THE INVISIBLE BESTSELLER: Searching for the Bible in America. By Kenneth A. Briggs. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, Co., 2016. Xvi + 239 pages.
The American People buy Bibles, lots of Bibles. It remains a perennial bestseller. Part of the reason for this might be the penchant publishers to continually bring out new translations and new editions. There are study Bibles, children’s Bibles, men’s devotional Bibles, women’s devotional Bibles, etc. There is a Bible for every person and every need in most every recent translation. If you’re like me, you have multitudes of Bibles, covering numerous translations. Of course, today we are “blessed” with numerous on-line apps that will give us access to multiple translations, reading guides, and study helps. Despite the riches out there, there’s lots of evidence that people simply people aren’t reading the Bible. I would have added “like they used to,” but I’m not sure that more people read the Bible in the past, they just didn’t have so many choices.
Perhaps what we need is a guide this situation, someone who can relate the issues of the day when it comes to the Bible and its readership. One who has taken on this responsibility is Kenneth Briggs, a journalist and religion writer for such entities as Newsday and the New York Times. Having deep familiarity with the topic and having the ability to convey it in a readable and understandable manner, Briggs helps us better understand the problem of America’s apparent lack of engagement with the book they bring home and put on their shelves.
Briggs tells us that based on Bible sales over the years there are probably four to five copies of the Bible in every American house. Though of course, homes like mine, will have many more than five copies. It is also a standard item in many public places, like court houses. We may separate church and state but the Bible continues to serve as the guarantee of truth. In Brigg’s estimation, the Bible is “everywhere and nowhere” (p. 1). The question is, why are people buying the Bible but not reading it? Have they lost confidence in it, and why is this? Could it be the growth of critical biblical scholarship? Is it cultural change? These are likely answers, among others. What it may have become for many Americans is a museum piece, “hallowed as a treasure but enigmatic and untouched” (p. 5).
Briggs, begins his examination of this issue by giving us the numbers. That is, what are the pollsters saying about America’s religiosity. The answer to that is an increasing number of people who are choosing not to be involved in religious communities. But polling only tells us so much. “Does it make any difference?” is the question posed in chapter three. In this chapter, he raises the question of how the Enlightenment changed the way Western peoples look at the supernatural and religion. In an age when science seemed to be gaining the upper hand, people lost confidence in the Bible’s sacredness.
We may have lost confidence in the Bible, but there are lots of Bibles available to us. This is, he notes, a reflection of the Reformation emphasis on the Bible, which led to the production of Bibles. He starts with the Geneva Bible (1556), though there were prior English translations. But this Bible was the one the Pilgrims and Puritans brought to America. Onward toward today, the number of translation has skyrocketed, as has the number of Bibles purchased. Americans buy on average twenty-five million copies per year. Over a fifty-year period, the Bible far-out stripped its closest competition, which was Mao’s Little Red Book. He notes the move into niche marketing, with various audiences having materials adapted to them. While the high-point for Christian bookstores was the 1980s (there are very few left), Bibles continue to be sold. Why so many Bibles being bought, if no one reads them. Well, the answer is that two-thirds of Bibles are purchased as gifts. Those gift Bibles are then added to the others already on the shelf. While some hope that if you get the Bible out, people will read it, there’s little evidence that this is true. People just don’t seem to care, and attempts to equate morality with Bible-reading is an even larger turnoff.
One major challenge to the Bible has been science, and more specifically the theory of evolution. The 1920s Scopes trial may have convicted a science teacher, but in the end science was the victor. But an even larger challenge, per Briggs, was the advent of historical-critical biblical scholarship in America. For those of us who are attuned to such things, none of this is a surprise. As Briggs lays out in a chapter titled “The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good,” this new scholarship revealed to many that the “Bible isn’t a unified volume but a collection of books with a multitude of authors and versions assembled over centuries” (p. 69). If you paid attention to the scholars, and many did, then the Bible wasn’t divinely written. While the Scopes trial opened the doors to questions, critical scholarship pushed its way into the church, leading to a “Battle for the Bible.” I was a student at Fuller shortly after Harold Lindsell, one of the seminary’s founding faculty, wrote his book by that title, attacking Fuller and other evangelical institutions for abandoning biblical inerrancy. My philosophy teacher, Jack Rogers, led the charge in response, but Lindsell’s book is evidence of the divide within the last bastion of defense of the Bible’s perfection. Over time numerous evangelicals have left the fold, including Peter Enns, Bart Ehrman, Christian Smith, and others. Briggs concludes that “biblical infallibility still has a following, but my informal review leads me to believe that its appeal is steadily declining and its domain shrinking steadily to the point of insignificance” (p. 80). There is a lot more skepticism and doubt, especially among younger generations about the Bible’s authority and divinity.
There are those who hope turn things around. Among those are the developers of digital Bible resources, including “YouVersion,” which is a Bible app that has been downloaded to about 158 million devices. Again, the hope is that access will lead to reading, but is this true? It seems attractive, but access doesn’t address the underlying questions of authority and value. For those wanting more information about these trends, the chapter “Moses in Cyberspace,” will be illuminating!
