Rise of the gimmick Bible
Speciality Bibles for teens, women, couples and grandmas might bring in the cash, but what do they say about Christianity, asks Dale Debakcsy
There was a time, spoken of with hushed reverence by a generation rapidly passing beyond the veil, when the centrepiece of a home was its family Bible. It carried not only the word of God, but the record of one’s ancestry, each generation carefully scrawling a few lines on its translucent pages that summed up the total of its accomplishments and disappointments in life. It was an object of almost mystic power – I remember shuddering reading The Mill on the Floss when Mr Tulliver asked his son Tom to take down the family Bible so he could write his curse against Lawyer Wakem therein. After that act, there was no going back (or, as I eloquently expressed it to myself at the time, “Damn, Shit Just Done Got REAL.”)
And yet, when you visit a Christian book store now (and you should every so often, if only to peruse the poster section) what you find is that the few beautifully bound and printed Family Bibles are stuffed off in a corner somewhere, their only hope of purchase being the odd octogenarian who might buy one as a present for her desultory offspring (and which they will inevitably donate to the local library the very moment she is gone, citing lack of space). The trend now is towards speciality Bibles which Christians see as the salvation of their species.
When I was in high school, I was presented with one of the first of these, The New Student Bible, a garish and cheaply produced paperback done up in an odd amalgam of goth black and Malibu Dreamhouse purple and pink to attract “the youth.” It was such a meagre and uninspiring thing that I wrote it off completely as a doomed fad. For a decade, that volume faithfully served as a replacement for the right rear foot of my couch, not realising in the least that its brethren were rather more heroically conquering the holy writ landscape.
In the ensuing decades, Bible publishers seized on the best wisdom of Apple’s marketing department, and rushed to produce not only a separate Bible for each member of the family, but a different Bible for each stage in that family member’s life. You start out with a Children’s Bible done up as a comic book so that somehow the idea of eradicating entire civilizations and eternally torturing people who disagree with you will seem heroic rather than deeply twisted.
But kids are kids and they’ll put up with just about anything that ends in the phrase, “and there’s CANDY when you’re done!” (Come to think of it, so will adults… just substitute “Heaven” for “CANDY!” and there’s not much, historically, that we haven’t been talked into doing.) Teens are a trickier proposition, and that is why a disproportionate amount of resources have been devoted to crafting Bibles that might appeal to what are deemed their core values. These Bibles are sad, sad things, conjured by committees of earnest Caucasians who perceive teenagers dimly if at all through the occluding mists of talk radio and indifferently conceived magazine articles on The Facebook Generation.
Let’s begin with the teen–targeted covers. Here are a couple, one that seems artsily alternative aimed at teenage girls and one that looks like an aggressive protein bar label for the fellows.
Inside, you’ll find the text of the Bible interspersed with a variety of gimmicks. These include activities that you can perform, one of my favourite being a ritual that is in every way ripped from a Buffy The Vampire Slayer style Wiccan meditation, just with Jesus pasted over the Hecate bits. Because sitting on the floor with candles and chanting and stuff, that’s what the kids like, right? More cravenly, one of them features occasional “Text Messages” –side boxes with information that amplify the text, at the bottom of which “This information has been scanned and is free of all known viruses. Please forward to your friends” has been inserted through one of those processes where a higher-up’s polite laughter is misconstrued as an editorial decision.
I’m being somewhat deliberately mean about the ham-fistedness of these books, but I assure you, as mean and sarcastic as I am, it is nothing compared to the fierce eye-rolling criticism they are going to come up against when put in the hands of an actual teenager. Far better to just slam a musty copy of the King James in their hands and hope that it is retro-mystical enough to catch their fancy. By portraying the Bible as essentially one long text message from a deity who hasn’t quite figured out how to self-edit, these publishers are putting it in direct competition with the thousand other similarly draped media productions screaming for teenage approval. Given the choice between a secular source that honestly wants to engage with their concerns and a Bible that is cynically aping an interest in order to keep itself stumbling along another couple of centuries, there’s little doubt about where a modern adolescent will turn.
Let’s say, though, that you are a female Christian, and somehow weather the storm of Christianity’s awkward pawing at your adolescent loyalties and come through it all a Christian still. Congratulations, you have graduated to the wide variety of Women’s Bibles currently available!
And what a delight they are. In place of the gimmicky text messages, activities, and blank “Creative Space” that abounded in the teenage Bibles, you will be treated to a series of essays that purport to twist the blatantly and purposely anti-feminine message of the Old and New Testaments into something approximating statements of self-affirmation. Here are a couple of my favourite instances:
“God created man – male and female – in his own image. What an awesome reality that is. There I am in the first chapter of the Bible – a woman – distinguished from animals, distinguished from my male counterpart.”
