Youth for Christ.
In fact, The Way was the biblical flagship of the neo-evangelical Christian youth movement. Combining innovative form and content in a way that appealed specifically to the popular youth culture of the early 1970s, it was a breakout Bible. The floppy dark green cover of The Way looked more like a Doobie Brothers album than the Holy Bible: big groovy capital letters filled with photos of hip stringy-haired teens smiling and hanging out. Only the subtitle, in a much smaller, standard font, let on that this was "the Bible." Inside were more images of young people, black and white, male and female, playing guitars, laughing and talking. Other pictures illustrated contemporary issues: a homeless man curled up on a sidewalk vent, a razor-wire fence, a garbage dump. At the beginning of every biblical book was a short introductory essay that spoke to concerns shared by many youth: poverty and homelessness, war and peace, love and marriage, making a living versus making a life.
Its biblical text was that of The Living Bible, a hugely successful modern English paraphrase of the American Standard translation, done by Kenneth N. Taylor while he was working at Moody Bible Institute, a cornerstone school and publishing house of neo-evangelicalism in Chicago that gained prominence during fundamentalism’s separatist decades. During Taylor’s long commutes to and from work, he wrote what he called "thought for thought" paraphrases of the New Testament Epistles. When Moody and several other publishers declined to publish them as a book, Taylor and his wife, Margaret, created their own press, Tyndale House, named after the sixteenth-century English Bible translator William Tyndale, who was martyred for translating the Bible into a common tongue. The Taylors did not share Tyndale’s fate. Operating out of their dining room, they self--published Living Letters in 1962. A year later, the book won the enthusiastic endorsement of Billy Graham, who ordered more than half a million copies to offer to his television audiences. Taylor’s The Living Bible (1971), encompassing the entire Christian Bible, was an even greater success. It was the New York Times nonfiction bestseller in both 1972 and 1973. In 1983 Taylor presented the 28 millionth copy to President Ronald Reagan in commemoration of the Year of the Bible. As of 1996, The Living Bible had sold over 40 million copies.
I loved my The Way Bible. I took it to youth group meetings and read it in bed every night. By "read," I mean I mostly looked at the pictures and read the introductory essays. These were the parts that appealed to me. They spoke to me in clear, engaging, contemporary terms. And they said the kinds of things I thought the Bible was supposed to be saying. Reading these extrabiblical supplements, I felt like I was reading the Bible.
Occasionally I would even dip into the biblical texts themselves, paraphrased in ways that made them much easier going than any of the English translations from Hebrew and Greek that I’d tried in the past. I realize now that they felt that way precisely because Taylor’s Living Bible not only down-converted the traditional American Standard translation to a junior high reading level, but also took pains to disambiguate biblical ambiguities and resolve biblical contradictions that are actually, literally present in the text.
So for a time, The Way saved me, or at least distracted me, from the growing doubts about my childhood faith in the Bible. That is, it saved my iconic idea of the Bible from the disillusion that came from literally reading it. Indeed, this was the true innovation of The Way: it offered a reading experience of the Bible that didn’t entail all the complexities and frustrations that came when I actually read the biblical text. It felt like what reading the Bible was supposed to feel like, even while it distracted me from the real ambiguities and uncertainties of the biblical text itself.
The Way sold an unprecedented 6.4 million copies. Although no one made a dime on it (the Campus Life editors took it on as a creative outreach project, and Tyndale donated all profits from sales to Christian missions), its huge success, along with that of The Living Bible, drew attention to the tremendous profit potential for publishers interested in reinventing the Bible in new, value-added forms. The publishers of The Way had discovered a market for updated, supplemented, and retranslated Bibles that soon became the cornerstone of the neo-evangelical Christian culture industry that is booming today.
So Long, Judas
In the long run, I didn’t turn out to be much of a biblical consumer. Although The Way sustained my iconic idea of the Bible for a few more years, the cracks in it eventually began to grow, and I found my journey with the Bible on a road less traveled. One crack I remember especially well was my discovery of another piece of 1970s pop Christianity, Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. In fact, I owe this discovery to my parents. In 1973, a few weeks before we moved from Oregon to Alaska, their Young Life group gave them a copy of the double album as a going-away present. They warmly accepted it, of course. But later that evening, after the kids had shared memories, prayed together, hugged their teary goodbyes, and left, Mom confided to me that they must not have realized that the record’s representation of the Gospel story was considered blasphemous at some points. Not that my parents were the record-burning type. They always modeled a gracious, thoughtful open--mindedness to me. They had their opinions, but never made me feel like my soul was in jeopardy if I didn’t agree. Nor were they about to discard a heartfelt gift. So they slipped it in the back of their record case and soon forgot about it.