On the other hand, there’s a question of interpretation and understanding. Who gets to decide what the Bible means? There are the Bible scholars, and Briggs introduces us to one of the largest organizations of Bible scholars—the Society of Biblical Literature. He notes the divide within the scholarly world as to who is truly a Bible scholar. The SBL is divide by those who believe that it should be read objectively, and those who want to give room for faith. The latter, whether conservative or not, likely teach in church-related schools and seminaries, while the former teach in secular universities. This is an interesting conversation, and it’s good that he invites us into the inner sanctum of the scholarly world, but from my perspective things aren’t quite as black and white as he portrays. Since he speaks of the breaking up of SBL from the American Academy of Religion annual meeting, I want to note that the two have come back together and have been together for at least the past three years. He takes note of other vehicles of conversation, pitting believers and skeptics against each other, including the famed Jesus Seminar. He helpfully introduces us to the Seminar, though I wish he had given us a clearer description of why critical scholars like Luke Timothy Johnson opposed it so strongly. In this case, I think his helicopter approach failed him.
In a chapter titled “Canon Fodder,” he takes up the process of canonization. This is a process that probably most Christians don’t really understand. The Bible didn’t just appear out of thin air. It emerged over time, and the process of reception took time as well. My only quibble here has to do with his focus on conservative evangelicals as canonical advocates. Many of us also reside on the left side of center. I do appreciate, however, his mention of Stanley Hauerwas’ emphasis on community. Scripture has authority because the community has embraced it as such. There is an important role played by critical scholarship, but when it comes to sacred text, the community should have a say. The Bible isn’t an object to be worshiped. It isn’t the message, it’s the messenger that the community has embraced. He raises the question of the scientific reading of scripture, but in the end, that reading, while it might have scholarly value, leaves us cold. There needs to be a partner, and that is theology. I wish he had done more with the lectionary and such resources as the Feasting on the Word series of commentaries on the lectionary that bring together exegesis, theology, homiletics, and the pastoral dimensions of texts. He argues for a middle ground between evangelicals and liberals, and I think that already happens, even at SBL meetings!
The context in which we read the Bible can influence our reception. To illustrate this, he contrasts two services. One takes place in a Federal Prison. There’s a chaplain who facilitates the service, but it’s the inmates who drive it and that includes the way in which the Bible is read. The other is a stately conservative Presbyterian Church. It’s a PC(USA) church, but it has one foot out the door. For the prisoners, the message of the Bible offers them the promise of rescue. “It is,” he writes, “a path toward personal truth, exchanging illusions and quick remedies for soul-searching and self-scrutiny, and trading cynicism and resentment for peace and compassion—toward oneself and others” (p. 139). These might not be professional scholars, but they seem to have caught the edge of scripture and its power. As for the Presbyterian Church, the Bible is more a symbol of contentment. Their discomfort with the broader PC(USA) is rooted in the question of same-sex marriage (Briggs makes a mistake in this section by suggesting that the PC(USA) is the old northern Presbyterian Church, whereas it was a merger of the northern and southern branches, while the PCA is a remnant of the southern churches that didn't merge). It’s interesting how Briggs describes the way in which the congregation simply embraces the pastor’s conservative reading on the matter, even though the pastor simply suggests that this goes against the Bible. He is assumed to be the expert. Though the Bible is revered, there are clear signs that biblical illiteracy is rampant. They have a new young associate, who isn’t too hung up on the same-sex marriage question, but wants to deal with the illiteracy part. Yet, his answer is to use what I would call a “Bible made easy” program, utilizing a stream-lined Bible that tries to fit the narrative in without bothering with the more difficult parts (including harmonizing the gospels).
If we’re not really reading scripture, what is our authority? Well, the answer is often Jesus, but which Jesus? He suggests that often it’s the “Jesus of warm embrace.” The desired Jesus is the one who “abounds in uplift and approval.” None of the difficult passages need to be discussed. There is the Mel Gibson version, but for the most part “overall the Master is infinitely kinder and gentler than when he was viewed by the whole story in the Bible” (p. 153). There are other options, but will they catch fire?
So, do we have? The Bible as icon? Do we need other ways of telling the story, such as through the media? Briggs discusses some of the attempts to translate the message. Of course, there is preaching, and the question is how that works. Briggs shares with us a couple of ways in which preaching takes place. He notes that “good preachers have typically bonded with the Bible early in life: it became a companion to which they owed allegiance and ongoing relationship. The call to ordination was usually a byproduct of this interaction” (p. 184). I believe there’s a lot of truth to this. As Briggs notes in his concluding chapter people still read the Bible. There may be a lot of unread Bibles, but at least for some it remains powerful. Nonetheless, we still face the problem of biblical illiteracy. Some attempts have been made, such as through schools, but these usually founder on who gets to decide what is taught and who will teach it.
This is a most helpful book. Briggs helps us understand the problem we face when it comes to biblical literacy. There are many challenges to the Bible’s place in our society, even in our churches. It no longer carries, except for a small minority, the same cachet as it once did. Fewer people attend church, so there is less opportunity to engage the text in community. Religion in America is highly individualized and that doesn’t bode well for reading and understanding and interpreting the Bible. There are places in the book I felt Briggs could have strengthened the conversation, but mostly that had to do with interpreting the intricacies of the scholarly world, especially the evangelical and what we might call moderate to liberal interpreters. He got the overview correct, but at times the details need work. That said, the book offers us a readable examination of the place of scripture in American life, and why it continues to be an "invisible bestseller." For that we can be grateful.