Bible Misunderstood

Okay, so I wrote a post a couple days ago about evangelicals challenging Trump’s China tariffs because it will raise the price of Bibles.  Little did I know that Miriam Adelson wants a “Book of Trump” added to that very Bible.  Now, heroes are a personal business; to each their own.  Adding someone to the Bible, however, especially when that person has no idea of what Jesus said, is problematic.  Biblical and ecclesiastical scholars know that even if most Christians agreed books simply can’t be added to Scripture.  Many think the Gospel of Thomas should qualify—it may actually be closer to the words of Jesus than some of the canonical gospels and was putatively written by a disciple.  Thomas, however, will never make the cut.  Early bishops and elders in the church set pretty firm limits to the New Testament.  

Some religious traditions, such as Mormonism, have gotten around this impasse by writing entirely new sacred texts.  Loyal Trump followers might indeed fit the description of what used to be called a cult.  Thing is, George W., and George H. W., and even Ronald Reagan were more religious than the incumbent and nobody suggested adding them to the Good Book.  Our world has somehow flipped upside down in the last three years.  All I know is that in the photos of Trump with the most Jesus-like Pope in modern memory the Holy Father wasn’t smiling.  Then again, the Pontiff would likely not autograph Bibles if asked to do so.  Has anyone suggested a book of George Washington?  There’s such a thing as getting carried away.  

The Bible, apart from being the sole recognized authoritative text of the world’s largest organized religion, is an iconic text.  This means that the Bible is recognized as an important book—perhaps even a stand-in for God—without considering what it actually says.  This was a major point behind Holy Horror and it’s essential to understanding American political behavior.  Manipulating Scripture for political ends is generally the most cynical of approaches to the Good Book.  In America you can drive down highways and see the Bible advertised on billboards.  Large segments of an increasingly secular society are still motivated by it.  There was a time when it was believed that such cavalier suggestions as that of Ms. Adelson would constitute blasphemy, or would at least profane the founding book of Christianity.  In the minds of some Trump has clearly become a god.  So it was in Rome before the fall.

 

Weaponized Scripture

One of the many questions that haunt evangelical Christians is whether it is okay to watch horror films or not.  The same applies to whether it’s okay to listen to rock-n-roll (even as it’s reaching its senior years).  Cultural accommodation is often seen as evil and evangelicalism, as a movement, is frequently offered as a culture all its own.  I recently rewatched Brian Dannelly’s Saved!, a coming-of-age comedy about a group of teenagers at American Eagle Christian High School.  Gently satirical, it portrays well how evangelicals try to redefine “cool” in a Christian mode.  Taking tropes from pop culture and “baptizing” them, Pastor Skip—the principal—assures the young people that they’re every bit as cool as secular culture icons, only the Christians are going to heaven.

The film came out when I was teaching at Nashotah House.  That seminary also had problems with secular culture, but in a completely different way.  Its method was basically to ignore that culture.  Isolated, Anglo-Catholic, one might even say “Medieval” but for the sanitation, it was likely not a safe place for a professor to be watching such films.  Evangelicalism and right-wing Catholicism were beginning to find each other.  Once the cats and dogs of the theological world, they were becoming more like goldfish in their bowl, watching a strange and unnerving world just outside the glass.  A world in which they couldn’t survive.  Now, Saved! is only a cinematic version of this, but it has a few profound moments.  Mary, the protagonist, comes to see the hypocrisy of both the school and her former friends when she supports a boyfriend who is gay.

At one point her friends attempt an intervention.  They try to exorcize Mary, and when that fails one of them throws a Bible at her.  Picking it up, Mary says “This is not a weapon.”  Since this movie isn’t by any stretch of the imagination horror, I didn’t address it in Holy Horror.  As I rewatched it in the light of that book, however, I recognized a motif I did discuss in it.  The use of the Bible in movies is extremely common.  That applies to films that don’t have an overt Christian setting such as this one does.  The iconic Bible is a protean book.  Despite what Mary says it can indeed be a weapon.  It often is.  Many of us have been harmed by it.  Christian separatist culture has its own dark side, even if it’s carefully hidden, its adherents think, from the secular world outside the fishbowl.