This is taking an awful lot of comfort from the relatively banal act of object differentiation, and ignoring the hefty maldistribution of power that more or less immediately follows (the bunnies don’t come off much better than the women in the ensuing power structure, it turns out, for all their having been “distinguished” from each other.)
The winner, though, is this frothingly worshipful essay on Male Power which is the first side-bar in the WOMAN’S Study Bible:
“God has gifted men with great capacities for responsible leadership. This can be channelled positively into the church and all walks of life through teaching, leading by moral example and supporting righteous causes. Masculine power when sanctified can be used in a positive way, such as in the lives of great men through whom God provides leadership… How wonderful that God balances this image of dominant masculine strength and power with the example of the Lord Jesus who was moved by compassion, loved little children, cried at the death of his friend and gave his life so that others might live.”
At least the first quote, from the Women’s Devotional Bible, attempted to massage the meagre material of the Old Testament into something like a positive message of identity. This commentator, however, had a chance to set the tone for what followed, and decided to turn the dial all the way to Victorianism of the “Really all of my accomplishments are thanks to my royal consort, Albert” variety. Because, presumably, the Bible isn’t quite explicit enough about male hegemony, so we need extra articles to really tease those subtle sub-texts out from the page for the advantage of the devout female reader.
Luckily, though, you’ll only need that Bible for a short while, as eventually you will find a partner in Christ to cleave unto, which clearly necessitates a new Bible:
This one is actually kind of fun in so far as it is the love child offspring of a one night stand between the Holy Bible and a Harlequin novel. Turn the lights down, put on some Barry White, and read along with me:
“They fit together so beautifully, these two [Adam and Eve], that their lives intertwined. One can only imagine the special times they shared: the first time they made love, their first sunrise together, their late-night walks through the garden. How God must have delighted in these creatures he had made to expand the harmonious, loving relationship enjoyed by the Trinity itself!”
Ohhhhh yeahhhhh…. Although I’m not sure if it’s comforting or way creepy that, every time I get it on, I’m expanding the harmonious relationship of the Trinity. I can’t help but think of some ethereal Scotty dialling into Jehovah with a panicked cry of, “I’ve been watchin’ the levels, Sir, and unless we get more couples madly humping, I cannae say if we’ll have enough power to pull off the Second Coming!” And the bumper sticker “Snogging: God’s Celestial Battery” is pretty catchy.
Continuing on, there might come a point in your life when you go utterly “The Jackdaws are after my teeth!” insane, which is the only time that I can possibly see this Bible being attractive:
Ah yes, there’s nothing as conducive to calm contemplation of Biblical truths than having nine out of every ten words slathered in one of twelve thematically dedicated colours. “Hooray, it’s got somebody else’s highlighting in it, that will make it ever so much more convenient to read,” is what I hear pretty much any time one of my friends gets a used book in the mail and finds it swimming in neon yellow. That 2 million of these have been sold is baffling, but there it is.
And thence death-wards:
Awww. Well, with that you can close the book on your speciality-Bible consuming career. Now, what if you’re an adult Christian male? Sadly, there’s not all that much for you. Maybe because it’s been determined by some marketing division that you don’t like having things explained to you that you think you already know (the spiritual counterpart of “stopping for directions”). More likely because the Male Devotional Bible is basically… The Bible. Since that already makes up 98% of the material of all the other speciality Bibles, collecting male-centred essays to pop in the margins of the male-dominated Old Testament is just so much wrapping of bacon in bacon, a grotesque example of Textual Excess that is so unnecessary that I have no doubt it is feverishly in the works.
What does this dilution of the Bible into a series of transitional accessories betoken for Christianity? For the Christian publisher, it’s a short term good. Why sell a family one volume of leathery portent when you can sell them five disposable gimmick Bibles instead? For secularists, it’s a long term good. The more a religion tries to make its central texts relevant and accessible to modern readers, the worse off it will fare. Obfuscation and intimidation are what a holy text needs to survive as something more than just one book among many, and those are the last things that The Extreme Teen Bible has to offer. For Christianity, this trend is yet another canary that has, in the good words of the Pythons, curled up its tootsies.
Accessories are trendy – popular items that catch humanity in a moment of confused inertia and give it something to affect interest in for a few months – they are created to be superseded. Crafting Bibles with supersession built in is to open the gates of your religion to a diffuse, meandering spirituality that ends in effective non-belief. So, let the cash registers ring while they may, for there is nothing more sure of creating a future humanist than putting any of these books into the hands of a thinking human being.