Good News Shipping

“And all the ships at sea,” was the closing of Walter Winchell’s radio broadcast introduction. The phrase has a certain poignancy about it—a cross between Melville and Edmund Fitzgerald. The idea of being isolated at sea is foreign to most people, but it is truly as far from others as you can get on this planet. In ancient times the sea was considered evil. It was well-nigh unsurvivable and chaos monsters dwelt in its depths. In the book of Revelation, in God’s kingdom “the sea shall be no more.” But the economic fact is, it’s still cheaper to ship by sea than to fly things from here to there. Amazon seems to have made us forget just how complex delivery is. I was forcefully reminded of this the other day when I received an email saying that the Bibles were at sea. Literally. They’re on a boat in the middle of the Pacific, along with who knows what else.

This is only a parable

The vastness of the ocean makes humans painfully aware of our smallness. As does the Bible. I remember thinking, as a child, that those offering printed salvation did so from the goodness of their hearts. That may be part of the story, for sure, but Bibles are big business. Not as big as they used to be, but still not inconsequential. This was captured well by the character of Big Dan Teague in O Brother, Where Art Thou? “It all about the money, boys!” he shouts as he robs Everett and Delmar. Yes, that evangelist giving away Bibles may have your soul in mind, but your pocketbook too. Like those Bibles snuggled against crates of condoms and smart phones, it’s just business. You’ve got to keep the bottom line in mind.

Bibles can be a lucrative business. The Bible is, however, a large book—expensive to print and bind because it requires special paper thin enough to hold all that text. Such specialized work done domestically would drive the price of the Good Book out of comfortable profit margins. So the word of God is printed overseas and sent across the ocean by boat. There’s a parable deep within this hidden life of Scripture. The romance of the high seas—being completely isolated from land and its comforts. “Here be dragons,” the Hunt-Lenox Globe famously proclaimed, and that’s a parable too. That Bible in your hands comes with considerable cost. Even in a world where drones for personal delivery are not far off, the sea still surrounds us.

O Brother

o_brother_where_art_thou_ver1When teaching mythology at Montclair State University, I had students watch O Brother, Where Art Thou? Based on Homer’s Odyssey, the movie follows a trio of convicts during a election campaign through depression-ridden Mississippi. The populist candidate, Homer Stokes, runs his campaign with a little person (but as a true Republican, he can call him a derogatory name and nobody blinks). Both Stokes and “the little man” are members of the Ku Klux Klan and even Mississippi of the 1930s won’t have that. How things have changed!

The movie comes to mind because of Friday’s march on Washington of women in favor of anti-abortion legislation. Look for the numbers to grow as the White House inaugurates comments about it. A few thousands gathered after last weekend’s 1.2 million—yes, a million more than expected—Women’s March on Washington. I respect these folks’ right to protest, of course. They might’ve done well to watch O Brother before heading out the door, however. The incumbent in Mississippi is Pappy O’Daniel. His clueless campaign managers have no ideas how to counter the populist Stokes. Junior O’Daniel suggests they could get an even shorter “midget.” Pappy, as if speaking to Friday’s marchers says, “Wouldn’t we look like a bunch of Johnny-come-latelies, bragging on our own midget, doesn’t matter how stumpy.” With apologies for the insensitive terms, size does matter. The First March had world participation of nearly 5 million. And that’s just those who were free that day.

I’ve been drawing quite a bit of wisdom from cinema lately. Maybe because it is often in harmony with vox populi. If it weren’t the industry wouldn’t be thriving. I think of O Brother and how the south in the 1930s makes us look regressive today. The good, Christian folks of Mississippi wouldn’t have a racist for their governor. When they saw what he really stood for, they voted for the lesser of two evils. Today we have a president that would’ve had a hard time being elected in that past. The tide has shifted to a more selfish and shortsighted instant gratification without benefit of education. “And our women, let’s not forget those ladies, y’all. Looking to us for protection! From darkies, from Jews, from papists, and from all those smart-ass folks say we come descended from monkeys!” Homer Stokes preaches in the light of a burning cross. Instead of booing him out of the town hall, we’ve asked him to lead the free world.

