Friday, February 18, 2011

Bookend

On a bit of a lark I ordered myself Timothy Beal's fresh-off-the-press and provocatively titled The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011). So far, I'm having fun!

Beal's a Biblical scholar with an interest also in the cultural history of religion in America. He was raised conservative Evangelical and still teaches Sunday school, though not at an Evangelical church. (His wife ministers here.) This allows him to survey the world of evangelical Bible publishing - the world of "values added" paraphrases, Biblezines and niche Bibles - critically but sympathetically as part of a Biblical media history going back to Tatian's Diatesseron (103), which predated the canon and bookmaking capable of making "the Bible" by two centuries! People seek, and publishers provide, that feeling of Bibleness (50) which the Bible as cultural icon leads them to expect - unambiguous answers to questions about how to live - but since the Bible itself offers no such thing, their selling down the sacred capital of the Bible as the Book (76) is no tragedy, but rather an opportunity for us to rediscover it.

The life of faith can often feel like wandering in the wilderness, as it was for the Hebrew people after the exodus. Where are we? Where are we going? Where is God in all this? Are we going to be abandoned out here? In response to the anxieties of the Hebrews, weary of insecure, day-to-day uncertainty, Aaron fashioned a golden calf. "Behold your god," he declared, offering them something solid in place of Moses's God, whose presence with them was not often easy to discern or even trust. The idea of the Bible as a divine guidebook, a map for getting through the terra incognita of life, is our golden calf. It's a substitute for the wilderness wandering that the life of faith necessarily entails. And the Bible business is selling it for all it's worth. "Behold your god": that is, God's Word made flesh, bound between two covers, incarnation by publication. No more guessing. No more wondering. No more wandering. (84)

But also: I see no ill intentions among Bible-publishing companies, any more than I do in Aaron. (85) They mean well, and their selling out of the Book actually is all for the best. The collapse of the idol of The Book opens up new avenues to an encounter with the tradition which made do without a single fixed book for much of its history. "It's the end of the Word as we know it," Beal sings, "and I feel fine."

cont'd, 21/2: After a fascinating jaunt through the history of the Bible, in which there is never a single authorized text and where someone is always producing an alternate or rival version, Beal suggests that we're better off seeing the Bible as a library of questions - one with new wings and annexes added as new interpretations and creative works inspired or otherwise provoked by the Bible emerge (188). Indeed, the tendencies which produced all those rival Bibles aren't necessarily a problem. Not if we give up the myth of a single authoritative, univocal, accessible, comprehensive, exclusive thing which closes the book on questions about the meaning and purpose of life (4-6) and accept that the Bible has always been interpretation all the way down (101).

So the future is bright: scriptural culture after the book may have much in common with scriptural culture before the book (190). Now, as then, we have a decentralized network of communities with different collections of texts, in each of which scripture is fulfilled, filled out through new interpretation in community - what he argues Jesus was already doing in the temple in Luke 4:16-21 (96). It makes for a delicious account of a living tradition of questioning and community. At the end Beal takes the familiar account of religion's two possibilities as seen in the etymologies religare (re-bind) and relegere (re-read), spices it with an allusion to Leonard Cohen's famous line "there is a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in," and arrives at a delightful vision of faith after the end of the book:

The religious life is a communal practice of reading again, and opening the Bible in ways that crack its binding, so to speak, and open it to new understandings, new interpretations
. (185)

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