Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Sunday, November 24, 2013

in which I try and fail to make sense of an essay on the future of the Bible

Thomas Larson writes,

Here at the end of the four-century reign of books in our culture, which is to say in the digital age, I’m curious about what happens to the Bible, publishing’s crown jewel.

Kind of an odd way to talk about the Bible, but okay. Still, are we “at the end of the four-century reign of books in our culture”? That’s the sort of claim that needs to be established, does it not? We might ask this question before we jump to a conclusion: When was the apogee? When was the point at which the highest percentage of persons in “our culture” read books? It could be embarrassing if the answer turned out to be Now.

If it’s true that the digital era is iconoclastic, muting the sacredness of religion-spawning texts, then can we still say that this “holiest” of Western books is still “holy?”

Is the digital era iconoclastic? One might more plausibly argue that it’s prolific of icons and iconography. Does it “mute” sacredness? If so, how? And what does that actually mean?

By “holy,” I mean first that the Bible is supposedly decreed by God and so inerrant; and second that its long veneration as a literary masterpiece has earned it unimpeachable value. Both of these lend it an aerie of its own. The “divinely inspired” Christian canonical book, Old testaments and New, codified in Greek in the late 4th century, translated into Latin in the 5th century and English in the 17th, sells some 25 million copies each year. Would Christianity be possible without the Bible?

Pretty sure the answer to that one is “No.” But how is that related (or not) to its status as a “literary masterpiece”? Moreover, I don't know what Larson means when he talks about the Bible being “codified,” but the Old Testament is written in Hebrew, not Greek; the canon was almost fully established long before the 4th century; there were Latin translations of both testaments before the 5th century; and translations of the Bible into English began no later than the seventh century and have been done in every century since. (Good grief.)

I’m unable to drop the quotes around “holy” since I think the idea of this particular book, a thought that extends to other revered documents like the Quran, the Vedas, and the Torah, contains a paradox: its assertion as the infallible, inalterable laws and teachings of God exists in cultures whose kings and republics have declared moral claims beyond, and in disagreement with, the Bible. In the West, neither states nor religions govern by the Bible anymore. And yet a majority of Christians still avow that the Bible’s laws apply to all human conduct — or should. After centuries of unremitting proselytization, both oral and written, the Bible continues to spread its influence across literature, government, politics, and education. That spread has made it the most sociable text in our language, in ways other books and their claims to truth only wish they could appropriate.

So it “continues to spread its influence” while “neither states nor religions govern by the Bible anymore” — but doesn't that second point suggest that its influence is waning rather than spreading?

The Old English poem Beowulf, for example, is a mighty tale; it is heroic, fiercely dramatic, mythic, first oral, then written (its finest hair-raising translation is by Seamus Heaney). But, unlike the Bible, Beowulf has not been copied, preached, interpreted, and sung via synods of revisers and popularizers over the past 1500 years. The Bible has always been spoken from pulpit and pew, in church basements and in Congress. It is spoken of and for vastly more than its printed self is read in silence. (As of 1850 only ten percent of the world could read, and during the era of the Bible’s development it was a tenth of that.) The Bible is spoken, hence: The greatest story ever told. It is, therefore, “true” because people speak it on — tributaries to a continent-crossing river.

It’s unclear to me what Beowulf is doing in this paragraph, but setting that aside, this seems an odd definition of “truth”: a book is true because “people speak it on”?

In a sense, this is the definition of a “holy book.” A book whose claims and identity are recast and testified to as true and false by every generation — the greatest story ever told and sold — for two-and-a-half millennia. As such, those who debate or believe or deny its origins participate in, indeed drive, its collective prevalence, what we might call its social authorship.

So from the definition of truth to the definition of a “holy book”: one “whose claims and identity are recast and testified to as true and false by every generation ... for two-and-a-half millennia.” So, not the Qu’ran, then? (Yes, I understand that Larson can only mean that the long history of this book makes it a holy book, but that’s not what he writes. Prose this sloppy testifies to a similar lack of rigor in thinking.)

The written Bible carries its oral tradition in its musicality. As Charles McGrath writes in the New York Times Book Review, even though the King James Bible of 1611 is “deliberately archaic” in its “grammar and phraseology,” preachers have trumpeted its dactylic prose: “God giveth and taketh away.”

Where to begin? First, that’s not a quote from any translation of the Bible. The closest approximation is Job 1:21 — “the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away” — or, as it is commonly paraphrased in proverbial form, “the Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away.” But neither the paraphrase nor the actual quote from the KJV nor Larson’s half-remembered version is dactylic. Not even close. And even if they were, what would it mean to praise prose for being dactylic? What if it were iambic or anapestic? Would those be good or bad things in prose?

Let’s skip forward a bit.

So how’s the Bible doing in our device-ridden time? It seems that if it’s seldom read, and not being handled as a book, it’s less likely to be believed.

“It seems”? Does it now? Don’t we have a good bit of historical evidence to demonstrate that belief in the authority of the Bible declined a long time ago among the most educated — that is, among people who more than others in our society read and handle books?

Which is one message of literary critics and outspoken atheists.

Wait: “Literary critics and outspoken atheists” have the same message, which is ... what, precisely?

It may be part of the drying up of deep reading and scholarship, of college majors in religious studies and the humanities.


People need to train for good-paying jobs; they have no time to engage books, even “holy” ones. And yet the millennial purveyors of the Bible seem not to lament this loss. They simply recast their message, as they’ve always done. For a century, from Cecil B. DeMille and the Jeffrey-Hunter Jesus, to Martin Scorsese and Mel Gibson movies, to the VHS tape and the CD-ROM, the Bible’s multimedia reach has exploded, re-tribalizing itself in multifarious electronic forms.

What would have been the better option for “millennial purveyors of the Bible”? (Also, what are “millennial purveyors”?)

The leap from Holy Book to Holy Multimedia has already been made. The 1979 “Jesus” film, produced by Warner Brothers, has been translated into 1000 languages; it’s exported primarily to people who cannot read and write. Mark Burnett’s 2013 ten-part miniseries, The Bible, won this year’s largest TV audience: 100 million views. There are a dizzying number of Bible apps. Among the most popular is YouVersion, for cellphone readers, which in July reached 100 million downloads. The company that produced it, lifechurch.tv, describes its products as “digital missions.” The app’s church services and worship videos are easily accessed as well. CDs of the Bible are far easier than books to get into countries (read Muslim theocracies) where Bibles are not allowed. Let’s not forget marketing to children—the most abundant font of unclaimed souls—with The Super Heroes Bible, ages six to nine, which alleges its characters “are not make-believe. These super heroes really lived.”

I guess we’re supposed to find all this appalling. (Children’s Bibles have been around since the 18th century, by the way.)

Larson goes on to quote from a the website of an organization called Faith Comes By Hearing — he didn’t give the link, but I looked it up —:

Jesus taught with stories, parables, and dialogue. Then, as now, most people in the world communicated orally, processing and remembering information only when it’s clothed in narratives, poems, songs, and similar formats. Modern research confirms that people who don’t read or write well (or at all) learn the way Jesus taught....

The 43 percent of adult Americans who test at or below basic literacy levels are clearly oral communicators. Surprisingly, so are increasing numbers of readers who would simply rather not use a literate communication style. These ‘secondary oral learners’ prefer instead to receive information through film, TV, and other electronic media. The bottom line: neither group will learn the life-giving truths of the Bible by reading it.


I realize this is PR flap but these claims — readers who would simply rather not use a literate communication style and neither group will learn…by reading — feel ominous. They are asserting, rightly so, that the preferred mode of learning is moving from literate standards to “oral communication.” This may pander to an a-literate religious base: people who can read but don’t. A cynic might conclude that oral/visual learners are more susceptible to being swindled (or saved) than literate learners. But it hardly matters. Those who create and adapt Biblical fare for mass audiences, now in thrall to the megapolies in entertainment, media, and publishing, are uninterested in literacy and its putative civilizing benefits.

Earlier we were in the realm of what “seems”; now it is how something “feels” that matters. We are in such amorphous territory here that Larson will not even say flatly that literacy yields benefits: those are widely shared, “putative.”

Can the Bible, in its new multimedia forms, still feel sacred? Do religions need sacred texts to underpin their truth claims? What happens when the Bible is another app, another PowerPoint presentation, another Showtime movie, with Brad Pitt as the Man of Galilee? Doesn’t digitization erode the slowly burnished patina from the sacred object?

Well, does it? If so, how?

And yet, if the book as book fades, and the telling remains, will it remain “holy?” I’m not sure.

Was it holy before it was in a book? (I’m not sure what Larson would say a “book” is.) Let’s move ahead to the peroration:

Evangelicals have used social media for centuries — if by social media we mean the technological tools of a culture that ring the young around a fire to hear a theocratic worldview. The read-aloud text of the Bible is the foot in the door. Listen to others intone it and you’ll hear the truth. Internalizing it does little. The Bible is a book that has to be shared to be believed. That sharing occurs in the spoken realm — where authors are socialized — a realm acoustic, dramatic, non-reflective, in the moment. (A lot like television.) Any text that will remain true requires social authors — proselytizing showmen, unembarrassed testifiers, indefatigable repeaters, digitizing replicants.

So for much of this essay the “holiness” — in Larson’s special sense of the word — of the Bible was sustained and guaranteed by its being in book form: “If the book as book fades ... will it remain ‘holy’?” And: “It seems that if it’s seldom read, and not being handled as a book, it’s less likely to be believed.” But here, at the end of the essay, the problem seems to be that if the Bible re-renters the oral realm it will become more powerful, more sacred, more instrumental to a “theocratic worldview,” because it would belong to “a realm acoustic, dramatic, non-reflective, in the moment.” People would be hearing and responding without thinking. (Note, by the way, that this would apply only to audio or audio-visual versions, not to digitized text.)

So maybe earlier the “It seems” described other people’s views, not Larson’s? And maybe, then, his actual position is something like this: O for the good old days when the Bible was just a book and therefore of little power; now that’s it’s achieving new forms of digital life, a kind of scriptural Singularity, its power will be radically amplified and we’ll all eventually be ruled by tyrannical evangelicals.

Or maybe not. I can’t figure it out. I don’t know when I’ve read a more incoherent essay. If any of y’all can make more sense of Larson’s writing than I can, please let me know in the comments.


  • Thank you for this.

  • I imagined a slurred, not a little tipsy, and bombastic rant at an otherwise sober cocktail party. Your piece? The hangover.

  • Larson is just another of the endless drones who do not think as they write but simply write down their flatulations. That's why the faint aroma of BS hovers in each and every phrase. He's not writing to be lucid or original, he's just scribbling so his tribe of hovering flatulators acknowledges him as one of their own and keep the ducats flowing his way. Deep down, he's shallow.

  • If a tree falls in a forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

Post a Comment

[Basic HTML tags can be used in this comment field.]