Sola Scriptura

IMG_1641Would you buy a Bible from this man? “The trade is not a complicated one,” quoth Big Dan Teague. People are looking for answers. To making a living selling Bibles, however, requires some finesse in a world where scripture may be had for free. The trick is added value. Now, for those who approach this from a religious angle the obvious question is how you add value to what is claimed to be the word of God. It is, however, a matter of understanding it. Martin Luther, apart from starting the Protestant movement, also translated the Bible into German. The concept was simple: if the Bible contained the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, then if the laity read it, we wouldn’t need priests. Greek and Hebrew (and a smattering of Aramaic) are no longer the main elements of a well-rounded education so we need a version that anyone might read. Even the King James is a little rusty, what with words that don’t mean what they seem to—who wants to suffer? Especially in the biblical sense.

Contrary to Big Dan’s assertions, the Bible trade is a complicated one. The text of the Bible (if not specific translations) is in the public domain. The Bible is, however, more than words. It is ink, and paper, and binding. It is an object. By swearing with your hand on it, you can convince the court you’ll tell the truth. Or become president. Or raise a lot of money. Despite the Bible’s decline in academic prestige, it remains a source of popular trust. Not too many items that can be had for free can make such claims of power. It is the book that founded western civilization.

As I board a plane for San Diego, I know that I’m about to see lots of Bibles. Lots and lots of Bibles. Thousands of scholars who spend their lives studying it will gather to discuss its continuing significance and debate its finer meanings. Some will venture to purchase new Bibles. New versions of old words. See what others have to say about them. Somewhere distant I hear Big Dan breaking a branch from a shade tree. This, like most patterns, repeats itself endlessly. Some with tenure will argue that the whole thing ought to be abandoned. Others, forever denied tenure, will vociferously disagree. “One, find a wholesaler, the word of God in bulk, as it were.” And so the debate will continue long into the night. And over the weekend. In fact, ’til Tuesday.

The Varieties of Biblical Experience

Working with Bibles can be a heady experience. I mean, the sheer numbers are staggering. A whole herd of cattle must be slain annually just to manufacture the covers for all the Scofield Bibles in the world. What is it about literalists that demands animal sacrifice to read the words of the Prince of Peace? Bibles, Bibles everywhere, and not a word to read! According to statisticbrain.com, there are over 6,001,500,000 Bibles in print. That’s closing in on a parity with the world population, only one billion to go. There are websites dedicated to selling only Bibles. Nearly any bookstore will have at least a shelf full of them. I even ran across the website of an enterprising individual who seems to have figured out that there’s a market for taking Gideon Bibles from hotel rooms and selling them online. The Bible business, in the words of Big Dan Teague, “is not a complicated one.” And every year more are printed. Full-text versions are freely available online at any number of sites, and still more can be sold.

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I often ponder the western love affair with the Bible. My entire career, with all its ups and downs, has been fashioned from an early intrigue with holy writ. In the beginning was the Bible. And culture followed in the footsteps of holy scripture. It’s not difficult to see why. Even further back than ancient Palestine, people worried about dying. Consciousness is funny that way—it has trouble conceiving of the world without itself. The Bible, for many centuries, offered the accepted solution to the death equation. You may have to die, but you don’t have to stay dead. Today we think of zombies as those refusing to remain lifeless. The Bible begs to differ, unless, of course, you’re reading the Zombie Bible. And still the presses roll on.

Considering the profit to be turned by selling Bibles, I wonder that more don’t show the cynicism of Big Dan. Is no one suspicious that printing the Good Book is called an industry? What other book, so freely given away, can sustain such a massive global market? I have to plead guilty myself to having a least a dozen different Bibles within easy reach every day. They even have their own separate labels at Barnes and Noble. So as I sit down planning on how to grow this ever-expanding market even more, I think of the many other industries that rely on mine. We have spun off worlds that orbit around the Bible. It is, despite the many nay-sayers, the cornerstone of modern Western civilization. If a tree falls in the woods, a Bible may be printed from it. Which of the 57 varieties do you take with your daily bread?

