Books: “The Rise and Fall of the Bible”

April 8, 2011


The literary scholar and Catholic nun Thea Bowman recalled in the video “Almost Home” that the old folks she knew when she was growing up in Mississippi were steeped in Holy Writ. “I was reared around a lot of old people,” she said. “They knew Scripture. I knew people who could not read or write, but they could quote you a Scripture with the chapter and verse. They would use Scripture when they were tired and a Scripture when they were frustrated, a Scripture to challenge us . . . a Scripture to threaten you, a Scripture to reward you or to praise you or to teach you; I grew up in that kind of world.’’

But these folks, Bowman said in the album “Songs of My People,” didn’t concern themselves with whether or not Jonah and the big fish that swallowed him were real. What these folks were interested in was the truth that was communicated by that story — a truth that had to do with life today — namely, the imperative of accepting the will of God.

For my money, that was an enlightened point of view, a sensible way of approaching the Bible. Everyone doesn’t agree. There are Christians who believe that the Bible means what it says — period.

If there are two contradictory accounts of the creation of human beings, two differing accounts of the death of Judas, four accounts of Easter morning at the empty tomb, and three accounts of the conversion of St. Paul — well, this is the infallible word of God, so they say.

This is one of the issues that is explored in The Rise and Fall of the Bible (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), an engaging little book by Timothy Beal, who is a professor of religion at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Beal writes a great deal in this book about the Bible-publishing business, which he thinks is on the wane — likely to decline if not disappear in the digital revolution. Even at that, he argues, although there are lots of Bibles being published and sold — in a dizzying variety of formats — the number of people who are actually reading the sacred texts is another matter.

In fact, Beal maintains, some versions of the Bible — loaded with sidebars and commentaries and graphics that tend to push the Chapters and Verses into the background — are not calculated to get people directly engaged with Moses and Isaiah and Mark and Matthew and the rest of that crowd. In many cases, he thinks, the design is to get the reader to accept a particular interpretation of the Biblical content and to overlook — or remain unaware of — the ambiguities and contradictions that are in the very nature of the Bible. These are Beal’s own words:

The icon of the Bible as God’s textbook for the world is as bankrupt as the idea that it stands for, of religious faith as absolute black-and-white certainty. Just as the cultural icon of the flag often becomes a substitute for patriotism, and just as the cultural icon of the four-wheel-drive truck often becomes a substitute for manly independence and self-confidence, so the cultural icon of the Bible often becomes a substitute for a vital life of faith, which calls not for obedient adherence to clear answers but thoughtful engagement with ultimate questions. The Bible itself invites that kind of engagement.

Beal maintains that the iconic view of the Bible as the single source of religious truth ignores the history of the Bible, which did not exist as a single entity until hundreds of years into the Christian era — and still appears in more than one configuration. Beal predicts that Bible reading — like most other reading — will eventually become a digital experience, and he welcomes that prospect. He sees a healthy similarity between the generations of transmission of the traditions and texts that eventually became the Bible — a process that involved, and still involves, constant re-reading and re-translating and re-interpreting — and the generations to come in which the Scriptures will be subject to the kind of discourse that is already going on in other fields of study on, of all things, the Internet.

Beal points out that Jesus of Nazareth didn’t take the Hebrew Scriptures to have one literal meaning, but engaged in interpretation of a kind that still goes on among Jewish scholars — a process I have listened to with fascination at no less revered a venue than the Western Wall. The author doesn’t see religious faith as a science of certainties but as a struggle that has its intermittent moments of enlightenment and elation and doubt and discouragement. His viewpoint reminded me of an observation made by Albino Luciani — Pope John Paul I — that even the angels ascending to heaven on Jacob’s ladder were taking only one step at a time.

This is Beal’s conclusion:

In kindred spirit, what if we were to think of the Word of God not as bound between two covers of a book but as that endless noise of interpretation, an inconclusive process that we are invited to join? What if that cacophonous hymn, rising up across time and space from digital networks, living rooms, lunchrooms, churches, and bus stops is the living Word of God? An endless, inarticulate din of talking, arguing, reading, and rereading in the library of questions. The Word as we don’t know it. The Word as we live it. Word without end.


9 Responses to “Books: “The Rise and Fall of the Bible””

  1. shoreacres Says:

    I would much rather stay here and engage with this post than go to work, but I really don’t have that choice.

    So, for now, I’ll just add one of my favorite quotations from William Faulkner – “Facts and truth really don’t have much to do with each other” – mention that Luther would love this Beal fellow, and respond to Beal’s “Word without end” by adding the traditional “Amen!”

    Back later.

