While I may not share Timothy Beal’s view that print culture is on its way out (I harbor hopes every time I see vinyl records making appearances in stores), he is certainly correct most of the time in The Rise and Fall of the Bible. Written for non-specialists, this book nevertheless gives his fellow biblical scholars pause to stop and think. Beginning with an eerily similar childhood experience (although mine was considerably more dysfunctional and appears to be veering back in that direction by career exigencies), Beal recounts how he came to study the Bible with a critical eye and to observe a number of important things. One of the scholars associated with the Iconic Book movement, he shows how our biblically illiterate society still values the symbolic nature of the book in various ways. We still buy, for example, lots of Bibles. We still want elected officials at least willing to swear on one. We still think it has some special kind of power.
Beal gives a brief history of “the Bible” as an idea. It is essential, as he notes, to realize that as a “thing” the concept of Bible is fairly recent. Certainly nobody in Jesus’ day thought of it as we do. What’s more, and more to the iconic element, Bible sellers have been looking for “added value” to boost the sales. Biblezines (of which I’d not heard) and Manga Bibles are only two examples of the many “extras” Bible vendors add to their texts. In essence they are making new Bibles. Beal wonders how much buyers read the actual biblical text as opposed to the other, more eye-catching material in these books. Bibles are made trendy and hip, decorated, dissected, and dolled up. And we feel virtuous for purchasing them. We play right into Big Dan’s hand, if you get my meaning.
A fascinating collection of interesting bits about the way the Bible has been re-presented to the same public for over two centuries, The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book is an appropriate subtitle here. Those who fueled the Bible craze—those that we now routinely call Fundamentalists—are among those most distressed by the indignities perpetrated upon what was once considered a sacred text. What can be more fundamental than making money off people’s beliefs? Still, for Beal and his colleagues who have managed to land the rare positions teaching Bible, there is an urgency about this whole enterprise. “These jobs,” in Bruce Springsteen’s words and my own experience, “are going boys, and they ain’t comin’ back.” Meanwhile our culture will continue to make love to its holy book, even though they may not recognize who they wake up next to in the morning.