The striking thing about Evangelicalism is its protean nature. The earliest forms of this conversion-based “Christianity” began with the Reformation among Pietist Protestants. They sincerely believed in two things: the Bible and Jesus. Today Evangelicals deny both. They believe in Donald Trump. Racism and subordination of women are their two main foci. And yet, they wish to keep the brand. Daily we see the standards of traditional “Christianity” tumble: turn the other cheek, love your neighbor as thyself, if a man asks your cloak give him your coat also. All of this jettisoned like so much non-capitalist clap-trap. Thing is, it’s in the Bible. Thing is, it was said by Jesus. And also anyone who even looks at a woman with lust in his heart is guilty of adultery, let alone those who pay them off so they can grab another on the way out the door. All of that’s now “Christianity.”
The funny thing is that those who object to such behavior are what Evangelicals scornfully call “liberals.” So much for the group that just three short years ago advocated the reinstitution of biblical law. Now that 45 would have committed a capital crime according to such laws, they have changed the Good Book rather than rebuke the pastor in chief. Ironically, some of the children of famous evangelists have drunk deeply from that Kool-Aid. It’s fine to sleep around as long as you lie the right way at the right time. Bear false witness? What does that even mean? You’d think liberals were suggesting that those God loves are chasteneth by him, for goodness sake!
Many of us feel as though we woke up to an alternate reality in November of 2016. We supposed the Republican Party would show some backbone, but when they didn’t we weren’t all that surprised. What shocked us most is that the leopard has changed its spots. Those of us brought up with the Bible were led to believe this impossible. After all, who can change a hair from black to white (although some of us would rather have it go the opposite direction)? We thought that Holy Writ would guide the Evangelical heart. We thought they would remember who Jesus was. All of this is negotiable now. The only solid rock on which they build their church—those to whom they give the keys to the kingdom—are those that fall into goose-step behind a “leader” for whom the truth changes daily. Opportunist be thy name. Were Jesus alive to see all this, surely he’d weep.
Perhaps the clearest place my hunter-gatherer roots show is in my tendency to collect. In principle, in Manhattan, I leave coins on the pavement for those less fortunate than myself. This past week on the way to work, I walked past a scattering of pennies on the sidewalk. It physically ached to leave the shiny coins there—one of my recurring dreams is to find a bunch of coins that will lead to the end of my constant fear of want. News of ancient hordes found excite me inordinately. As a child I collected odd things if they came in numbers: stamps and coins and baseball cards go without saying, but also fossils, bottle caps, little HO scale military figurines, even pockets full of punched metal slugs that had obviously fallen from a truck leaving the steel mill just across the river in blessed abundance. My mother asked, not unreasonably, “what do you plan to do with those?” My brothers and I had no answers, but we had found something in profusion. The hunter-gatherer urge was to collect.
In my teenage years my collecting focused on books. It has remained there ever since. Even in times of penury when I’ve visited the used book store with intent to sell, I’ve always skulked out with more guilt than cash. The Judas Iscariot of the publication world. While sorting through some old files at work, I found a magazine called Bible Editions and Versions. Now, Bibles are books, and I have a fair collection of them, and have even read most of them cover-to-cover. I never knew, however, that Bible collecting was a recognized avocation. And one with a society and magazine. Looking closer, I found the address: www.biblecollectors.org, online home of the International Society of Bible Collectors. Yes, they have a website and the magazine still exists. Porn for sacred writ aficionados. The society has been around since I was two, but it took me half a century to find it.
The Bible is a totem. One colleague describes it as an iconic book. The more secular elements of society simply dismiss it until the loss of the senate makes them scratch their heads and say, “there are people who still take this stuff seriously?” While the numbers may have fallen off a bit, Bibles remain big business. Large print editions may be selling better these days, but the species is hardly endangered. In a world where so much seems uncertain, there is a natural appeal to a book that hasn’t really changed too much for a couple thousand years. Oh, and which claims to have God as its author. As I walk by that pile of pennies on the sidewalk, an almost magnetic force slows me down. I really want to stop and pick them up. I walk on knowing that in a box in my attic I have some real collectors items, in certain segments of society. For the ISBC I might be considered already a wealthy man.
Overproduction is a survival strategy among many animal and plant populations. Just consider the number of acorns under one oak tree, or “propellers” under a maple in the spring. Swarms of ants or the legendary multiplication of rabbits. It’s as if nature knows most won’t survive, so you’d better prepare plenty. The same applies in the publishing industry. Every book is a gamble, and you can’t know which one will sell out and which one will collect the dust of ages on a warehouse shelf—a shelf you have to pay dearly to lease. This applies to best-sellers as well, such as the Bible. By almost any standard the Bible is among the best selling books of all time. Literally more than a billion have been printed. It exists in multiple translations and in many languages. And many copies end up sitting on the shelf. So many, in fact, that eventually a kind of limit is reached and you either need to rent another warehouse or thin the stock a bit. In my position, knowing what other publishers are doing is vital, so buying their Bibles is important. Then someone else needs your shelf-space.
