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.

Let the Left One In

When you’ve got a good thing going, why stop? Reading Timothy Beal’s Religion and its Monsters put me in the mood for a vampire flick over the holiday weekend. I had watched with longing as Matt Reeves’ Let Me In flew into and out of theatres back in 2010. Advertised as a thoughtful vampire story based on John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel, Let the Right One In, and having a real moral struggle unlike the Twilight saga’s dulled fangs, it had been on my “to see” list for quite some time. This movie doesn’t disappoint. The specific aspect to which I refer, of course, is the religious. Vampires may be the most religious monsters ever invented, and like all good, subversive movies Let Me In casts the religious aspect in an unexpected role. Religion and the vampire interact through the character of Owen’s mother. Her face never seen on the screen, she shuffles outside the range of view and tells her son of the need for prayer and belief. Her life is a shambles and 12-year-old Owen knows it.

Abby, the vampire next door, is a monster capable and desirous of love. Her vampiric self is not exposed to crucifixes or blessed communion wafers, but to the torment of outliving those she loves. Eternal life is her curse, and religion can do nothing to solve it. When Owen slips twenty dollars from his Mom’s purse to buy Abby some candy, Jesus is watching from the mirror. When the bullies torment Owen, Jesus is nowhere to be found. The symbolism, whether intentional or not, is apt social commentary. Our religion is there to punish us, not to help us. If in doubt, listen to the politicians and televangelists; God is intensely angry—Jonathan Edwards wasn’t even halfway there. Their surfeit of rectitude puts the rest of us to shame. Until they’re elected.

Vampires have their origin in creatures that steal the life-essence of the living. Whether blood, semen, or psychic energy, the vampire feasts while the victim withers. Let Me In, by telling the story of a pre-pubescent vampire, shifts the focus of culpability. A 12-year-old is beneath the age of responsibility according to the Judeo-Christian tradition. Unable to determine right from wrong, the child simply seeks what all living creatures do—the possibility of existence. When Owen discovers that his new friend, his only friend, is a vampire, he tries to find answers from his religious mother. She is asleep. He calls his absent father who blames the religion of his mother. The moral guidance here comes from the monster. The bullies would win if it weren’t for what the authorities call evil. Sometimes I think Jonathan Edwards got it all backwards, for when power determines who is righteous it is the bullies who dangle spiders over the fire.