The Marty Center at the U of Chicago (yes, named in honor the inestimable Martin E. Marty) provides a free subscription to its twice-weekly newsletter "Sightings." Marty usually contributes one one-page commentary a week, and someone else provides another. The pieces analyze various aspects of the intersection, the face-to-face, the conflict, and/or the capitulation of faith (not necessarily Christian faith) to culture (usually USAmerican culture, but not always). I encourage you to check it out here. (For those of you acquainted with Marty's incredible "Context", be assured that it is a very different thing.)
In today's post, there is news (from "Sightings" general editor, Jeremy Biles) of Thomas Nelson's new format for marketing the Bible -- magazine-lookalike Bibles, some geared to girls and some geared to boys -- complete with enticing covers, look-alike hooks ("Do you date a godly guy?), a complete lack of religious imagery, and a translation that is devoid of any hard words or concepts.
Now, I know that Nelson is in the business of selling Bibles, and I know that "books" (including the Bible) may be difficult to market in a computer-magazine-MTV culture. But this is a classic case, it seems to me, of so adapting "The Word" to culture that one throws out the baby Jesus with the bathwater. When the agenda of the secular culture is adopted to try to convey the faith, I think it is next to impossible for faith to survive. And I think that is what we are seeing more and more.
As corporation culture becomes more and more that "given" in metaphors, in thought-structures, even in theologizing, then what is really happening is that a new god is being proclaimed. Profit replaces sacrifice; managing replaces service; competition replaces discipleship; "winning" replaces the message of the cross. And I think the same will happen with this Nelson venture.
Now, I'm not so sure that Nelson is any worse than others: The American Bible Society did, after all, come out with "Today's English Version" -- Good News for Modern Man. Note how old I am, that I can remember the original title. But previous versions, however well-meaning or crassly economic they might have been, have at least taken seriously the text (attempting, at least to offer accurate paraphrases, even if that meant difficult language) and the imagery has been of a religious nature (if only, in some cases, sketches). Nelson seems to be undercutting two critical aspects of the faith -- the Scripture (by "dumbing" it down -- and if reducing it to a fifth-grace reading level isn't dumbing down, I don't know what is) and the iconography.
In the case of the iconography, or the visual representation of the faith, I don't think that we need blonde, Nordic Jesuses to keep faith alive. But I do think that we need visual stimuli that bring the stories of faith alive: crosses and Magen Davids and good samaritans and good shepherds and Red Seas and all the rest. If the representations of current culture become the representation of faith to the eyes, then where is the substance? Sure, dating is an issue for Christians (and maybe especially teenage girls -- although I am troubled by the inherent sexism that seems at play in Nelson's work, as well). But is that the way to inculcate the faith -- by stressing moralistic bumperstickers?
At another level, magazines are meant to go out of style and be pitched. Is that the message we want to convey about scriptures? "Oh, there'll be a new message next month, so we don't have to worry about this one." There is something to having one's own bound Bible -- hardcover, relatively permanent, maybe a bit fussy (with its onion-skin paper and gold edges). (I think the same holds for worship books, but I won't go into my diatribe about bulletins and screens here.)
Have I said enough to stake out the ground of my perplexity and my discomfort?
I readily admit to being an old fogey well before my time. I prefer reading to TV, I prefer Bach and Mozart and Berlioz to most of what passes for music in this time, I prefer Harpers to the local newspaper. And I prefer transcendance and awe, reverence, obedience, "fear," and existential tension in the proclamation of faith to happy-clappy, immanence, situation ethics, "doing it my way," and ease. As we lose any sense of that-which-is-beyond-us, this does not seem to me to be a healthy step for a Bible publisher to take.