Cloaking Device

America’s book is seldom read. Those of us who spend an unusual amount of time with the Bible know this from personal experience, but others are starting to notice too. Kenneth A. Briggs’ The Invisible Bestseller: Searching for the Bible in America is a rambling account of the way a variety of everyday people from prisoners to academics and clergy use, read or not read, and perhaps inwardly digest the Good Book. There are moments of stark insight in this book, but with no narrative arc it is somewhat easy to feel like you’re reading about what random people say about the Bible. I don’t need a book to tell me that I’m odd, but much of what I read here was old hat to a guy who grew up Evangelical, went to seminary but never got ordained, completed a doctorate and taught the Bible nearly two decades before being booted out of its company. I’m not sure what I expected to find. Perhaps redemption?

Briggs does provide some useful statistics, and not as maniacally as sociologists do. We learn that few people read the Bible and the numbers are declining. Still, people buy the Bible and tend to have multiple copies in their domiciles. It is cheaper than insurance, after all. Holy Writ, however, is an alien among us. Few people have any idea what it was like to live before smart phones, let alone before the smelting of iron. The concerns and dialogues of the Bible seem so terribly provincial and, to be honest, unenlightened (if one can say such a thing about divine revelation). Still, we won’t accept a president who doesn’t lay his (and it’s always his) hand on the Good Book and swear to uphold America.

The Invisible Bestseller gave me plenty of information to ponder. Some of the tales Briggs tells are interesting. Others are so mundane as to be stultifying. The overarching fact is that the Bible is an established object in our culture. Some take it seriously enough to read it and stick with it—this isn’t easy to do, and I speak from experience here. Such people are rare. After all, apart from getting you a hall pass out of Hell, the Bible doesn’t seem to do much for people these days. Still, when I take a moment to read the Sermon on the Mount, I can’t help but feel we might be missing some wonderful rhetoric by ignoring the Good Book so much. But then again, I’m fully aware that I’m the one that’s odd. Briggs’ book stands as a testament to a couple of testaments that continue to wield enormous power without ever being read.

Bible Use

In the current presidential race, it seems, the Bible hasn’t been as large an issue as it has been in the past. Bluff, bravado, and bullying seem more the order of the day. Goliath rather than David. This makes me think of the varied uses that the Bible has had in American life. It has been used as a spiritual guide, a textbook, a set of moral principals, a grimoire, and a science primer, as well as a political playbook. It is versatile, the Good Book. It has been prominent in American society from the very beginning, but clearly its prominence is starting to fade. Not likely to disappear any time soon, the interesting question is how people use the Bible, often without reading it. This is what scholars call the “iconic book” aspect of the Bible. It is performative—it acts in a way that has an outcome, no matter what the intent of the user. As I’ve argued in academic venues, it has become a magical book.

An iconic book (photo by David Ball)

An iconic book (photo by David Ball)

Wondering whether this is a new situation or not (I deeply suspect it’s not) I’ve been reading about the Bible in early America. Almost all the reference material points to the “official” uses of the Bible—that by statesmen and clergymen (both classes of “men” in the early days) with almost nothing of how it was used in private. This question involves some exercise of the imagination since there are few data. Would not a family, struggling to survive, see in the Bible a powerful book? And would not a powerful book be capable of subverting the laws of nature? Reading about the witch trials in Salem, we see that thunderstorms and other “prodigies” were considered magical. Surely one could use the Bible for unorthodox purposes? There’s little to be said in the absence of evidence. The use of magic in the colonial period, apart from the trails of witches, was not unusual.

How do we measure the ways the Bible was used when nobody beyond interested parties, such as clergy, wrote about it? Mr. Trump even tries to quote it from time to time, but since his citation that sounds like a joke opener, “Two Corinthians [go into a bar],” he seems to have let that hot potatoe drop. The Bible, seldom read, remains a powerful book. The source of its power, I suspect, is in its use by the common people. Many people are familiar with it, and believe in it. Some have even read it. It remains, however, one of the great mysteries among the early European settlers. We know they had their Bibles with them. How exactly they read them, when not under the eye of the preacher, we apparently have no way of knowing.

Once and Future Bible

RiseFallBibleWhile 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.

