Many a student has been spared the reading of primary sources by study guides. This is not a new phenomenon. While still regularly teaching Hebrew Bible, I picked up a copy of Cliff Notes, The Bible, to show students how not to get the picture. To be fair, I was teaching future priests, and, despite my progressive outlook, I believe all Christian clergy ought to have read the Bible at least once. I know enough of Christian history to realize that the emphasis on sacred writ is not as ancient as many Protestants think—before the advent of modern literacy rates, scripture reading (and interpreting) was the business of the church. The laity were to receive it in the form of sermons, and so reading the Bible wasn’t really necessary. With the Reformation, however, the Bible became central and preaching became a matter of intelligent interpretation of the same. Today any Christian minister should have a pretty good grasp of holy writ, believe it or not.
With a touch of puckish optimism, my family gave me a copy of the Spark Notes Old and New Testaments at Christmas. Spark, according to the copyright page, is a division of Barnes and Noble, and, should the cover be believed, today’s most popular study guides. As an erstwhile author of biblical studies material, I was curious about who wrote the notes. Enough of the scholar remains for me to be critical, and one of the first questions always to arise is, who wrote this? The question ought to be even more poignant for Bible readers. One of the most looming of questions is that of authority to interpret. Different branches of Christianity still maintain the proprietary right to be the true guardians of the sole truth. Although perhaps softened somewhat from soaking in the broth of religious-political activism, the Fundamentalist would, in any natural world, distrust the interpretation of a Catholic. And vice-versa. Looking at my Spark Notes, I wonder who it is that is telling me the truth.
Abridgment is a kind of crime for literary connoisseurs. As a child I purchased my books from Goodwill or Salvation Army—the kinds of places to which poverty-level readers have access. Although occasionally drawn to Reader’s Digest editions on purely economical grounds, I studiously avoided abridged works. Who decides what single syllable of Melville should be left out of Moby Dick? All the degrees in the world don’t justify that! The interpreter is just as human as the reader, and this kind of power is too heady for mere mortals to handle. The abridger of the Bible must take heed of Deuteronomy 4.2 and Revelation 22.18-19. There’s a lurking suspicion, nevertheless, that something might be learned from the stripped-down scriptures. It is with some anticipation that I look forward to receiving some anonymous instruction as I seek a Spark of truth.