Thursday, January 20, 2005

Another case of "Christ and Culture":

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.


Jim said...

A gazillion years ago I was a Navy pilot. The chaplains would, at the beginning of each deployment, hand out the tiny pocket-sized "Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen New Testaments" in an environment in which refusal was not an option. The waste containers generally held about 95+% of them within minutes after the occasion.

Once, a new chaplain handed out "Good News" editions. Many were read, and I saw many dirty from handling day-after-day by sailors who worked in grease and grime twelve hours or more, every day. But there they were, tucked away in the little net bags that constituted the private storage for sailors.

I wouldn't deride you as an old fogey, Dwight, because you don't give evidence of it. But when we deal in a paralyzingly routine way with our social and intellectual [near-]equals, we become numb to the truth that some people can't read at all, and some can barely read. Fifth-grade for some would be a big accomplishment.

And as a cyber-twit myself, I find reading a book so mono-dimensional that I'll try to get a book in Audible format or as an e-book, like my lovely collection of Bible translations and commentaries from Logos.

I once heard a salty old Navy pilot say that if there were more words than pictures in a training manual, the book would be useless. There's a modicum of practical wisdom in there.

We're after all of them for Him, Dwight, not just the ones as smart as us.

In Him,


Anonymous said...

When I was quite young, my parents acquired "Egermeier's Bible Story Book" and my father would read to my brothers and me in the evenings -- perhaps not every day, but often. Paintings accompanied a number of the stories (no masterpieces, I assure you, but whenever the return of the 70 comes up in the lectionary, my mind instantly goes back to the glowing faces of the returning disciples depicted in one of those paintings). I loved it.

My mother thought dad should also read the comparable passages from a "real" Bible, because it would be good for us. I didn't like that -- it was profoundly boring.

The net result is that I knew a lot of the characters in the Bible. My presence on a team virtually ensured winning Bible trivia contests with clues such as this: "I was a seller of purple in the mart." LYDIA!!!

As I grew older and did the requisite verse memorization in my Sunday School classes and later, confirmation classes, I learned dogma. That has also stuck, though sometimes in rather unhelpful ways.

At least, where I am now, I love studying and comparing different versions of "the real thing" -- so I'm guessing, no harm done by my early exposure to the Story Bible.

Bottom line: I probably won't read Nelson's new offering, unless I'm fellowshiping with someone to whom it speaks. Then, that person's enthusiasm will draw me in, which has been true for a number of now-valuable things in my life.


Dwight P. said...

Both of the previous commentators has done me an honor by taking my post seriously -- and they both make very good and valid points. I acknowledge that before I go back on the defensivive.

Brother Jim, I am old, and by my twelve-year-old daughter's lights, I am a fogey. I admit to being both, on occasion. (I'm also a terrific snob, and that might very well have something to do with my upset, too. I'm not smart enough to be an intellectual, however, so that charge can't be used to discredit my commentary.) I am old enough to remember "Good News" (TEV). I was taken with it, and I still don't really find it offensive. (It was, however, a translation and not a paraphrase, which is what saves it for me.) And I have used paraphrased editions for illustration and expansion. (Does anyone remember Clarence Jordan's "Cotton Patch Versions"? I kow I still have my copies -- even if they are lost in the depths of one of my 200 boxes of books that don't fit on shelves.) And part of me welcomes anything that opens the scriptures before anyone. I think that was your main point, Jim, and I understand and affirm it to the extent that these various enterprises opened the scriptures.

But that's the key issue: Is it scripture? Is it an accurate protrayal of what is actually said in scripture and not a "paraphrase" that touts either what the editor thinks the Bible ought to say or what the editor thinks the reader will want to hear? In the case of the Nelson attempt, the language and art work conspire to inculcate a kind of worldliness or USAmerican acculturation that is at odds with the whole point of scripture -- which is to be the narrative basis for its own culture.

And Sister Julesrud, that's why I have no complaint with storybook bibles and the like for little children. Certainly, my daughter's bookshelves contain several different re-tellings. Some of them look scripture-like and some make no pretense to anything other than a "reimaging" of the text (complete with some wonderful artwork). The key issue here is, as above, whether it leads the children to a deeper and more grown-up investment and involvement with scripture and with Church. Clearly, yours did -- so no problem. Too often, however, especially given the current crisis in Christian education and catechization, that's the limit, not the beginning. At that point, they have done more harm than good (in many cases, at any rate) by giving a false view of what the faith is all about.

I acknowledge my debt -- or I lay the blame -- for some of this thought to Stanley Hauerwas who in, Releasing the Scriptures, essentially advocates taking the Bible out of the hands of individual Christians. (Stanley always grabs attention with a clear, polarizing statement.) He would return the Bible to Church, wherein is the only reliable guide to reading and understanding scripture. I may take up that theme in the future. But for now, I just raise this to highlight how middle-of-the-road I really am!

I bid you both peace.

Maurice Frontz said...

Dwight - I think we might get along - I too, at somewhen in my 30's, am an "old fogey."

Inspired by the Youth and Family Institute at Augsburg College and their "Child in our Hands" initiative, at our church we give "Beginner's Bibles" to kindergarteners and NRSV Bibles to fifth-graders (granted, this year it was the NRSV Student Bible). This year my eldest son received a Beginner's Bible. For the first couple of days, at least, he has been hugging it to him and carrying it around with him. I can only hope that the other kids who received them are responding in a similarly positive way.

Last year when we gave the Bibles, the lectionary gave me an opportunity to preach on the opening verses of 1 Corinthians 15, in which Paul says, "I HANDED ON to you as of first importance what I in turn had received..."
I mentioned specifically that before you could buy the Bible, the only place to hear the Word of God was in the church. To me, the imagery of handing on the Scriptures, of GIVING the Scriptures into our children's hands in a world that markets them instead, is key to making or remaking the point that these are the Church's Scriptures.

You and your friends have a wonderful conversation going. God bless you all.

Dwight P. said...

"Handing down" is at the root both of "tradition" and "mandate". It is a notion that Lutherans don't spend much time on -- to their distress and loss. The handing on of the scriptures is a good practice (we do it in our congregation, too) -- as is handing on of the Creed (or the catechism) to confirmands (reflecting early Christian catechetical practice).

Stay in touch on this blog and The Thinklings blog.


TS said...

Nice Blog!!!   I thought I'd tell you about a site that will let give you places where
you can make extra cash! I made over $800 last month. Not bad for not doing much. Just put in your
zip code and up will pop up a list of places that are available. I live in a small area and found quite

jiri said...

This is a excellent blog. Keep it going.

This may be of interest to you I have a free online dating service. It pretty much covers dating stuff.

I'll be sure to come back.

TexasDude said...

Very nice blog, hard to come by these days,

If you have a chance, can you visit my Dating Ideas site


milfcritic said...

click for dating site