Word of God in Bulk

Bay_Psalm_Book_LoCThe Salem witch trials were still half a century in the future. The Puritans, hoping for religious freedom, had come to Massachusetts. Despite prevailing attitudes toward the religious, the Puritans were keen on learning and began printing books. The first book printed in English in North America was the Bay Psalm Book. You see, the Psalms have a particularly important place in Christian (and Jewish) worship. In fact, much of what would later develop into the daily offices in the Church of England, adapted from the breviaries of the Roman Catholic Church, were services that started essentially as vehicles for reciting the Psalms. It is fair to say that Christian worship might have never taken on the elaborate forms that it has without the underlying recitation of the Psalter. The Bay Psalm Book, printed in 1640, is now the most expensive book ever sold at auction. According to the New York Times, one of the eleven known Bay Psalm Books has just sold for over 14 million dollars. The Bible has a way of continuing to surprise us.

As someone who has more Bibles than your average layperson, I find it isn’t difficult to think that Bibles are fairly common. They are. I actually switched to The Green Bible in my classes out of the ecological concern that there have been over six billion Bibles printed. The Gideons give them away, and even the Christian heavy metal band Stryper used to throw handfuls of Bibles into the crowds. Chances are, in the United States, you are not physically far from a Bible at any given moment. So why would someone pay 14 million dollars for one? The answer goes deeper than the suggestion that the Psalms contain timeless truths—you can get those free on the internet anytime—but that it is part of our heritage. We are who we are, in part, because of the “Bible believing” founders of our culture. Survival was not taken for granted in the mid-seventeenth century. The Bible was a pillar of certainty in dangerous times.

Yes, interpretations of the Bible have led to horrendous results. There is no point in denying the guilt. Hermeneutics, however, is a human activity. The Bible gives as well as takes away. Some of us may never have a million dollars to spend. Many people don’t have enough to eat. Specialists tell us that some 45 million Bibles are printed each year. Bibles are big business. In the words of Big Dan from O Brother, Where Art Thou? “Sales, Mr. McGill, sales! And what do I sell? The Truth! Ever’ blessed word of it, from Genesee on down to Revelations! That’s right, the word of God, which let me add there is damn good money in during these days of woe and want! Folks’re lookin’ for answers and Big Dan Teague sells the only book that’s got ‘em!” David M. Rubenstein, the buyer of the book, intends to send it around to libraries to display. Although I’ve spent over forty years studying the Bible, it takes the skills of a man from an investment firm to earn enough money to buy one. And I wonder if that’s Big Dan I hear laughing, or perhaps it’s just the sound of Puritans singing in the wilderness.

Dog Gone!

Religion is a strange attractor. Maybe not in the exact same sense as in chaos theory, but in reality it brings together mental states so bizarre that science fiction and fantasy writers have a buyer’s choice. Yesterday the New York Daily News reported on a South Carolina woman who hanged and burned a one-year old pit-bull puppy. Why? The bitch had bitten the woman’s Bible. Citing the animal as a “Devil dog,” the southern woman became a vigilante for the Lord. Now she’s being tried on charges of animal cruelty. This story touched me in a number of ways.

With family roots in South Carolina, I can conjure up images of this happening. Having known many, many Fundamentalists, it seems even more plausible. Given the constant barrage of contrary messages descrying the presence of evil in the world, all the sudden any mutt can become Mephistopheles. Begging off the Baskervilles, the demonic hound has a long pedigree in mythical imagination. It is well known that the Bible cites dogs as unclean animals, but it is their charnel character that leads to the development of the full-blooded hellhound. Prior to the Hebrew Bible, in ancient Ugarit dogs had an infernal connection. It isn’t seen clearly, but the association is there. Snatches of the underworldly dog appear long before Cerberus, and last well nigh into the twenty-first century.

Hel and his hound

Unfortunately for the deceased canine, it is a myth. Hellhounds still abound in popular media, everywhere from The Omen to O Brother, Where Art Thou? Dogs, however, were among humanity’s earliest partners in the survival game. From about as early as I can remember, we always had dogs in the house, and nary a demonic encounter. We never put them on trial, even when house-training was in progress and an accident occurred.

The news story reminded me of an episode of Dragnet I saw as a child. A woman was arrested for murder, and Sergeant Friday, in his unflappable voice, told his partner it was because the victim had shot one of her books. In the final fade out, after Bill Gannon asked what book it had been, Friday holds up a Bible with a bullet-hole through it. I was a little confused. Was the woman guilty or was someone shooting a Bible just cause? The episode did not answer the moral dilemma. I can’t even remember the outcome. But in 2011 things haven’t much changed. If he goes to South Carolina McGruff better watch what he takes a bite out of, or it could be lynching time again.