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I was standing in the ruins of one of the world’s oldest synagogues when I realized I didn’t want to be a Bible publisher anymore.
The epiphany came at a rather inconvenient moment, since the whole reason I was there was to convince our guide, a respected Bible teacher, that he should do a study Bible. Or, as they like to say in the publishing business, I was trying to “acquire” him.
I’d been working for an evangelical publisher for almost five years. I loved my job. I loved publishing Bibles — and I published a lot of them. Study Bibles. Youth Bibles. Audio Bibles. We had a Bible for everyone…or at least we aspired to.
We wanted more people to read the Bible. And for a time, I thought publishing more Bibles was the best way to make that happen.
But standing in that synagogue — hearing about the role scripture played in the lives of those who had gathered there — I started to question that assumption.
At synagogues in and around Galilee, young Jewish children would memorize large chunks of scripture. We’re not talking about your average memory verse; we’re talking whole books. In truly exceptional cases, a student might memorize the entire Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament. Each Sabbath, the community would gather for worship. They would celebrate as whatever scroll they had in their possession was carefully unfurled to show everyone that the words were still on the page. God was still speaking to them.
They had nothing like our access to the Bible. No one dreamed of owning his own personal copy of the scriptures. Most rural synagogues were lucky to have one or two scrolls, and whatever they did have was likely shared on a rotating basis with other nearby synagogues.
Yet they loved the text. They couldn’t get enough of it — literally.
Standing in that synagogue, it occurred to me that we have the opposite problem today. We have more Bibles than ever. I had never stopped to ask whether this was a good thing. I just assumed more was better. Yet for all the Bibles out there, one thing we don’t have is more Bible reading.
What if that’s not just coincidence?
What if the proliferation of Bibles is part of the reason we’re reading scripture less?
What if familiarity and abundance breed indifference?
I’m not convinced commercial Bible publishing is a bad thing in itself. There have been too many positive effects, not least of which is the publication of many genuinely high-quality Bibles. Yet the commercialization of scripture has also given us four iterations of the modern Bible — which I believe are causing us to value the Bible less and read it less.
1. The commodity Bible
There’s a certain rationale to publishing niche Bibles — and, arguably, some value as well. Targeting a specific audience allows you to highlight content or themes in scripture that may be especially relevant to a particular group of people. I used to hear from kids who didn’t think God had anything to say to them until someone gave them a Bible designed just for them.
But taken too far, the nichification of scripture can have unintended consequences, turning holy writ into a commodity, a “marketable item produced to satisfy [our] wants or needs.”
As any economist will tell you, a commodity’s value is determined by the market — i.e., you and me. Turning the Bible into something that’s tailored to suit my needs and interests puts me in the position of deciding how much value it has. Once a niche Bible ceases to be relevant to my immediate situation, its value is diminished.
Put another way, if we market the Bible like any other commodity, is it any wonder when people start treating it like one?
2. The disposable Bible
The commodity Bible was good for business (at least up to a point). If you can persuade someone to buy a Bible tailored to their particular demographic — whether it’s grandmothers or college students — once they move out of that demographic, they’re going to need a new Bible. So people started buying a lot more Bibles.
According to the Barna group, the average American household owns three Bibles. A quarter of all households own six or more. And of course, that’s not the whole picture, because it doesn’t count all the Bibles given away — or thrown away — when the time comes to upgrade to a newer model.
Bible publishers were masters of planned obsolescence way before Apple.
3. The accessory Bible
There was a time when your choice of Bible cover seemed to be shaped by the Henry Ford philosophy of car design: “Any customer can have any color he wants, so long as it’s black.” At least with Bibles, you also had your choice of burgundy, brown, navy blue, or perhaps avocado green.
Then, a little more than 10 years ago, Bible designers started playing with new materials and color combinations. Many of the designs they produced were stunning. Suddenly, people didn’t mind being seen in public with their Bibles.
Before long, there were more bindings, styles, and color choices than you could shake a stick at. The whole process of designing a Bible began to look more and more like something out of the fashion industry. There were even seasonal Bibles — a spring line and an autumn line.
The result? The Bible became yet another accessory, one you could color coordinate with your outfit, if you liked. But the thing about accessories is that they’re…well, accessories. They’re add-ons. Attachments. They’re not the sorts of thing you reorient your whole life around, which is what the Bible calls its readers to do.
4. The “have it your way” Bible
Commoditizing the Bible is no longer limited to the peripheral elements — study notes or the style of binding, for example. Now it’s affecting the scriptural text itself.
Some experts project there will be more than 100 new English Bible translations this century, more than three times the number that were produced over the last hundred years. Factor in the ongoing digital disruption, and we’re rapidly coming to a point where you’ll be able to create your own customized version of the Bible — something one technology expert aptly dubbed the Franken-Bible.
Don’t like the translators’ choice of wording? Swap it out for an alternate rendering in the footnotes. Or mix and match from all your favorite translations. You don’t even have to know Greek.
Celebrity pastors could make their own Bible versions with the push of a button and market them to their followers. Imagine that. Echo chambers everywhere, each equipped with their own Bible, tailored to their own distinctive theology.
* * *
This is where the freedom to dictate what kind of Bible I want is heading. But we don’t have to go there.
When I was still in commercial publishing, other conversations were taking place, too. People were starting to wonder aloud whether it’s good enough to just keep selling more Bibles, or if we also have some responsibility for what happens after the sale. Some of us went through an exercise where we asked what is and isn’t sacred about the modern Bible, and we realized many of the things we’d put in our Bibles, like chapter and verse numbers or red lettering, have unintended consequences for how we read — not all of them good. There were even some who suggested that maybe the time had come to start doing “fewer but better” Bibles.
All of this is to say, even at the center of the storm people are asking what can be done to correct some of the problems caused by the ongoing commoditization of the Bible.
It’s not too late to chart another course. It’s not too late to remember that while the Bible was given for us, that doesn’t make it ours to tailor as we see fit. Scripture, as it turns out, is not that interested in catering to my personal “felt needs.”
It’s not too late to remember that the Bible is not just another commodity — that the whole point of owning and reading the Bible is not so I can fit bits and pieces of it into my life, but so I can fit my life into its story.
It’s not too late.
Image courtesy of Bright Adventure.