Sunday, January 24, 2010

Jesus Built my Hot Rod, Redux

A couple of years ago, when I got started analyzing the material aspects of Scripture, it was as a fun continuation of my work in my doctoral dissertation. I wrote the dissertation, in part, as a meditation on The Golfer's Bible, from Holman Christian Bible Publishers. I was intrigued then, as I am today, with the blatant (crass?) melding of American consumer recreation and lifestyle activities with the physical objects we call Bibles.

Now this is not the place to launch into a tirade about these practices. Maybe, in fact, these actions by publishers to make the Bible "more accessible" are not so bad. I have my opinions, obviously, but I will also admit that those opinions have shifted back and forth as I continue this research. So I will let the reader, ultimately, be her own judge on these matters.

But sometimes it gets hard to restrain myself.

So in earlier posts I have also alluded to the Mossy Oak Personal Size Giant Print Bible from Thomas Nelson. I also quoted a little from its introduction in the previous post. I will have more to say, in the coming months, about this particular Bible (it forms part of a chapter in my forthcoming book). For now, I will simply gesture to it again, saying it was a stranger find for me, at first, than the Golfer's Bible. For a long time, it was my favorite example of this phenomenon of "designer Scripture." Moreover, when I tell people what I do, they often respond by asking me, "So what's the best Bible?" or some variant of that question. Because I think that might be the wrong question to ask, for several months the Mossy Oak has been the Bible I recommended [1].

Let us thrust all that to the side, however. Ladies and gentlemen, do not doubt for a moment we cannot push the envelope. We can. Do not doubt for a moment that a Bible can become weirder, more absurd. It can. We can rebuild it. We have the technology. We can make it better. Stronger. Faster.

Ladies and gentleman, start your engines. I give you... The NASCAR Stock Car Racing Edition of the Holy Bible, from Zondervan publishers.

I first saw this Bible in the Memphis BookStar a few weeks before Christmas, and was going to write about it then, but I got distracted by the holidays and then the birth of my daughter. Now Hugh Pyper has written a really good piece analyzing the NASCAR Bible for the SBL Forum.

Read the full text of his column here.

One of the things you notice about the Bible, when leafing through it, is that the "inspirational" portions (which highlight various celebrities on the stock car racing circuit, along with some bromides about the role of various Gospel passages in inspiring them to greatness) are sort of randomly spaced throughout the book, leading to some interesting ideological juxtapositions.

Pyper then points out how these sections, printed as they are on a different paper stock from the "rest" of the Bible, give the Bible a strange tactile feel. He surmises that the publishers did not give much thought to the overall effect of these juxtapositions:

In the end, however, what is most striking about the SCR version is how little interaction there is between the inserts and the text. The full-color glossy inserts contrast with the plain printed texts and tend to be the points at which the Bible falls open. The distribution of the articles appears to be random and mechanical, spaced equally throughout the Old and New Testaments. Although the inserts include some, but surprisingly few, biblical references, they seldom urge the reader to refer to wider passages in the Bible and certainly give no advice on how to tackle the more difficult texts that surround them.

This observation about the materiality of the product is exactly right, as far as I am concerned. When we examine these sorts of Bibles, we should be asking precisely these questions. How does the overall effect, visual, tactile, and ideological, influence the reader's possible reading sof the "bare text"?

At the end, Pyper offers a scathing conclusion: "What this version represents, almost in spite of itself, then, is the relevance of the Bible as symbol in the continuing debate over the nature of American identity, and the irrelevance of much of the Bible as text in that debate."

While I am quite certain, trends being what they are, that this will by no means be the weirdest Bible we shall ever see, it is the current reigning champion. In their race to reach all manner of audiences among the "unchurched," I am waiting for the publishers to come out with versions of Scripture targeted on other popular lifestyle demographics, like the readers of Soldier of Fortune and Penthouse. Though I am usually not one for slippery slopes, given what is on offer already on the bookshelves, I fear we will not have all that long to wait.

[1] I should, and probably will, devote a post in the near future to this phenomenon. I hang out a lot in the Bible sections of bookstores, and it makes sense that the people I run into might be looking for guidance from knowledgeable folks like me or the bookstore clearks to help them choose. But this question also comes up in some stranger settings (like my dissertation defense, for example). I'd like to explore the desire that lives at the heart of readers to have the "right" Bible or the "best" Bible. My short answer, then as now as always, comes back to where I consistently find authority and "rightness" to dwell: not in any Bible itself, but in the institutions and interpretations that surround a given Bible. So, kids, if you want to know the best Bible to read, go ask your priest.

Note: Material Scripture blog is an Amazon Marketplace Affiliate. If you choose to purchase an item through the links in this post, we will receive a modest commission.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Jesus Built my Hot Rod

Gunsights made by Michigan arms manufacturer Trijicon have come under fire in the past few days for their inclusion of Bible verses and references on items sold to the American Military.

There's an article and audio commentary giving an overview of this story here.

Some news sources are describing the inscriptions as "secret Bible codes," which is a little misleading. These inscriptions were certainly not hidden or obscured. For example, anyone with scant biblical knowledge might look at the "JN8:12" marking on the side of the Trijicon ACOG gunsight and at least suspect it to be a New Testament reference.

This issue has added fuel to the ongoing debates surrounding religious freedoms in the military, as well as concerns about the overtones of "holy war" between Christianity and Islam that haunt our current overseas campaigns.

