Culture At Large

The Bible Industry


The New Yorker features an article on the Bible publishing industry and its inherent tension between spreading the gospel and commercializing the gospel. The piece highlights lots of interesting tidbits on different translations and marketing new Bible versions, but the main focus is on the trend of packaging different Bibles for different niches. Anyone who's visited a Christian bookstore has seen the array: Bibles for men, Bibles for women, different "BibleZines" (glossy teen magazines peppered with scripture) for teenage girls and boys, Superhero Bibles for kids, a Bible for surfers, etc., etc. Some critics worry that the Bible publishing industry is becoming weighed down with commercialism; publishers contend that if marketing the Bible in this way is what it takes to get people to read the Word of God, then that's what they need to do.

Bible publishing in the twenty-first century involves an intersection of faith and consumerism that is typical of contemporary American evangelicalism. Peter Thuesen, a religious historian and the author of “In Discordance with the Scriptures,” a history of Bible translation controversies in America, sees in Bible publishing “a growing comfort with commercialization.” He explained, “Different kinds of packaging can always be seen by true believers as having an evangelical utility. If it helps reach people with the Word, then it’s not bad. You can consecrate the market.”

[...] It is easy to ascribe a cynical motive to publishers’ embrace of commercial trends. Tim Jordan, of B. & H., concedes, “You do get some folks that say you shouldn’t treat the Bible as a fashion accessory or a throwaway.” Nonetheless, he feels that, from the point of view of a serious religious publisher, fashion can’t be ignored as a way of reaching new audiences. The point, he says, is “to expose as many people as you can, because we believe that it’s God’s word, we believe that it’s life-changing, and we don’t take that lightly.”

[...] The problem, as [writer Phyllis Tickle] sees it, is that “instead of demanding that the believer, the reader, the seeker step out from the culture and become more Christian, more enclosed within ecclesial definition, we’re saying, ‘You stay in the culture and we’ll come to you.’ And, therefore, how are we going to separate out the culturally transient and trashy from the eternal?” The consumerist culture in which BibleZines and the like participate is, to Tickle, “entirely antithetical to the traditional Christian understanding of meekness and self-denial and love and compassion.” In Tickle’s view, reimagining the Bible according to the latest trends is not merely a question of surmounting a language barrier. It involves violating “something close to moral or spiritual barriers.”

Phyllis Tickle's sentiments strike me as especially compelling. While most of us recognize that Bible publishing is a business that needs to make a profit and sell products, I get uncomfortable with the Bible as an eternal Word getting too entangled with an ephemeral culture. The question when it comes to packaging the Bible, of course, is how far is too far? A 2,000 year old book written in Hebrew and Greek should be made accessible to a modern, English-speaking audience, but how can we do so without it becoming trendy and cheapened? How do we strike a balance?

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, The Bible