But I didn’t forget. A couple years later, when my folks got a new hi-fi stereo for the living room and I got the old one, I found the record and took it up to my room. Over the next several years, especially around Easter, I played it again and again. I was especially fascinated with the character of Judas, the one who betrayed Jesus, as performed by Murray Head. I was blown away by his intense, tormented, half-screamed expressions of righteous indignation and passionate love. Such a deeply conflicted disciple, wanting to be free from Jesus, needing to be loved by him, and not knowing how to love him back. And he was a tragic figure, too, Jesus’s right-hand man who was literally set up by God to betray him.
Lying there on my red shag carpet in front of tan upholstered hi-fi speakers, I wore the record out. Sometimes I would sing along passionately in my best hard-rock voice. Other times I’d transcribe the words. Occasionally I’d even look up the biblical texts that inspired them. In the process, I learned that there were actually two different versions of what happened to Judas. In one, from the Gospel of Matthew, Judas ultimately regrets betraying Jesus, returns the blood money, and hangs himself. In the other, from the book of Acts (the second volume of the Gospel of Luke), he never repents, but buys a field with the reward money, trips on a rock, and disembowels himself. Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber obviously went with Matthew’s version. And then went further, offering a fuller interpretation of the character of Judas. Their interpretation didn’t contradict the biblical text, but it allowed my imagination to find its way into the gaps in the story—what was left unsaid, between the lines. It brought the story to life in ways that raised profound questions without trying to answer them. So, not only did Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar open my eyes to blatant contradictions within the Bible; it also opened my heart and mind to a different way of engaging it, not as the book of answers but as a place to explore, to play, to find new angles of interpretation and imagine things differently.
I’ll return to the story of my own rediscovery of the Bible later in this book. Suffice for now to say that Head’s hard-rock Judas was soon sharing time on my hi-fi with many other artists who found inspiration in biblical literature, from Bob Dylan to U2 to Ani DiFranco. As time went on, these and other artists conversed in my head with the biblical scholarship I was studying in college and graduate school. I found my understanding of biblical literature and interpretation getting quite a bit more complicated, but also, and more importantly, a lot deeper. As I persevered in my studies of biblical languages and literature, the cultural history of the Bible, and the history of biblical interpretation, I began to see that the very idea of the Bible with which I was struggling was not very old. It was by no means the only way that Christian Scriptures had been understood and interpreted throughout history. I was coming to see it as a cultural construction, "the Word as we know it," with a fairly short history and a less than promising future.
Christian consumer culture and the Bible business have come a long way since The Way, as we’ll see. The Bible business has burgeoned into one of the biggest and fastest-growing fields of publishing, selling many thousands of different Bibles in every imaginable form for many hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Within this brave new world of Christian consumerism, it’s getting harder and harder to tell the difference between spreading the Word and selling it.
But the flagship consumer product, the heart of the industry, remains this cultural icon of the Bible, shaped by nineteenth-century Puritanic Biblicism, refined by early-twentieth-century fundamentalism, and repackaged, again and again, by neo-evangelicalism. That’s what the Bible biz is selling in pop culture form. And that, I have come to believe, is a dead end.
The icon of the Bible as God’s textbook for the world is as bankrupt as the idea that it stands for, of religious faith as absolute black-and-white certainty. Just as the cultural icon of the flag often becomes a substitute for patriotism, and just as the cultural icon of the four-wheel-drive truck often becomes a substitute for manly independence and self-confidence, so the cultural icon of the Bible often becomes a substitute for a vital life of faith, which calls not for obedient adherence to clear answers but thoughtful engagement with ultimate questions. The Bible itself invites that kind of engagement. The iconic image of it as a book of answers discourages it.
The Course of This Book
This book begins in the present, exploring the culture of biblical consumerism, in which marketing teams are the new evangelists and spreading the Word goes hand in hand with moving product. As publishers race to reinvent the Bible in an ever-widening variety of forms, all competing in the marketplace of faith to be the ultimate realization of the cultural icon of the Bible, I argue that they are stretching that idea to its breaking point. The icon of the Bible, The Book of books, is in the process of deconstruction.
And that, I believe, is a good thing. It’s the end of the Word as we know it, and I feel fine. The Word as we know it is not very old, as we have already begun to see, and it’s a distraction from the Scriptures themselves. Its end is an occasion to find a fresh approach to the Bible that is truer not only to its content but also to its fascinating history.
Many will be surprised to realize that there never has been a time when we could really talk about the Bible in the singular. There is no such thing as the Bible in that sense, and there never has been. The Bible has always been legion, a multiplicity of forms and contents, with no original to be found. In early -Judaism and Christianity, there were many different scrolls and codices, variously collected and shared in many different versions, with no standard edition. Even in the early centuries of the print era, after Gutenberg, we find a burgeoning Bible--publishing industry with literally thousands of different editions and versions. The difference between Bible publishing then and now is a matter of degree more than kind.