A genizah is a repository for “retired” sacred scripture featured in some synagogues. Texts that are too sacred to toss into the garbage when they’re worn out may be buried among others of their kind in a genizah. Well, a storage room at work isn’t exactly a genizah, but it is a room where hundreds of out of print Bibles lie forgotten. Salvation in dry storage. As the new kid in the department, I get to clean the closet. Our own Bibles we are able to sell, but the hundreds amassed from other publishers over the years, well, we aren’t running a genizah here.
My instructions are: “see that dumpster over there?” For a kid who grew up believing that it was an order of sin even to place another book on top of a Bible, the idea of filling a dumpster with the good book presents a crisis of a greater magnitude. The simply is no room in the inn. Besides, I’ve lost a job or two already. And I’ve seen the damage that Bibles can wreak in the wrong hands. Still, I followed the Bible through three degrees, and in some form or another my entire life has revolved around that book. But I’m talking like an idolator. Bibles are big business. Few Bible publishers can’t turn a profit. And profits, we all know, lead us to produce even more.
One of the more curvilinear sequences of numerals has taken on demonic attributes over the centuries. Even the most secular of people, at least in the United States, can identify 666 as some kind of bad juju. The more literate among them will be able to pin the origins more precisely to the book of Revelation, often likely as not misnamed “Revelations”—something sure to drive your New Testament professor as mad as a beast. Fans of true precision will surely want to add that it is Revelation 13.17-18 that makes the number infamous. The latter verse starts out with “Here is wisdom,” which already spells disaster, for who doesn’t want to think him or herself wise? 666 is said to be the number of a man, and is conflated with the “mark of the beast”—one of the quickest ways to bring evolution and economics into the discussion. In popular culture 666 is said to be effective in invoking the devil. This idea is not found in the Bible, but it sure makes for an easy way to identify the Prince of Darkness in movies and popular culture.
The other day I received a mysterious email at work from a “Dr. Strangelove” with the email username of “camus666ster.” Indeed, the topic was appropriately apocalyptic and it managed to make it through a pretty strenuous spam-filter. Here was something apparently supernatural during the work-day. I’m also conscious that a building visible from the window behind my desk is 666 Third Avenue, but I’m pretty certain that these two sexagesimal cousins have nothing to do with one another. It is only a certain religious sensibility that brings them together. Where else in the world do authorities have trouble with people stealing roadsigns for route 666? And why do I get the feeling that someone is watching me?
Revelation may have had more impact on our culture than any other single book. Whether it’s checking your iPhone for the weather, or wondering what is going to happen next in the Middle East, we all want a view into the future. It is a view that some suppose old John saw while exiled on Patmos. Others recognize that Revelation was a thinly veiled contemporary account to give hope to persecuted Christians in an era of imperial violence. Either way, the book, despite some effort to keep it out, ended up having the final say in the Christian canon. In a nation where every person possesses several unique identifiers, we still look over our collective shoulders for an anonymous beast who is about to bring down society. Don’t worry, folks, I’ve got his number.
Back when I was teaching Hebrew Bible in a seminary for a living, I purchased a book entitled The Bible Without Theology by Robert A. Oden Jr. I had intended to read it as a sanity break from the over-compensatory theological glosses that even the slightest reading of the Bible had in that setting. As the years passed and the book remained unread, I came to think of it as a systematic deconstructing of theological readings of the Bible, which it is not. Instead, Oden has gathered in this useful little book several essays centered on the topic of how the theological reading of the Bible has all but drowned out any other interpretations and has secured the privileged position of the Bible not only in society, but also in academia. Naturally, many people see such privilege as a witness of undisputed truth, even though how that truth is interpreted remains an open question.
Scholars, however, have the obligation not to favor their worldview over the evidence. Oden begins by discussing how history itself is perceived differently among those of various mindsets. History is an important part of the Bible’s theological reading since many Judeo-Christian interpretations revolve around a sense of historical veracity. After illustrating how history and mythology both lay claim to the text, Oden points out that even obviously mythological episodes have been blockaded by a theological reading of the scriptures. With examples from socio-anthropological studies, he demonstrates that parts of Genesis are best understood by investigating how kinship structures work, as well as how clothing serves as a status marker rather than a hidden justification for sacrifice, or chilly nights outside Eden.
