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The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book

(Timothy Beal, Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 2011)

            For those who want to demote the Bible to something less than Holy Writ, the operant assumption seems to be that if you can identify human fingerprints, it’s not to be wholly believed.  If you can establish any linguistic, historic, or circumstantial doubt, inspiration is to be taken off the table. 

            Let me state my assumptions at the beginning.  The Bible is covered with human fingerprints.  Any reasonable study of the book itself, let alone what we know about its writing, canonization and translation, is reason enough to accept that as a truism.  The Bible was written by people.  However, by faith, one can reasonably assert that God superintended that creative process so that what we possess today is the full measure of what God wanted to reveal.  The Bible is a sufficient revelation for fulfilling the Great Commission to make disciples.

            That is a leap of faith.  It is, arguably, the greatest distance to be spanned in any aspect of Christendom.  It is may be one of the hardest things to accept for post-moderns, who tend to be skeptical of anything that claims to be absolute truth.  (After all, the preferred moral mode of Relativism is harder to justify if an absolutely authoritative code exists.)

            In spite of his inflammatory title and some of his assumptions, much of what Beal has written rings as true, especially in the first few chapters of Rise and Fall. For example, his contention that the Bible has a false identity as a cultural icon is spot on.  A trip to any Christian bookstore will reveal only the tip of the iceberg of the “biblical consumerism” that is occurring in American culture.  Beal cites the usual sources (Barna, Gallup, Pew) in discerning that the Bible is the most revered but under-used book in America.  He lays bare a secret that would make many of us squirm; we have high expectations for reading the Bible, but when those expectations are not a part of our experience, we too-quickly give in to disappointment and surrender to the difficulties and simply set it down.  Most Americans own a number of Bibles but read none of them with any regularity.

            Part of Beal’s work is biographical; he wants to establish himself as having grown up in evangelical culture to assure the reader that he knows personally what he’s talking about; unlike those people on NPR.  For example, his youthful experience of The Way, a paraphrase of the Bible made culturally relevant in his adolescence, resonated with my own experience of that very same book.  Published by Tyndale House in the 1970s, The Way is one of many examples he cites – stretching all the way back to the printing press – of how the Bible has been made salable in its current culture.

            The examples are legion, too many to consider here.  Suffice it to say, translation and reproduction of the Bible has always been driven, at least on the surface, by the cultural and historical context.  (The same argument could be made about Christian doctrine and the history of the Church in general.)  However, as we all should realize (including Beal), that correlation does not prove causation.  Nor does it prove that the whole thing was carried off apart from the hand of providence. 

            For those readers who may be new to the art and science of textual criticism or who may be unfamiliar with the history behind the manifold translations spanning several bookstore shelves, Beal’s work could serve as an accessible introduction to these matters.  Chapters five and six could be read alone for this information.

            It is in chapters seven and eight that Beal delves into his beliefs about the Bible. I write that sentence with tongue in cheek; what Beal believes is not made apparent. If the reader ends the book uncertain whether Beal believes the Bible is necessary for salvation or if it has a value other than jaundiced history or allegory, that may be his intent. 

            Allow me to offer one example.  On page 183, Beal wrote, “For me, studying religion is about making the strange familiar and the familiar strange.”  Yes, that is a single sentence taken out of context.  Yes, he spends a half-page “explaining” that statement.  But Beal’s explanations remain as slippery as that single line.  To me, these kind of fluff statements strive for the appearance of profundity but are tossed off without heeding the power of the words or much care about their meaning.  In this regard, Beal reminded me a great deal of “The Mysterious Sphinx,” a comedic superhero in the quirky movie, “Mystery Men.”  Both characters are striving more for style than substance.

            What is plainly stated is Beal’s anathema for fixed notions about the Bible; “The Bible is, moreover, an unfinished conversation, a work in progress,” (p. 187).  Beal wants to emphasize the process, the conversation about the Bible, over theology, the truths identified in its pages.  He wants to, in earlier chapters, deride the “value-added” portions of market-driven Bible publishing as falsely putting the publisher’s viewpoints on a par with the biblical writers.  But here, in the last two chapters, he’s perfectly happy to place the opinions of pundits (i.e., himself) on a par with Scripture. Trying to have it both ways is often a sign of not having it at all.

            There is one point at which Beal precisely and helpfully identifies the cultural plight of evangelicals.  In the context of showing how reproduction of the Scriptures has been shaped by the media and the times, Beal makes an observation that succinctly names the problem. “Evangelicalism faces a fundamental dilemma: popularization versus preservation; getting the Word out by whatever means necessary versus protecting and preserving the sanctity of the tradition,” (p. 70). 

            “Popularization versus preservation” is a set of polarities that is handy for describing any number of evangelical issues.  In terms of worship, contemporary seeker-driven worship is an attempt at popularization while traditional worship aims at preservation.  Charismatic renewal flows toward popularization while the reaction against it tends toward preservation. 

            Personally, I found The Rise and Fall of the Bible to be a worthwhile read because of the quality of the research and writing and because of the inherent value of occasionally exposing one’s self to differing viewpoints.  I recommend the book with a caveat; don’t take Beal any more literally than he wants you to take the Bible.

(The picture of the cover was retrieved from thesundaydrivehome.blogspot.com on October 12, 2013.)

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