By Thomas Larson
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. As Robert Pogue Harrison writes in a 2012 New York Review of Books multi-book review on the King James’s 400th anniversary, that book is
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?” 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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.” Its invitingly musical style features a periodic and parallel phrasing, dramatic parables, metaphoric grandeur, the pith of the Anglo-Saxon tongue, its aphorisms, its cadences, its “begots”—chant-like on the ear and memorable to the mind, for readers and listeners alike. Even God gets “lines.”
All that arose from speakers and comes out of speakers still. Think about where the Bible’s been aurally. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion: Christ’s story, with choir and orchestra and soloists, in the reverberating space of a medieval church, sung. Bible-based testimony, in an African-American church, with organ, tambourines, clap-happy bodies swaying, sung. Biblical allegories from a Pentecostal minister in a pulpit-rocking country church or Joel Osteen in an arena before ten thousand of the pious, hearing his sentimentalizing self-help intoned. And so on. Whoever created the Bible, the intent was a written twin that back-strapped its oral antecedent and reproduced that pairing ad infinitum so that both could live on, stronger for the bond.
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.
Texts are venerated not only when they are spoken but also when they are handled. Ask the Gideons International, still placing Bibles, some 1.8 billion over the last hundred years, in the hands of soldiers and college students and the drawers of American motels. Scripture spreads by hand as well as by ear, especially objects of felt intimacy: dog-eared, pawed, thumbed, indexed, gilt-edged, leather-bound, copied, carried, consulted, recited, pulpit-pounded, buried with, sworn an oath over, backpacked on D-Day, the Good Book, so help me God.
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. Which is one message of literary critics and outspoken atheists. 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.
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.”
One audio Bible producer is Faith Comes By Hearing. The company’s website reads, “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.” What’s more,
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.
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?
Leave the Maker out of it. You are the Bible: you, its maker, you, an iron link in its chain.
Before answering, let me back up to disputes about the Bible’s origin. Some say God wrote it; some say Moses dictated the first five books; some say it was Jesus’ apostles, and later Paul, who were its author-editors; some say those who issued the Nicene Creed (381 CE) cherry-picked conflicting sources to cement an orthodoxy as “the Scriptures” as well as, diabolically, narrow women’s roles in the church. Such disputes have been the Bible’s greatest asset. Why? If the Bible’s authorship evolves over centuries, is pinned on God as much as humankind, and remains subject to verification by archaeologists (see the challenge the Dead Sea Scrolls made to the Hebrew Bible’s canon), then more people are continually involved in its construction, and the book’s mystery never dies.
And yet, if the book as book fades, and the telling remains, will it remain “holy?” I’m not sure. We don’t know what’s happening to books and their aura. Walter Benjamin famously observed how the aura of original art loses its authenticity in the age of “technological reproducibility.” Still, incessant copying and re-posting revivify the object via whatever technology renews that aura. It’s the range of copying that proves worth. The film industry, for example, invented its mass audience and has never stopped feeding it—producing not only the films themselves, but also a narcissistic focus on star-worship, “true life” stories, teenagers in peril, the hero’s journey, and Armageddon rerouted by Bruce Willis, not to mention the new contexts (drive-in, TV, cable, Internet, cellphone) in which the industry expands its spectrum of access every decade. As a result, film is not unlike messianic religions. Its business model must convert new audiences. By contrast, the book, under hardcover, wants to remain hallowed in its cloister.
This transfer of the Bible from text to multimedia (print back to oral) may bring it even greater fame. The more living exchange a text inspires, the more authority, or “holiness,” it garners, generation after generation. Thus, it’s better—for the text’s claim and for the number of subscribers—to assign the Bible multiple or disputed authors, to force disciples to swear fealty to its moral injunctions, to insist on its transliterate incarnations, and to print, preach, sing, tweet, text, and app the message.
Leave the Maker out of it. You are the Bible: you, its maker, you, an iron link in its chain. The Bible is supposed to be mysteriously transcendent; it’s supposed to be dubiously inerrant, it’s supposed to be a miraculous enjoining of fact and fiction, then, as now—and the Bible is supposed to appeal to everyone. Or else it’s failed. That’s its logic.
Amiri Baraka once said, “Words have users but, more important, users have words.” Evangelical Christianity seeks—has always sought—to use any means at hand to hail and sell its product. 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.
In my next essay, I will examine the understudied oral tradition of American literature. Our literature has a spoken, out-loud and loud, pedigree to it that owes much to the prevalence of the Bible in the New World and the pulpit, lectern, and table talk of the 19th century. The testimonial speech of American writers, aligned more with the music and orality of religion and less with its morality, is also our tradition.
Thomas Larson is the author of three books:
The Memoir and the Memoirist: Reading and Writing Personal Narrative, The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, and the forthcoming The Sanctuary of Illness: A Memoir of Heart Disease.