The Rev. Dr. Christopher Smith is fed up with centuries of efforts to make the Bible easier to read, which wound up unintentionally turning the Good Book into a “bad read.”
One day a friend told him, honestly, that a typical Bible these days “looks like a technical manual that you don’t want to read.”
While research shows that millions of Americans are daily Bible readers — let’s all be honest for a moment, shall we? The Bible isn’t the first thing that most Americans reach for when they want a gripping “good read” on a business trip or for those final moments before falling asleep at night. John Grisham-style thrillers are our cultural mainstays when we really want to lose ourselves in a book, right?
That’s tragic, because some of the world’s greatest literature is right there in the Bible. That’s why countless literary lights down through the centuries from Shakespeare to J.R.R. Tolkien have echoed the Bible — and it’s why billions of men and women around the world consider it sacred to this day.
Smith spent a long time studying this problem and, in his book, he summarizes the long history of Bible complication and division. Over many centuries, the Good Book has been chopped up and rearranged. Long books were split up to make them more convenient for storage in the earliest editions. Then, chapter divisions were added around 1200 and verse numbers were added several centuries later.
Here’s how Smith himself explains this in “The Beauty Behind the Mask“:
All of the traditional features that have been introduced to the biblical text were originally designed to serve positive purposes. Chapter and verse divisions, for instance, were added so that reference works such as commentaries and concordances could be created. Several of the longer biblical books were split into two or more pieces so that they could be accommodated on scrolls of a convenient size. And two-column typesetting, for that matter, makes Bibles more portable and affordable. … But the accumulation of these elements, together with our failure to recognize that they are not an integral part of Scripture itself, has brought us to a place where we are now losing far more than we are gaining by their presence.
Before we open today’s Conversation, though, you may be curious about finding these resources:
First, you can click on the cover or the title of Chris’ companion book to jump to our review of that particular volume. However, the non-profit International Bible Society sells and distributes its own Bible editions independently of commercial booksellers. There’s a special Books of the Bible Web site you can visit to learn more — connected with the Bible society’s online store.
Accompanying today’s Conversation, you’ll see a photo of Chris in his office (below), then you’ll see covers and samples of various new editions of the Bible in this style Chris is spearheading. In addition to the entire Protestant Bible, the Bible Society also has released stand-alone editions of Luke-Acts as “Kingdom Come / Kingdom Go” and the book of Amos as “Hear This Word.” (Below, after you see the cover of Amos, we’ve added a sample of the interior of that Amos edition. Most of these Bibles are black type on white pages, but the Amos paperbacks are beautifully illustrated in full color.)
Here are highlights of our conversation …
DAVID: As we start our conversation, let’s give readers a little background. You’ve been with American Baptist Churches as a pastor of a university congregation, but you’re moving into new ministerial work right now in the spring of 2008. You’ve said that you’re not quite sure where your vocation will carry you — perhaps into teaching, more writing, working with congregations. So, give us just a glimpse of how you see the Christian church changing overall?
CHRIS: My personal feeling is that the future of the church in America is
A few years back, I did a three-month sabbatical
funded by the Louisville Institute for the Study of American Religion.
And I visited four different places in North America where regional
networks of ministry have formed, trans-denominational regional
networks. And that’s what I see as the future of the church.
DAVID: I agree with you, yes, and data like the materials in this recent Pew study seem to show similar things. That’s where growth is headed — into these new kinds of networks of churches that aren’t a part of traditional denominations. But the fact
is that we’ve got so many millions of Americans still affiliated with
tens of thousands of mainline churches.
DAVID: So is this new effort — these new editions of the Bible — aimed at readers in mainline churches or at people in these new emerging churches?
CHRIS: It’s aimed at a very broad audience. Some of the best reception to this has been in the emerging, or emergent, churches. But I can see mainline churches being very receptive as well.
DAVID: If you look at the data on Bible ownership and readership, it’s clear that Americans love owning Bibles. The vast majority of us own a Bible. Millions of us own multiple copies of the Bible. But we’re not very good, overall, about regularly reading the Bible.
CHRIS: Encouraging new readers — that was one of the main goals of this Bible. I saw in one of your recent newsletters the statement that there’s no problem with Bible ownership in America — but there is a problem with Bible readership. And that’s really the same thing that motivated this project.
Well over 90 percent of American homes own a Bible but the Bible is read with regularity in only 15 percent of homes. And, then, the word “regular” or “regularly” is a self-described term in these polls. People are asked if they read the Bible “regularly.” And, if they say yes to that question, it turns out that “regularly” can mean reading it once a month.
So, the question is: Why aren’t people reading the Bible more frequently?
DAVID: Yes, that’s the big question. And many people who say they love the Bible aren’t opening it even once a month. We’ve reported the data more than once in our coverage at ReadTheSpirit. Millions of Americans who identify themselves as Christian don’t even know the names of the four gospels.