    • charlespaolino Says:

      It’s interesting that you mentioned Faulkner, because Thea Bowman was a Faulkner scholar at Boston College. When I was teaching — and especially when I was discussing concepts like inference and context — I often referred my students to the remark by the title character of “Man of La Mancha” — “Facts are the enemy of truth” – and the observation by Chief Bromden, the narrator of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”: “This story is true, even if it never happened.”

      I meet once a month with about a hundred parents of the kids in my church’s religious education program. These are people in their 30s and 40s. Many of them seem so liberated when I tell them that the Catholic Church doesn’t require them to accept the stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah, Job, and Jonah, for example, as historical accounts. I love Sportin’ Life’s song in “Porgy and Bess”: “the things that you’re liable to read in Bible, it ain’t necessarily so.”

  2. shoreacres Says:

    Now, as I was saying…

    I suspect the combination of journalistic training and knowledge of Logos theology contributes to the fine reviews you provide here. Just as an example, your post about Marlowe Thomas provided facts enough to be satisfying, yet allowed the truth of her as a person to emerge.

    Facts and truth may not have a lot to do with one another, but they certainly have something to do with one another, and figuring out the relationship is critical for anything from fiction writing to faith development.

    Now that I think of it, the writers I most love all obsess in one way or another over the truth/facts connundrum: Faulkner, Lawrence Durrell, Flannery O’Connor and Annie Dillard. Anyone who writes has to deal with the issues, and it seems to me folks who choose to write memoir or biography have to be especially careful. I think about it, a lot, and have found William Zinsser’s books on writing memoir invaluable.

    This is getting too long, so just a word about the Word.
    When I was in graduate school my Beloved Professor – the one who had the sign saying Creato, Ergo Sum above his desk – also liked to say, “Remember. The Word is not meant to be a proposition for debate. It is meant to be an encounter with life. Words that enable that encounter will be lively and compelling. Don’t get in their way.”

  3. shoreacres Says:

    Speaking of facts, that would be Marlo, of course.

  4. Bellezza Says:

    I’m only halfway through your post, and I find so many thoughts swirling through my mind I’ll have to write them here then come back to finish reading. First, I so clearly remember Madeleine L’
    Engle coming to Wheaton College (where I went to hear her speak, but not as a student, just as one who loves her work). She intimated that Bible was Story and just about caused a riot. But, I agree with her. It’s what the Bible communicates to us as Truth that matters. I once heard this explanation: If your brother and you both write about a certain Christmas of your childhood, you would have different accounts. But, the Christmas really did happen. Essentially, I believe the Bible to be the inspired Word or God. Truth, all the way, but not able to be accurately dissected by our fallible minds.

    Then you went on to speak of translations, some almost pushing the scripture out of the way for pictures, diagrams, etc. Now, I do have a problem with this. I don’t want to read The Women of Faith Bible, The Couples Bible, The Max Lucado Bible; I want to read The Holy Bible. And when translations get so ‘watered down’ (I’m thinking of The Message) I can’t read them. I appreciate that they might be just the thing for a person who is delving into the Bible for the first time, but they’re not for me.

    I’m currently reading only the Bible for Lent. A great sacrifice for me, because while I dearly love His Word, I also love my literature. Anyway, I’ve been reading the Holman Christian Standard Bible for the Old Testament, Psalms in King James, and now the New Testament in Modern Translation for Living Man. I’ve read the Bible through in several translations, several times. Each time is a blessing, but I don’t believe we should be distracted from the text. Nor do I believe someone should slap his/her name on such a holy work.

    Wow, who thought I could go on ad nauseum such as this. Dear Linda of Shoreacres told me of this post, and I’m glad she did. It obviously spurred a lot of thought from me. Thanks for bearing with my rather random response.

    Blessings, Bellezza

  5. charlespaolino Says:

    Thanks for your comments. We seem to be pretty much in synch where the Bible is concerned.

    I heard a talk the other night by Father James Martin, a Jesuit who has had a couple of books on the NYT best-seller list. He discussed the fact that there is humor in many Bible passages that we miss because of the difference in our culture and the cultures in which those books were written. One of the examples he used was the remark, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” “Just substitute ‘New Jersey’ for ‘Nazareth,'” he said, “and you’ll see what I mean.” I also heard a lecture on the same subject by a Dominican nun many years ago. She pointed out the humor in the Book of Job — not where I would have looked for it.

  6. shoreacres Says:

    A very interesting postscript to all this is the news story out this morning about Greg Mortensen’s Three Cups of Tea. It’s also interesting that the NYTimes story quotes William Zinsser.

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