As we explore the cultural history of the Bible, beginning with earliest Christianity, before the Bible, and continuing through the print revolution into the present day, we come to realize how differently Christian Scriptures have been produced, understood, and used in different times and places. In the process, we begin to question the received wisdom that the Bible as we know it today is the way it’s always been known. The closer we look at its history of development, the more richly complex the picture becomes. Here, then, is an opportunity to rediscover the Bible after the Bible. The end of the Word as we know it calls for another way of knowing.
As a professor of religious studies in a secular university, I never presume that the students in my classes share a common religious or nonreligious background. A typical class includes a wide diversity of religious perspectives and perspectives on religion. A lot of them are Christian or Jewish. Most are not. I am very comfortable teaching in this kind of context, and I hope that this book will reach similarly mixed company.
At the same time, students of every background often remind me of what I knew very well back when, as a student, I fell in love with what I now teach: that the most powerful educational experiences always come very close to the bone. Our hearts race. Our faces flush. Our skin tingles. We find ourselves making connections between what matters inside the classroom and what matters outside. We find the histories we’re exploring in class speaking to our own personal stories.
Often, toward the end of a course, after final papers have been handed in and things are winding down, a student will raise her or his hand and ask me how I personally make sense of what we’ve been studying. It usually goes something like this: "You’re a Christian, right? So what does the Bible mean to you in your spiritual life?" Or more bluntly, "How can you still be a Christian?" It’s usually a conservative Christian student who asks the question. But most students in the class perk up to hear how I’ll respond. For some, like the questioner, the course has challenged their understanding of the Bible and its history in profound ways. They can’t look at the Bible the same way as they used to. They’re wondering if it’s still relevant to their faith. I’ve obviously been through a similar process. How did I do it? For others, especially those who are not religious or who are even anti-religious, it seems like I’ve laid out plenty of good reasons to throw out or at least play down the importance of the Bible. Yet I don’t want them to. Why not? Where’s the value, let alone the necessity, in continuing to read it religiously? Moving through the first two parts of this book, many readers, I expect, will have similar questions. And they matter very much to me, too. In the last chapter, I hope to clear some space to reflect on them.
That, in a nutshell, is the course of this book: from the present, to the past, to the future. It’s the end of the Word as we know it. There’s no going back. But there is a way forward.
My Utmost, Revisited
Shortly after I began my first job as a professor of biblical studies at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, I received a package from my parents in my office mailbox. Inside was a brand-new copy of the devotional classic My Utmost for His Highest, by Oswald Chambers, a beloved Scottish preacher and founder of the Bible Training College in London. Published ten years after his untimely death in 1917 of acute appendicitis, My Utmost is a collection of Chambers’s teachings that were transcribed and edited by his widow, Gertrude Hobbs, into 365 daily devotionals. Each begins with a biblical passage in the familiar King James Version, followed by an exhortation inspired by that passage. For as long as I could remember, a very well-worn copy of this book had lain open on Mom’s nightstand, next to her Bible, and I had often seen her reading from it during her daily prayer times.
A short handwritten note from Mom bookmarked the entry for December 15, my birthday. The biblical passage at the top of the page was from Paul’s second letter to his disciple Timothy, my namesake, in the New Testament. It reads, "Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth." In the brief exhortation beneath the passage, Chambers takes on the voice of Paul, encouraging his reader, as though a young disciple, to struggle to find a way to express God’s truth for himself so that his words can strengthen others in their faith.
In the note, Mom wrote that she and Dad had made this biblical passage and Chambers’s reflection on it their lifelong prayer for me. They had read it together and prayed for me every December 15 since my first birthday.
I’m ashamed to admit it, but at the time I didn’t fully appreciate this gift. Moved as I was, and always have been, by my parents’ steadfast, prayerful care for me, I was put off by the book and the biblical quotation in it. I’d never read My Utmost, but I had dismissed it as sentimental and moralistic. When it came in the mail, I immediately associated it with the kind of fundamentalist Biblicism that I had rejected.
Reading Chambers’s exhortation now, however, I can see what my parents must always have seen: not a command to submit to authority for approval, but a call to wrestle with what presents itself as authoritative in order to find my own voice in relation to it. "If you cannot express yourself on any subject," Chambers begins, "struggle until you can." He describes this struggle, this suffering for words, as going through the "winepress of God," where inherited expressions of truth get crushed like ripe grapes. "You must struggle to get expression experimentally, then there will come a time when that expression will become the very wine of strengthening to someone else." He concludes,
Always make a practice of provoking your own mind to think out what it accepts easily. Our position is not ours until we make it ours by suffering. The author who benefits you most is not the one who tells you something you did not know before, but the one who gives expression to the truth that has been dumbly struggling in you for utterance.