CHRIS: Well, some of this problem we’re talking about involves larger cultural factors that the church as a whole needs to address. One of them is the move to a larger, postmodern world view in which any book that claims to be the word of God is already regarded with suspicion, because that’s a claim of absolute truth. And in the postmodern world, people are suspicious of absolute claims to truth.
There’s also a decline in biblical literacy. So many people aren’t brought up around the Bible. They don’t hear people around them throughout the week talking about the Bible. People used to hear the Bible read and quoted and they could kind of navigate their way through it from the general knowledge they had picked up throughout their lives.
But, now, they come to the Bible and it’s this unknown book. They might approach the Bible for the first time and say: OK, I’ve heard of David. I’ve heard of Moses. I’ve heard of Jesus. I’ve heard of Paul. Those are the big names I want to read about. Then, you go to the table of contents in a Bible and in most editions of the Bible — none of those famous names even show up in the table of contents. So, people feel lost.
Those are issues the larger church needs to address broadly.
But there is one specific piece that publishers can address and that is, if you can get people to open the cover of the Bible, it looks like no other book they’ve ever seen before. It’s in two columns of narrow type and it’s sprinkled with letters and numbers and it’s all chopped up.
DAVID: You’re talking about an ancient book and a modern audience. This is a huge challenge, right?
CHRIS: Yes. This is something we talked about at great length.
There are basically three approaches to this. One thing people try to do is make the Bible something modern, so famously a few years ago there was the introduction of a magazine-style New Testament for teen girls.
DAVID: Yeah, I’ve seen those editions. And there are magazines for teen guys that look like sports magazines or magazines about rock music.
CHRIS: And there are tabloid-magazine-style Bibles, too. Basically, the idea is that you put the Bible in a publishing format that people are familiar with from everyday reading. But my feeling, and the feeling of the people I worked with at the International Bible Society, was that this didn’t do justice to the way that God brought his word to us incarnating it in particular literary forms in specific times and places.
You don’t do justice to that by trying to change them into the forms of a different time and place.
DAVID: Although to be fair, I’ve seen copies, for example, of the magazine-style Bibles for young people. Some people call them camouflage Bibles so that teenagers who want to read the Bible can carry around the sacred text and not have friends tease them about it. The text of the Bible in these magazines is a reliable text of the Bible, even though it’s laid out like a magazine.
CHRIS: But girls who have those tend to read the features about dating and makeup and not the biblical text.
DAVID: Right. And the guys read the inspirational feature stories about dating and rock music or sports, because they’re more fun to read than the scriptures. It is a problem.
CHRIS: The extra material included in those editions tends to be what people enjoy reading — not the Bible itself. I really believe that the best way to study the Bible is to actually read the Bible. I think a lot of people spend more time reading all the extra things people have added into a lot of these new editions of the Bible — than actually read the Bible itself.
DAVID: So, you’re not a fan of that kind of redesign that repackages the Bible in other formats — or adds a lot of inspirational reading into the pages of the Bible itself.
CHRIS: No. And, then, there’s a second approach to this challenge of getting people to open up the Bible. That’s to break the Bible down into short devotional passages. So you tell people to read a short chapter a day, or memorize this dozen verses.
DAVID: OK, so as you see it, the No. 1 approach is to revise the whole style and format and even add to the Bible itself. Sort of creating a New-And-Improved, Expanded Bible edition. And this No. 2 approach, as you see it, is pretty much the opposite. Rather than changing around the Bible’s structure and adding trendy new elements to it — this second approach is essentially cutting the Bible down to digestible McNuggets of scripture and leaving most of the Bible behind.
CHRIS: Yes. Right, the Bible becomes “Chicken Soup for the Soul” — just short devotional, inspirational readings for each day. It’s cut up and we only get little pieces of it. It’s like turning the Bible into Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations of the Bible.
DAVID: And, that way, you often lose the more challenging stories in the Bible. You miss so much.
CHRIS: Right. What happens when we cut up the Bible into just a small collection of inspirational readings is that we’re, in effect, creating a separate smaller canon within the canon of the Bible. It’s changing the genre. It’s saying this isn’t the Bible — it’s better if we just give people Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations of the Bible and leave it at that.
DAVID: So, what’s approach Number 3?
CHRIS: Approach Number 3 is to do as much as possible to reconstitute the original literary compositions that make up the Bible. The goal is to preserve and respect the original forms as much as possible and then give people access to them.
DAVID: One of the things you’ve done in this approach is to remove all the numbers people see sprinkled across the pages of a typical Bible. There’s a tiny reference to the traditional chapters and verses in the bottom margin of each page — but the main type on each page is set up like a typical book. The poetry looks like poetry. The prose looks like prose.
CHRIS: The are several problems with chapter and verse markings. One is that they tend to homogenize the literary forms. So it looks as if all the biblical writers were writing the same form in which they would write a sentence and number it, then number the next sentence — then gather those numbered sentences into groups.
You start to think that the Bible’s literary form looked like those rules you see listed on a wall near a hot tub:
No. 1: No more than 15 minutes.