The use of religious inscriptions to mark or "bless" material objects, from gunsights to money, certainly raises some even deeper questions than these, of course.

Then again, where is the bright line between a weapon that sports, say, a reference to 2 Corinthians 4:6 ("For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ."), and something like the Mossy Oak Brand Camouflage Bible, which says in its introduction,
Life can be much like learning to hunt. God says in 2 Timothy 2:15, "Be diligent and present yourself approed to God..." Good hunters must become skillful, prepared and diligent. The greatest "hunt" in life is seeking a relationship with the greatest huntsmaster of all, Jesus Christ [p. iii].
Imprimaturs and prooftexts for all sorts of lifestyles of violence, here. Where's Stanley Hauerwas when we need him?

Solar Powered Audio Bibles deployed in Haiti

An evangelical organization known as Faith Comes by Hearing has been getting press in these past weeks because of their involvement in getting a number of solar-powered audio Bibles into Haiti as part of the relief efforts sent in the wake of the earthquakes.

This is certainly not the first audio Bible. There are pocket sized MP3 Bibles like the Go Bible that have been on the market for several years. The solar powered angle, however, is a new and intriguing feature.

The main Bible is known as "The Proclaimer," and their website describes it like this:
We consider the Proclaimer to be a gift from God. Why? Because the inspiration for it came during three days of fasting and prayer by the entire staff of Faith Comes By Hearing. The Proclaimer is a digital player dedicated to playing God's Word in the local heart language.
The organization also sells "BibleSticks" - basically MP3 players that contain files for the audio Bible. They currently are marketing a regular version (in white) and a military version (in black).

There are a couple of stories about this on NPR, one for All Tech Considered, and a short blurb from the business news bloc (which was where I first heard about this).

The organization boasts the world's largest catalog of audio Bibles. In looking over their website, they seem to be scrupulous in not letting on their denominational affiliations (although one can discern a bit of this through their links and partners page).

They offer a fair selection of English versions to choose from (including a New American Bible version, which I found surprising at first), as well as a vast array of "heart languages," which are indigenous dialects from around the globe.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The King James Bible: If It Was Good Enough for Jesus, It's Good Enough for CBS

I was skimming the web for references to "black bonded Bibles" just now -- you know, those staid, traditional, non-flashy and quite sober behemoths of days gone by. Heirloom Bibles of stitched and fragrant Genuine Moroccan Leather. Gift Bibles given and given and given from year to everlasting year. What the President gets sworn in with. You know, those kind of Bibles

I had originally intended this to be a short post about the video I came across, which I have embedded below, where Denzel Washington is discussing his involvement in the 2007 audio Bible, The Bible Experience, which apparently has been a runaway bestseller.

After watching the video, however, I began to read the article, from CBS News Online, accompanying it. And, well. suddenly this post became a little more pointed.

The article is largely about the increasing trend of recent years to publish "designer Bibles," something that I certainly enjoy seeing reported. My trouble with the article, though, concerns several grossly misleading and inaccurate statements made by its author, Caitlin A. Johnson.

Let's take this one, for example, from right at the start of the piece:

In the beginning, there was the King James Bible: 66 books, 1,189 chapters, 31,173 verses — usually bound in sober black leather. The King James Bible was the English language standard for more than 400 years.

Okay. Hold on. Never mind the versions in Latin, Greek and Hebrew, used by the Church for over a millennium. A statement like this also manages to erase the long (and thorny) history of Tyndale, Huss, Luther, the Bishop's Bible, the Geneva Bible, and a host of other lesser-known, but no less influential, predecessors to the King James Version in English.

Now yes, Johnson is partially correct in her characterization of the influence and importance of the King James. If this were the only such statement in the article, and if the article otherwise had carefully-researched claims, I might have let it slide. Not so. Johnson later makes the statement, "For more than 400 years, the King James version was the first — and for many, the only — Bible. "

The first alternative noted in the article does not occur until "September 1966, [when] an alternative was created with today's English version, known as 'Good News for Modern Man,' published by the non-profit American Bible society."

These statements reflect the popular misconceptions surrounding Bible "origins." The notion, as the article asserts, that the Bible has been available for sale "year after year...for 2,000 years" (as Sara Nelson, of Publishers Weekly, claims) is patently untrue. While you can say that commodities that begin to look like what we call a Bible have been part of commerce since before the invention of the movable type press, it is really not until the late 17th century that you can locate the beginnings of "book trade," in the manner that Nelson means.

The last bone of contention I have with the piece comes in response to this:

"It's the best seller of all times," Abyssinian Baptist pastor Dr. Calvin Butts said. "It has to be. It's got everything you would want in a book: sex, violence, intrigue, mystery, the supernatural — it's all here."

The "it has to be" that Dr. Butts asserts is a pretty common sentiment among laypeople in the West. We assume the hegemony of the Bible to be a worldwide phenomenon that simply cannot be touched by any other book.

However, while the Bible is definitely high up there on the list of bestsellers of all time (and the list is, admittedly, a hard one to tabulate - after all, are we talking sales, or copies in print, or...) there is a good chance that another book written in response to a charismatic individual, Chairman Mao's Little Red Book, actually holds the title.

Unfortunately, the historical, exegetical, and political complexities that arise in the wake of this tension between Jesus and Mao seem far beyond the ken of the writers and "newspeople" associated with CBS, who cannot even seem to get the facts about the King James right. Shame.