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.

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