It’s nothing new to point out that Scriptural passages can be used to argue for or against slavery, for the equality of men and women or for patriarchal supremacy, for pacifism or for war. Likewise, others have argued before Beal, with equal passion if often less eloquence, that it is precisely the Bible’s tensions—the arguments between its individual books—that make it so spiritually potent for Christians. What is new, and intriguing, about Beal’s work is the way it explores the Bible’s status as a cultural icon in America, and how the unblinking worship of it as God’s book of unambiguous answers to all questions coexists with ignorance of its contents.
Half of Americans tell pollsters they believe the Bible is the literal word of God. Strange then, that far fewer than that number can name its first book (Genesis); two-thirds of Americans—including some of their most prominent champions — can’t name at least five of the Ten Commandments. (Asked on The Colbert Report to recite them, Georgia Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, co-sponsor of a bill to display the Ten Commandments in the chambers of Congress, could only remember three.) And even while Bible literacy plummets, Bible sales boom: in 2008, American sales reached $823 million. Small wonder the most common visual image of the Bible in the U.S. is a closed black book.
How could this come to be, Beal asks. Two centuries of American Protestantism’s emphasis on Scripture as the key to everything from keeping husbands sober to saving souls has made it too sacred to question, Beal writes. Many Christians believe there is a single right way of understanding the Bible’s manifold contradictions, and are loath to look into it for fear of getting it wrong. It can’t last, Beal argues; the end of print culture will be the end of this book’s iconic status too, recreating the fluid Scriptures of Christianity’s first centuries.