A Q & A With Author Timothy Beal
Q: Why this book? Why now?
A: Because I believe that we are in the middle of a media revolution in the history of the Bible that will be as transformative of Christianity as was the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century. This revolution is the result of a convergence of two things: the decline of print culture and the explosion of what I call "evangelical capitalism," a kind of supply-side religion in which it’s getting hard to tell the difference between spreading the Word and moving product, saving souls and selling the sacred. Already underway, this revolution will profoundly alter the way we think about and read the Bible. It’s the end of the Word as we know it. While some will see this as disastrous, I suggest we embrace it as an opportunity—an ending that can open up the possibility of an exciting new beginning. The end of the Word as we know it is not the end of the story.
Q: Why is this an "unexpected history of an accidental book"?
A: Nowadays it’s hard to imagine the Bible as anything but a book. Indeed, many consider it "The Book of books." But it wasn’t always that way. There’s a lot to this story that I hope you’ll want to read for yourself. For now, suffice it to say that Christianity thrived for centuries without anything like the Bible. The rise of the Bible was an accident of the invention of the media technology of the book. And its fate as such is tied to that of book culture, which appears to be approaching its twilight years. The Bible’s bookishness is accidental, an effect of media history; it wasn’t always a book, let alone The Book, and it won’t always be. In fact, if there’s one constant in the history of the Bible, it’s change. That’s the story I try to tell. For most of us, that story is unexpected.
Q: You write that "there is no such thing as the Bible, and there never has been." That’s a little provocative. What do you mean?
A: I mean exactly that. There is no "the Bible," no book that is the one and only Bible. There are lots and lots and lots of Bibles. They come in many different material forms—books, scrolls, magazines, mangas, digital media, and so on. And they come with a great variety of different content—different canons, translations, notes, commentaries, pictures, and so on. Don’t believe me? Just type "Bible" in the search box at the top of this page and get ready to be overwhelmed. The Bible business sells more than 6,000 different products for over $800 million a year—all sold as "the Bible." It’s totally nuts.
"Whoa," some will say, "stop the madness! Save the Bible! We’ve got to get back to the original, pure, unadulterated Bible." In the book, I say, "Okay, let’s try that." What we discover when we do that is even more surprising: not only is there no such thing as the Bible now; there never has been. There is no unadulterated original, no Adam from which all Bibles have descended. The further we go back in history, the more variety we discover. "That old-time religion" is an illusion.
Q: How is this book different from all the other books out there on the Bible?
A: To be sure, there are other books about the history of the Bible, full of good information, but they don’t tend to ask what it all means. Their interests are mostly academic, thick on description but thin on interpretation. Not so The Rise and Fall of the Bible. Informed by two decades of scholarly research and teaching, I look back in order to look forward, to find a fresh way of understanding the Bible and its place in culture. How should its history change the way we think about and read it? What’s happening to the Bible today, and what is its future in the Internet age? These are the kinds of questions this book explores.
Q: Why do you care? Are you a "Bible believer"?
A: The "story of the Book" that I tell in it is also, in a profound way, my story of the Book, my life in Bibles, from my own complicated relationship with my conservative evangelical heritage to my career as a professor of religion at a secular university. Indeed, my proclamation of the end of the Word as we know it is as personal as it is scholarly. I ultimately see this crisis in the life of the Bible as an opportunity to rediscover it in a way that’s truer to its history and its contents—not as a rock but a river, not as a book of answers but a library of questions. Having grown up a "Bible-believing" evangelical, I share my own story of rediscovery as an illustration of the journey I hope to inspire in others. The end of the Word is ultimately a hopeful word.
Starred Review. The role of the Bible in Western culture is undisputed. It has defined the Judeo-Christian ethic in so many ways it's hard to imagine the Western world without this inspired book. However, as Beal so eloquently explains, the specific role played by Holy Scripture has morphed over the years. In particular, it has taken on the role of "cultural icon"—inerrant guide, big brother, worthy oracle. This is a new phenomenon: witness the number of specialty Bibles available in Christian bookstores. Raised in a strict, religiously literalist home, Beal (Roadside Religion), a professor of religion at Case Western Reserve University, has evolved into a top-notch scholar who makes a compelling case against the idea of a fully consistent and unerring book, positing instead a very human volume with all the twists and foibles of the human experience, truly reflecting that human experience. He presents a convincing case for a radical rereading of the text, an honest appreciation of this sacred book. An engrossing and excellent work, highly recommended. (Feb.)
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