Although The Bible Without Theology wasn’t exactly what I’d come to suppose it was, it remains a proper prologue to the issue. When Oden’s book appeared in the 1980s, the Religious Right was just finding its feet, fueled by a hyper-theological reading of the Bible. Since that time, the Bible has been used as theological justification to repress everyone from women to those biologically inclined toward their own gender. Bible scholars have, in general, known this is wrong. However, theologically inclined institutions won’t pay instructors for honestly engaging the text. Bible scholars are expected to throw their expertise behind the theological outlook of their institution in a way that Oden rightly points out, no other academic discipline would accept. In reaction to the biblical abuses of the Neo-Con crowd, many Americans are wondering why this one holy book is so privileged. While it may not have all the answers, Oden’s riposte will help to explain why the Bible deserves better.
Over the last couple of days the Higgs boson has been in the news. Although I seldom ventured too far from New College and the faculty of divinity at the University of Edinburgh, it makes me glow with a special pride knowing I inhabited a small corner of the university of Peter Higgs. (And many other luminaries, including Charles Darwin.) My hopes of understanding the Higgs boson are more remote than even finding a university post (very long odds indeed), but I know that it is so important to physics that it has earned the moniker of “the God particle.” I first learned of the Higgs boson through Morgan Freeman’s Through the Wormhole series. At that stage it hadn’t yet acquired its divine status. Godhood must be earned, after all, at least in the eyes of humans. It is the proposed particle that stands to make sense of quantum physics, the world of the very small and the very weird.
There is an object lesson hidden in here. When even scientists get pushed to the limits of human knowledge, superlatives grow diminished. What can we call such a radical, powerful force in human thought? The particle itself, the boson, is not inherently stronger than a proton or electron, but its divine designation comes from its ability to, dare I say, replace god. In other words, it is the particle that explains so much that it is like the new god. News stories do not tell us where the nickname arose, but the best guess seems to be that some journalist with a flair for the dramatic brought God into the equation. God sells copy. But has the name also got enough room for a snake around the tree—or rather, around the nucleus?
In America, where science is under siege, any claims for God will be taken literally by some. We have witnessed again and again sheer silliness being paraded as “science” by Bible “experts” who take nearly half the population with them. The mental gyrations of the intelligent design crowd as they try to force God back into the equation should be warning enough. The God particle is baiting them and most Americans are ill-equipped to decide for themselves what is actually science. No sooner do we get a grip on nanotechnology than we begin building nanocathedrals. In that cathedral if scientists find the Higgs boson, it will not be god. It will, like god, open the door to many more unexplained phenomena, for god is not an explanatory principle. If we need a name to convey the great, rational explanatory power of such an elusive sub-atomic bit it seems to me—and I may be biased—that we call it the Edinburgh particle instead.
You go away for a few days and look what happens to the neighborhood. With the Bible scholars safely out of town, a South Carolina woman used two hollowed out Bibles to smuggle weapons and drugs to a friend in prison. According to a story in the New Jersey Star-Ledger, the eviscerated Bibles contained knives, a cell phone, ecstasy and cocaine. Bibles often act as metaphors, and in this case the image of trouble coming in the form of a sacred book is poignant. No one thinks to suspect a Bible (well, Stephen King did), so conservative and clean-cut. What lies inside, however, is seldom closely examined. What is found there often defies biblical scholars and prison guards.
The Bible, as an icon, is spotless in the public eye. You can place a hand atop its venerable cover and, magically, you won’t be able to lie. You can heft it aloft and demons will flee in fright. You can even use it to measure chastity. (Back in my college there was a four-feet-six-inches rule. Men in women’s dorm rooms during brief, allotted visiting hours could sit next to their sweeties, but they had to keep all four feet on the ground and remain six inches apart—a distance, we were told—that could be filled by placing a Bible between the lovers. And the door had to be kept open, just in case.) The book has become the deity. Placing God between the desires of lovers is a metaphor ripe for the picking.
Few can forget the scene in The Shawshank Redemption when Warden Norton opens Andy Dufresne’s Bible to find the rock-hammer-shaped hole cut out of the pages. The Bible had set Dufresne free. And it did so unwittingly. The Bible’s message, in the film, was intended to keep prisoners in a state of submission, but human interest brought the Bible much closer to its noble purpose of setting the prisoner free. The Bible has been a privileged book throughout American history, and even before. In England it used to be chained to the lecterns of churches to prevent it from being privately studied. Its great power, however, lays not within the manipulation it excuses, but in the human spirit that finds liberation through, and sometimes despite, the famous black book.