Being a Bibles editor, I suppose, is a rare kind of job these days. The book that defined our culture now rests in the back seat under discarded fast food bags and covenants of a more modern kind. Often it surprises me how little we really know about the Good Book. When I was a teenager I discovered that Catholic Bibles had more books than the Protestant versions with which I’d grown up. Had I been more attuned to historical issues at that point this surely would’ve raised a crisis. Had we left out some sacred books? That would seem to be a grave mistake. As I was making my way through all the translations of the Bible you could find in a rural area in pre-internet days, I began to read the Apocrypha.
The title “Apocrypha” translates to “hidden” or “obscure.” Martin Luther’s argument was that these books were never in the Bible recognized by the Jews (therefore, by extension, Jesus), and therefore should be left out. My question upon reading them, as it was regarding just about any book, was “did this really happen?” That was the acid test for a Fundamentalist youth. If something really happened it was, by definition, true. The implications of this for the books of the Protestant Bible only became clear later. Scripture is more subtle than that. So it is that I’ve been thinking about how we in Bible-land privilege the western canon. Not only are the Deuterocanonical books called “Apocrypha,” we leave out the books of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, despite its 45 million members.
The books of 1 Enoch and Jubilees are included in the Ethiopian canon, but they can be tricky to find even now in the wide world webbed together. Western biblical scholars have begun to take strong interest in these books, but the days are long passed when scholars could determine the content of the Bible. The Good Book has taken on a life of its own that no amount of scholarship can challenge. Minds have already been made up and tightly closed, even as we continue to gain information on ancient contexts and the massive collection of writings that never made it into anyone’s Bible. Fundamentalism, so very certain of itself, has defined a circumscribed Bible to which nothing may be added or taken away. Even as John of Patmos wrote that admonition, however, the Bible recognized by early Christians was growing. And, ironically, some even left out his book. Such matter remain hidden indeed.
I remember it clearly. The ubiquity of technology robs me of the memory of how I knew about it, but there was plenty of pre-internet buzz. A new Bible translation was being published and people were very excited. Including me. By the time the New International Version (NIV) was set to appear, I had read every translation of the Good Book I knew, cover-to-cover. Being a good evangelical, I started with the King James. I’d read it a time or two, then moved on to the Revised Standard Version. As you might guess, with my interests I didn’t have a lot of friends, but I do recall people complaining that it wasn’t literal enough. I’d read the Living Bible, and the Good News Bible. My favorite was probably the New American Standard Bible, though, because it was as close to languages I then didn’t know as I could get.
We didn’t have much money in my family, and since my summer jobs covered the cost of my school clothes, disposable income was fairly rare. But then a miracle. Christmas morning I opened my “big gift”—a brand new NIV. In a way that is somehow difficult to recapture these days, I was absurdly happy getting a new Bible. I started reading it right away. Little did I know it would become the best-selling modern English translation of all time. And that’s saying something—Bibles are big business. The reason for the NIV’s appeal was that it was Evangelical-friendly. No awkward issues like inclusive language, and, to be honest, a nicely rendered English.
Being in the Bibles business I decided to read about who was behind the NIV and found an unexpected connection with Rutgers University, where I used to teach. The owner of the NIV translation is Biblica. Biblica is the name of the International Bible Society, initially founded in 1809 as the New York Bible Society. In a way that’s hard to imagine in today’s New York City, that’s where the group formed. One of its founders? Henry Rutgers. Eventually the New York Bible Society became international, and like many good evangelicals, moved to Colorado Springs. The money from continuing sales of the NIV must contribute to their somewhat posh-looking campus. Meanwhile, Rutgers University has moved in quite a different direction.
Connections like this have always fascinated me. Although much detritus has flowed under the bridge with all that water, I can still feel that brief, sharp release of endorphins when I pick up my well-used NIV. I think of days of naive faith and all that has come after. Yes, Bibles are big business, and yet somehow so very small.
Posted in American Religion, Bible, Memoirs, Posts, Sects
Tagged Bible, Biblica, Evangelical, Henry Rutgers, International Bible Society, New International Version, New York Bible Society, New York City, NIV
The weather around here has been appropriately gloomy for the autumnal equinox. Although Hurricane Florence gave us a day of rain, the heavy clouds have been part of a pattern that has held largely since May. Given the gray skies, we opted to watch Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds last night. My wife isn’t a horror fan, but she does like Hitch. We’ve watched The Birds together many times, but this is the first time since I wrote Holy Horror. I was somewhat surprised to recall how much Scripture plays into the script. This is mostly due to a drunken doomsday sayer in the diner. After the attack on the school kids of Bodega Bay, he declares that it’s the end of the world and begins citing the Bible. He’s there for comic relief, but the way the movie ends he could be right.
When I was writing Holy Horror I had a few moments of panic myself. Had I found all the horror films with the Bible in them? Could anyone do so (without an academic job and perhaps a grant to take time off to watch movies)? I eventually realized that I was merely providing a sample in that analysis. Several weeks after I submitted the manuscript I watched The Blair Witch Project. There was the Bible. The same thing happened last night under a glowering late September sky. The Birds has the Bible. Two weeks ago I saw The Nun; well, that one’s almost cheating. But you get the picture—the Good Book appears rather frequently in horror. That’s what inspired me to write the book in the first place.
Now that nights are longer, and cooler, the grass has somewhat poignantly relinquished its aggressive summer growth. Most of the ailanthus trees have been cut down (I must be part lumberjack). My outside hours are limited not only by work but by the fading light. In the words of the sage, “winter’s tuning up.” We moved to a house we saw in the spring as days were lengthening. Now we’ve come to the dividing line that will slowly leech the light from our evening skies. I suspect that as I go back and watch some of my old favorites again I’ll discover something I already knew. The Bible and horror belong together because both are means of coping with the darkness. Call it puerile if you will, but there is something profound about this connection. It just has to be dark for you to see it.
Posted in Animals, Bible, Memoirs, Movies, Posts
Tagged Alfred Hitchcock, autumnal equinox, Bible, Holy Horror, The Birds, The Blair Witch Project, tree of heaven