No. 2: No one with a heart condition.
No. 3: No alcohol.
It’s as if, for some reason, all the biblical writers were approaching their writing like numbered lists. So, it homogenizes all the different literary genres in the Bible.
Then, a second problem is that it distorts the literary structure itself. The chapter numbers were placed in the text so that the chapters wound up about the same length. This helped people to find things easily in the Bible. But the authors’ original passages are not all the same length. So, these chapter numbers that were added often divide the writers’ longer discussions into smaller pieces or they combine two or more shorter passages into a single piece. So, the poor reader has to understand part of something as if it were the whole — or they have to make a coherent thought out of something that’s actually just one part of a larger passage.
DAVID: You’re right. I’ve been in Bible study circles myself in which people regularly scratch their heads over passages, partly because the numbered chapters don’t seem to make sense on their own — so we’re having to make our own readings that start in the middle of one chapter, let’s say, and may extend through one or more other chapters.
CHRIS: Modern Bible publishers try to help with that by adding subject headings in the text, sometimes right in the middle of a chapter, where the subject actually starts. But, yeah, this is still a problem for readers. People tend to think the chapter numbers are good starting and stopping points for their daily readings — and they’re not.
DAVID: I doubt that most people even realize that the earliest texts of biblical books don’t even have punctuation or spaces between words. We’ve come a long way from the earliest scrolls.
CHRIS: That’s true. On the Hebrew scrolls and on the early copies of the New Testament, there’s no punctuation and there’s no space between words. But that was simply so the material could be stored for transmission. Originally, it was composed and passed out orally. Sometimes, it was recorded in this compressed form for transmission, but then it was spread orally after that.
So, Paul would dictate a letter. A scribe would write it down in this compressed form. Someone would carry it. Then, someone would read it aloud to the church. So, my favorite analogy is that this form in which it was written down — with no spaces or punctuation — was like a compressed file on a computer. It was simply compressed for transmission.
To this day in Jewish congregations, when the scrolls are unrolled, it’s to read aloud — to be sung, actually. It’s delivered orally to the people. These compressed versions are not meant for popular reading. That particular form originally was for transmission.
DAVID: And you’re saying that, now, we’ve got a similar kind of communications challenge again. The Bible has been transmitted to us, but we’re now at the point where we need to figure out new, less-complicated ways to spread the word again.
CHRIS: Yes. Our goal is to present what we have received in a far more readable form for people.
DAVID: OK, but then I wonder about one of the basic choices you’ve made in this new version. Your goal is to bring more and more people deeper into the Bible. So, why did you choose to limit yourself to the Protestant canon of the Bible?
I mean, I can imagine that many men and women among the 70 million Catholics in the U.S. would love this kind of edition of the Bible. Bible reading is rising in many Catholic parishes and a new easy-to-read, easy-to-enjoy edition of the Bible would be quite appealing to Catholics, I would assume.
But you haven’t included the Catholic books in this Bible — only the Protestant canon. Why was that?
CHRIS: Well, the International Bible Society can only publish the translations for which it holds the copyright and they are an evangelical Protestant group and that’s their primary audience. So, the Today’s New International Version, which is the translation they have for this edition — at least as far as I know — doesn’t have the Catholic books.
DAVID: Interesting. I wasn’t aware of that. The New Revised Standard Version translation team did do the entire Bible and has complete editions that Catholics feel comfortable reading. But you’re saying you don’t think this TNIV version had the Catholic books available for you.
CHRIS: Right. Yes. So, our hope from the start had been that other publishers would see this example and start releasing their own editions in similar formats, so more and more Bibles are more accessible to easy reading like this.
I’d be delighted if Catholic publishers liked this idea and would start offering editions like this. I want this idea to spread.
DAVID: How about Spanish? The Pew research that was released just recently points out — loud and clear — that Spanish-speaking Americans are a growing part of our population. For example, if you’re planning to do ministry with small groups of young people in the Catholic church in the U.S. — you’d better know how speak Spanish. This is the fastest growing segment of Catholic youth.
DAVID: So are you planning to ride across the American landscape with your ideas, sort of like a latter-day Wilberforce or Asbury — like the evangelists centuries ago, in other words — spreading these ideas for a renewal in Bible reading?
CHRIS: I’m a consultant to the International Bible Society, so it’s ultimately their call what they plan to do in the future. I do know that conversations are taking place about working on something like this in Spanish in the future. I think that’s a great idea.
I think it would be great if every translation of the Bible out there was available in this kind of edition. I really hope that this approach to designing Bibles will became a popular new way to welcome millions of new people into the word of God.
(And, so ends our conversation with Chris.)
TELL US what you think. Click on the “Comment” link at the end of the online edition of this story. Or, you can Email ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm directly.
OR, click on the “Digg” link below and add a very brief “digg” comment — even a phrase — to this story’s listing on Digg-It, which will tell even more folks worldwide that it’s worth reading: