The End of the Word as We Know It:
A Personal Introduction
I remember mom’s bible especially well: the feel and smell of the dark red pebbly leather cover, the heft of it, the delicate paper, gray and silky-soft at the corners from countless careful turns, the way it flopped over her hands when she opened it. Like other Bibles in our home, its value as a holy thing came not only from its quality of materials and craftsmanship, and not only from our familial faith in the words on its pages as the inspired Word of God, but also from years of daily, devotional attention. It seemed both sacred and mundane, a hallowed object, demanding my highest reverence, and an everyday tool, lying open on the kitchen counter like an old phonebook.
Growing up conservative evangelical in the 1960s and ’70s, mine was a childhood steeped in biblical devotion. Our two-story house in the foothills of the Chugach Mountains, outside Anchorage, Alaska, was filled with books, good for the long, dark winters. But no book was more treasured than the Bible. It was the cornerstone of our family’s spiritual well-being, the go-to source for any serious question we might have, from sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll to heaven, hell, and why bad things happen to good people.
Mom and Dad were models of biblical fidelity, of daily living in the Word. My strongest childhood memories of them testify to the high value they placed on Bible study and reflection: Mom, awake before sunrise, kneeling before the living room recliner as if it were a prie-dieu, reading her Bible while our cat lay purring and pawing on her warm back; Dad, leaving early for breakfast Bible studies and meetings of the local chapter of the Gideons at Denny’s; the two of them, at the end of the day, sitting together on the sofa in the TV room, or lying side by side in bed, propped up on pillows, silently reading their Bibles.
My parents’ biblical faith was by no means sentimental or simplistic. It was as seriously intellectual as it was devout. On drives home from church, they discussed the preacher’s biblical interpretations in rigorous detail. When we got home, the discussion often continued, with Bibles open on the kitchen table. Mom studied Greek in college, and sometimes she’d pull out her old Greek New Testament to see how else the text might be translated. Stereotypes of conservative evangelical Christians as anti-intellectual notwithstanding, the Bible culture in which I was raised fostered serious, reasoned, critical engagement with the Scriptures. Biblical interpretation demanded all your heart, mind, and strength.
Magic 8 Ball Bible
My own youthful version of biblical faith, however, shaped at least as much by the emerging Christian pop youth culture of the 1970s as by my parents, was considerably less sophisticated. I tended to approach the Bible as though it were a divine oracle of truth, the ultimate Magic 8 Ball. Ask it a question and it would give you God’s answer. I’d close my eyes while flipping through it like a dictionary, stop at random, and point my index finger somewhere on the open page, trusting that it would land on the passage I needed to read at that particular moment. This mode of biblical divination remains popular among kids as well as adults to this day. Many people tell miracle stories about how it gave them exactly the life-changing answer they needed. For me, not so much.
"Does Joanne like me?"
Flip, flip, flip. Stop. Point.
"He that is wounded in the stones, or hath his privy member cut off, shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord" (Deuteronomy 23:1).
Eventually I learned to flip far enough through my Bible to avoid the long legal discourses on skin diseases and crushed testicles in Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. But I still didn’t find what I was looking for.
The biblical Magic 8 Ball game revealed more about me, about my hopes and wishes for the Bible, and especially my idea
of the Bible, than it did about biblical literature itself. I conceived of the Bible as God’s book of answers, which if opened and read rightly would speak directly to me with concrete, divinely authored advice about my life and how to live it.
This way of thinking about the Bible was not just my own private notion. It was, and still is, the most common understanding of the Bible: the literal Word of God, God’s own book, The Book of all books, plainly revealing who God is and what God wants me to do and believe, from everyday things like dating and diet to ultimate things like heaven and hell.
Think of the hundreds of instruction books and manuals that are called Bibles, from The Bartender’s Bible
to The Curtain Bible
to The Small Game and Varmint Hunter’s Bible.
What does it mean to call something "the Bible"? What does this title claim for a book? What does it promise? What is the cultural meaning of "the Bible" that a publisher claims when it publishes something like The Hot Rodder’s Bible
? What does "the Bible" mean?
It means authoritative.
A book called "the Bible" is the ultimate authority. It is the first and last word on the subject.
It means univocal.
A book called "the Bible" speaks for itself in one, unified voice, without contradiction.
It means practical.
A book called "the Bible" promises to serve as a reference manual and a dependable guide for how to proceed along the path its reader has chosen.
It means accessible.
A book called "the Bible" promises to speak to anyone and everyone clearly and simply, without ambiguity, in terms "even I can understand."
It means comprehensive.
A book called "the Bible" claims to cover everything human beings may ever possibly need to know about its subject, past, present, and future.
It means exclusive.
A book called "the Bible" admits no rivals, no alternative perspectives. It is complete unto itself, closed, self-contained within a single book, A to Z, alpha to omega, Genesis to Revelation. Nothing may be added or taken away.
This is what I call the iconic
cultural meaning of the Bible. And it is this meaning that publishers claim for any book they call "the Bible." The Bible is above all an image of divine authority, the perfect Book by the perfect Author.
Nearly all Americans are familiar with this idea of the Bible, and most endorse it. According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 78 percent of all Americans say that the Bible is the "word of God," and almost half of those believe that, as such, "it is to be taken literally, word for word." Polling data from the Barna Group indicate that nearly half of all Americans agree that "the Bible is totally accurate in all of its teachings" (88 percent of all "born-again" Christians believe the same), and the Gallup Poll finds that 65 percent of all Americans believe that the Bible "answers all or most of the basic questions of life." These statements are shorthand descriptions of the idea of the Bible as God’s magnum opus, the first and last word on who God is, who we are, why we’re here, and where we go after this—depending, of course, on how well we follow The Book, aka B.I.B.L.E., "Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth."
The Rise of a Cultural Icon
A cultural icon is different from a traditional icon. A traditional icon is a particular material object that is believed to mediate a transcendent reality, and its power to do so is created and maintained by the various rituals people practice in relation to it. An example might be a Bible used to swear in a new president, or a handwritten Torah scroll presented to a congregation in a synagogue. A cultural
icon is not so concrete. It is not tied to a particular material object, visual image, or ritual practice. Its outlines are a little vague, hard to define