Philip Goff, Arthur E. Farnsley, II, and Peter J. Thuesen, eds., The Bible in American Life (New York: Oxford UP, 2017), 432 pp.
I recently received a sales catalogue advertising Christian books. Nearly one-third of the catalogue (twenty-two pages) featured lists of Bibles—study Bibles, amplified Bibles, annotated Bibles, journaling Bibles, teens’ Bibles, children’s Bibles, large-print Bibles, reference Bibles, and Bible translations (KJV, NKJV, ESV, NIV, NASB, etc.). Clearly, Bibles are big business in America. Yet as surveys indicate, Americans revere the Bible but know little about its content. Who, then, buys Bibles, actually reads them, and for what purposes?
The Bible in America goes a long way toward answering these questions. In this wide-ranging collection of essays, scholars from a variety of academic disciplines examine “how people use the Bible in their personal lives and how other influences, including religious communities and the internet, shape individuals’ comprehension of scripture” (xxi). The book is the culmination of a four-year study (2011-2014) facilitated by the Center for the Study of Religion and American Religion at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, and sponsored by the Lilly Endowment.
The first chapter lays the groundwork for the twenty-seven essays that follow. Here, the editors summarize the results of the Lilly-funded social scientific national surveys focused on Bible usage habits. Among the salient findings: about half of Americans read scripture and of that half, 95 percent identified the Bible as the scripture they read; women, older people, and Southerners outnumber their respective counterparts in Bible reading; the King James Version remains the most popular translation of the Bible; African Americans read the Bible more often by far than other races; and perhaps the biggest takeaway—the primary purpose of Bible reading is for devotional or personal edification and not, as some might expect, for political or doctrinal purposes.
Subsequent chapters focus on the Bible’s use in the past (fifteen chapters) and present (eleven chapters), along with a final chapter that offers a retrospective glance over the key findings. Where relevant, the contributing authors integrate their own research with the outcomes of the national surveys. For purposes of this review, a topical rather than chronological approach will highlight the subjects of the essays. Fully one-third (nine) of the chapters consider types of Bibles—their production or reception or the controversies surrounding them. These essays examine America’s first Bible—John Eliot’s Indian Bible of 1663, the first of many translations and evangelistic efforts by American missionaries to reach the Indigenous population; reference Bibles with their potential “to unlock universal or common meanings from the text” (126); the Living Bible, a paraphrased Bible that became the best-selling book in the United States in 1972 and 1973; the Orthodox Study Bible, a work conceived by evangelical converts to Orthodoxy but not well-received by sticklers of Orthodoxy; and contemporary children’s Bibles whose theological content portrays God as a safe, loving parent, or friend. Two chapters discuss digital or electronic Bibles. While these media are convenient and broaden the availability of biblical translations, they have not (yet) displaced a preference for using the printed Bible for devotional purposes. Two other chapters highlight the use of the King James Bible. For a handful, only the KJV preserves the very words of God; for the populace at large, the KJV remains (measured by the aggregate effect of its production, distribution, and receptivity) the most used Bible in America.
The remaining chapters explore the ubiquitous presence and multifarious uses of the Bible. Two chapters examine the ways in which the Puritan polymath, Cotton Mather, engaged emerging critical views of the authority and inspiration of the Bible. The Bible in literature is surveyed in two chapters—one measures the influence of nineteenth-century poetic language on Bible usage, the other explores the Bible’s use in early twentieth-century evangelical novels. Two chapters take up the subject of race. One turns the “curse of Ham” on its head by analyzing W. Anderson’s 1857 exegetical conclusion that the origin of “whiteness” is found in 2 Kings 5. The other demonstrates the importance of the Bible in Drew Ali’s Circle Seven Koran, the sacred text of the Moorish Science Temple of America. Women’s use of the Bible is the subject of three chapters. Mormon women appropriated strong female biblical figures as a template for their own exertions. Nineteenth-century women’s rights advocates used the Bible as ally, enemy, or irrelevance to their cause. A third chapter draws from the data of the national survey, reinforcing other findings about differences in male and female religiosity in America: that more women than men read the Bible and do so primarily for spiritual edification. The Bible as an artifact of material culture is discussed in two chapters: Ark Encounter, the creationist theme park, and Salvation Mountain, a hillside visionary monument in the California desert. The remaining chapters take up an assortment of topics: the Bible’s literal and historical appropriation by Southern musicians; the Bible as a book of prophecy during World Wars I and II, and in other times of crisis; the resemblance between Constitutional originalism and biblical literalism; the crucial role of Bible classes in the study of scripture; current views of the Bible by millennials; and, perhaps of particular interest to this readership, the finding that Americans are far more likely than Europeans to attribute relatively high levels of authority to the Bible.
While all of this is a dizzying display of the Bible in American life, the absence of Jewish and Catholic uses of the Bible is conspicuous, as is the non-appearance of contemporary evangelical groups (e. g., the Navigators, Bible Study Fellowship) who epitomize the lived aspect of sola scriptura. If anything, this volume demonstrates that the Bible’s reach is far more extensive than a single volume can encompass. Still, this impressive large-scale effort to gauge the use of the Bible in the everyday lives of Americans is a first—a solid foundation for others to build upon.
David W. Kling (University of Miami)