Pop Goes the Bible

BiblePopularCultureIn keeping with a theme, I followed up The Bible in Film—The Bible and Film with The Bible in/and Popular Culture, edited by Philip Culbertson and Elaine M. Wainwright. It is pretty clear that my professional interests have shifted towards reception history. That is to say, how the Bible has been interpreted over time. Not so long ago—perhaps even when I was a student—Bible interpretation was the purview of experts. Serious biblical scholars tended to look askance at the hermeneutical efforts of mere clergy, just like clergy tended to treat lightly the opinions of the mere laity. The respect of opinion was expected to flow from bottom to top. I have to admit a kind of heady satisfaction with learning to read languages unheard for thousands of years. Who wouldn’t be impressed to find you standing before Hammurabi’s stele, reading away? Like most aspiring biblical experts, I took languages very seriously. As I was teaching, however, it was clear that all my learning failed to sway those who came in with opinions firmly fixed.

One of the takeaways from a study like The Bible in/and Popular Culture is that the Bible changes with those who read it. Who is to say the opinion of the tweedy, bespectacled professor is any more valid than a country-and-western singer, or a novelist, or a screenwriter? Certainly all of them reach much larger audience than just about any biblical scholar. Their ideas about what the Bible says become, in a very real way, the truth. The essays in this slim volume are diverse, showing the wide range of biblical interpretation taking place in a strangely religious secular culture.

What emerges is a somewhat uncomfortable truth—especially for the biblical scholars who’ve spent thousands of dollars and many years to receive a parchment declaring them experts. The truth is, anyone can be an expert. The Bible is out there for the reading. Churches have historically gotten around this by adding tradition next to Scripture as a counterbalance. The culture, however, has decided that the Bible alone bears the weight of verisimilitude. Not all share the same tradition. The Bible, an iconic book, is instantly recognized as authoritative by Catholic, Protestant, and Jew. Even Muslims recognize its status as a holy book. Books, however, change with the reading. Popular culture reflects what the people are willing to believe. What they believe is the Bible. What they mean by that, however, is open to anyone’s interpretation.

The Subtle Elephant

“Beer,” the list reads, then “Sex, Tacos, Weed.” At the top of the list, “Jesus.” “Which one of these is best?” the magazine page virtually shouts. Not Playboy, but Wired. At times I have difficulty figuring out what is an advertisement and what is an article in Wired. It is the future, I suppose. Anything’s for sale as long as there’s lucre to be generated. The page is topped with “Wired Insider,” so I suppose it’s a whimsical pop culture section, but I’m not really sure. The page seems to be promoting an app called Proust. I’m still pondering this list: “Jesus, Beer, Sex, Tacos, Weed.” One of these things is not like the others…

Vices

While there may be nothing inherently wrong with beer, sex and tacos (the jury’s still out on weed), such indulgences are often labeled “vices.” Jesus, until recently, never really populated such lists. Even those who do not claim divinity for Jesus of Nazareth do tend to see his teachings as embodying virtue rather than vice. In the media, however, we often see Jesus turned into a kind of addiction, a vice, if you will. What I mean is that Jesus has become a kind of iconic symbol, emptied of tolerant teachings and benevolence toward all. He has become a “white man,” who does not put up with anyone who deviates from the McCarthy-era lifestyle. He is Ozzie (Nelson, not Osborne). We know so little of the historical Jesus that it is difficult to say anything definitively, but I might suggest that he may have felt more at home at a Black Sabbath concert than watching Leave it to Beaver. There is, after all, value in shock value.

Some scholars now confer about the Iconic Book (i.e., the Bible). The Iconic Book is where the Bible is used not for what it says, but what it represents. Swearing on a Bible means nothing to an atheist, and yet we persist. These hollow symbols become powerful indicators of social norms, while losing their radical content. Many might think the Bible utterly conventional, but there would be weeping and gnashing of teeth on Wall Street if people actually read it and took it seriously. Jesus, it seems, has also become iconic. I don’t mean that icons are painted (although they are), but that he has become a hollow symbol for some. In a world where gaining as much money as possible is called “Prosperity Gospel,” despite what the iconic man in the iconic book supposedly said, I guess it isn’t unusual to find the erstwhile savior among the vices of the world.

“Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless”

Yes, Mr. Eliot, this is the way the world ends.