Struggling to divide the "word of truth" that I’ve inherited, wrestling with the theological traditions in which I’m steeped, with the Word itself, experimenting to remake those inheritances into words that I can write or say with integrity, words that might mean something to someone else, which is what my parents had prayed and wished for me. This is the struggle and experiment of my life. It is, I daresay, my calling, my vocation as a writer and teacher. It is both an intellectual, scholarly struggle and a personal, religious one.
What I had once seen in myself as an unacceptable struggle with the meaning of the Bible, and a drawn-out rebellion against the biblical faith of my parents, I now recognize as an answer to prayer. Whether or not prayer can move mountains, there’s no doubt that it can be powerfully transformative for the one praying, and for those prayed for. As the very wise minister to whom I’m married reminds me, prayer is most essentially the expression of deep desire. Pray ceaselessly, Paul exhorts. Over time, you may live into the desires of your most heartfelt prayers. I believe that my folks, especially Mom, lived into their December 15 prayer for me. They created a safe and loving home space in which the striving to understand and articulate articles of faith for myself, dividing words of truth, was not only allowed but encouraged and celebrated, even when the outcome, often born of much angst and struggle, was an articulation of faith that neither of them could themselves entirely affirm. Even today, I notice a quickening flush of pride and joy on Mom’s face when we argue, which we often do, about the Bible and theology. Likewise when she reads, with an occasional furrow or flinch, something I’ve -written.
Although I’ve drifted quite a distance from the familiar biblical waters of the conservative evangelical tradition in which I was raised and which my parents so admirably represent, I hold much respect for that tradition and gladly acknowledge my own enduring debt to it. Its emphasis on introspection in search of personal growth has challenged me always to dig deep within myself in order to examine critically my own presuppositions and vested interests. Its emphasis on working out one’s own salvation with fear and trembling has inspired in me a lifelong restlessness of mind and spirit. Above all, its biblical literalism and its supreme valuing of every iota of the Bible have instilled in me an abiding passion for biblical interpretation and a love for the smallest details of the text. All these gifts have served me well not only as a teacher and scholar of religious studies but also as a person of faith.
At the heart of the evangelical tradition, aptly captured in Chambers’s exhortation, is struggle. There is no way to grow and mature in one’s faith without wrestling with the ideas and traditions that one has inherited. No one else can do it for you—not parents, not ministers, not youth group leaders, not professors, not Bible publishers. The iconic idea of the Bible as a book of black-and-white answers encourages us to remain in a state of spiritual immaturity. It discourages curiosity in the terra incognita of biblical literature, handing us a Magic 8 Ball Bible to play with instead. In turning readers away from the struggle, from wrestling with the rich complexity of biblical literature and its history, in which there are no easy answers, it perpetuates an adolescent faith. It keeps us out of the deep end, where we have to "ride these monsters down," as Annie Dillard put it, trusting that it’s not about the end product but the process.
I have tried to write a book about the Bible and its place in society that will mean something to a lot of people from a lot of different backgrounds, liberal and conservative, religious and nonreligious. For some, what I’m saying here will be liberating, an opportunity to overcome a dominant idea of the Bible that has felt oppressive to them for many years, perhaps a lifetime. For others, however, my argument may be unnerving. After all, I’m challenging the very foundation of the idea of religious faith as a search for clarity, suggesting that faith dwells as much in questions and mystery as it does in answers and certainty. I want to acknowledge that sense of unease, and confess that I, as a person of faith, sometimes feel it, too. But I also want to ask, as a fellow Christian, does this not follow the pattern of God’s revelation that is at the core of the Gospel? Isn’t this quintessentially the Christian experience? Should it surprise us that the God who took on human nature would leave us with a text with as much complexity as the human experience? Indeed, like so many encounters with Jesus in the Gospel stories, we might go to the Bible looking for answers, but we usually come away with more questions.
That said, it’s not necessary to believe that the Bible is a divine creation or product of "intelligent design" in order to appreciate what I’m trying to do in this book. Like so many stories, including some in the Bible, you can find God in this one if you’re looking, but you don’t have to. I myself usually think of the -Bible’s growth and development as something akin to the science of chaos. I see it emerging in all its wonderful complexity—"coming to life," if you will—in the course of a long and often chaotic process involving multiple, often conflicting interests and influences. Perhaps that way of seeing it works better for you. Or perhaps you think both make sense. In any case, it’s a wonder to -behold.
For now, I’m happy to make Chambers’s final exhortation my own prayer for this book: to provoke myself and others to think through what we may accept too easily when it comes to the Bible, and in the process to rediscover Scriptures in fresh new ways.