How can a book—one that’s found in courthouses, libraries, and millions of households across the land—be everywhere and nowhere at the same time? Why has the Bible disappeared from public life and discourse?
Bible Gateway interviewed Kenneth A. Briggs (email address) about his book, The Invisible Bestseller: Searching for the Bible in America (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2016).
What does the title of your book mean?
Kenneth A. Briggs: The title is intended to reflect the general perception that the Bible exists within a paradox: while it still moves in large quantities from producers to recipients across the country, fewer and fewer people are ever seen reading it.
What are some of the statistics that comprise your book’s premise?
Kenneth A. Briggs: Reliable numbers, as compared with widespread impressions, are hard to come by. But piecing together information from Bible publishers and distributors indicates that around 25 million new versions find their way into the public every year. Over half of those appear to be gifts; many others are purchased in bulk by agencies which give them away. On the other side, the American Bible Society’s annual State of the Bible shows a sharp decline in reading. Nearly 40% in surveys now say they never read it and the level of daily readers has dropped to 16%.
In the course of writing The Invisible Bestseller, where were you surprised to find an emphasis on the Bible that you weren’t expecting; and where were you surprised to find an absence of the Bible where you were expecting to see it?
Kenneth A. Briggs: Though I found a few individuals who’d discovered the Bible on their own and avidly explored it, they were the exceptions. What surprised me was that a reduction of Bible reading and study was reported so often by conservative churches which are widely assumed to be most devoted to it.
What effect did the Bible have on the inmates you visited in a federal prison in upstate New York?
Kenneth A. Briggs: So far as I could determine, the prison inmates gained assurance of a spiritual bounty both within the walls and in their imagined futures in the outside world. It was a foundation of hope and a means of connecting with a faith community that spawned friendship and sources of counsel that had its own life and habits for sustaining a distinct lifestyle.
What role has the Bible historically played in America; what is it today; and what do you observe as the reasons for the change?
Kenneth A. Briggs: As many of us learned in history class, the Bible was close to being a blueprint for the founding of America. Its visions mirroring a society of faith, abundance, and freedom, characterized by “godliness,” was built into the fabric of the people who gave the country its stated ideals and purposes. Some of it was explicit, built into the founding documents, and much of it implicit in the norms of behavior that were considered consistent with those aspirations. It was, by any measure, the unofficial, supporting charter for the new republic.
That held true into the 20th century, in part because of relative uniformity of the governing, Christian classes, but has largely lost that prominence. It was challenged by growing pluralism, the impact of science as a rival to religion as a source of truth, and the upsurge of materialism as a central pursuit under the sway of robust capitalism.
The emerging perspective of what was important to one’s existence became much more this-worldly even among religious people. The Bible has become more remote from the concerns of modern life and its transcendent outlook less credible. All this reorientation has taken place in the midst of cultural shifts that have drastically lessened the taste for reading in general; the Bible has correspondingly been deeply affected by that trend.
The crisis, as I see it, is that the foundational source of what was once a common theological, philosophical, and ethical set of beliefs and values is being neglected, and little except secular values like success, status, and money are filling the gap. Many people simply don’t any longer think they need the Bible to fulfill their ambitions.
What do you mean when you write that the Bible is extolled and sanctified in Christian bookstores, “but more like a grandparent with whom family members seldom actually interact but who exists as a symbol of vaguely familiar wisdom and truth”?
Kenneth A. Briggs: Despite paying less attention to what the Bible says and means, people still seem to me attached to it as a cherished vestige of an America that still holds great sentiment and nostalgia. In my travels, I talked to many people who revered it and knew practically nothing about it.
What was your major take-away from your encounter with the Society of Biblical Literature and what is the “gulf between professor and pew”?
Kenneth A. Briggs: An intense struggle has been going on within the Society over the issue of whether personal faith plays a legitimate part in biblical research. The group’s history has long favored separation of the two and that standard has accompanied a period of outstanding scholarly achievement under the umbrella of historical/critical criteria. In recent years, that concept of separation has been challenged mostly by evangelical researchers who believe it’s impossible and undesirable to completely divide the two.
It seems to me the debate and surrounding friction are important and necessary to chances of finding a resolution to this exceeding and lingering problem. Meanwhile, in my estimation, the prestige and sophistication of the scholars point to an understanding of the Bible which is generally worlds-removed from the assumptions held by most churchgoers. The two interest groups are, for the most part, differently motivated and out of touch with each other. My impression is that closer ties could offer mutual enrichment to the benefit of both.
What is the “fragility of teaching and learning Scripture” you write about?
Kenneth A. Briggs: Given the Bible’s distant origins, unfamiliar terminology, and arcane historical references, among other things, it’s a major challenge for teachers to make its messages clear and true to the circumstances of its origins. Likewise, students confront a biblical worldview that requires delicate and thorough unraveling to be understandable by a 21st century mentality.
If the teacher’s goal is to present the material without bias and even subtle imposition of his or her own interpretation, then the task is even more formidable. Bible study in its truest sense isn’t easy or for the faint hearted. I’m not sure it would have been even two millennia ago when there were fewer intervening screens, either, though contemporary people sometimes reject the challenge on grounds that it’s too hard. Mark Twain once said he wasn’t bothered so much by what he didn’t grasp in the Bible but by what he DID.
Share some of the stories you recount of “intriguing results” by “people who have befriended the Bible.”
Kenneth A. Briggs: Two capsule accounts of how Bible involvement influenced people. A woman who was a doctor’s daughter and an endocrinologist had, by her own description, wandered aimlessly for many years. A friend took her to church one Sunday; she heard the preacher explain a Bible passage and she found herself asking to study with him. Her delving deeply into it resulted in her quitting her job and starting a foundation to help tiny churches with strong spirits to survive.
Second, a feisty insurance agent who belonged to a Baptist church and attended a men’s Bible group because he felt he had to. One Sunday he remembered when the message of forgiveness from the parable of the Prodigal Son hit him like a ton of bricks. The gift conferred on the Prodigal applied to him. He began the process of unloading years of guilt for deceptions in his marriage and in his business. He testified to a new life of freedom. For the first time in years, he felt engaged with his wife.
Describe your assessment of the emergence of “Bible-less Christianity.”
Kenneth A. Briggs: Since church people are reading the Bible less, ministers have found ways of expecting less biblical knowledge from their congregations. It’s a cycle of diminishing returns. Bible study is disappearing or greatly diminished in many churches. Meanwhile, a bewildering crop of Bible substitutes are becoming available—videos, recordings, films, tapes, Bible-lite digests and abridgements or rewrites had filled in—to help the medicine go down. They resemble media entertainment productions that church members are accustomed to outside of church. It is something of a hyperbole to say that churches are headed for a “Bible-less” state, but the signs of something like that seem very strong. The actual Bible fades into the background.
As a journalist, have you come to conclusions about the way forward for the Bible in public life?
Kenneth A. Briggs: I’m reluctant to risk sounding breezy or trite about something I regard as this serious, but in general a couple of points. The main one is that those who are tossing out the practices of biblical evangelism that have been followed in the past are on the right track. The cultural patterns that made the Bible attractive both in religious and educational terms obviously don’t work any longer. There are smart people, alert to the crisis, who are working on the problem. The means of bringing the Bible’s riches to the common lot these days remain largely a mystery but it needs to be pursued. The context has broadened. Once the Bible was virtually the only game in town, speaking religiously. That’s no longer the case. How is the new pluralism accommodated?
Second, I believe the screen between churchgoers and biblical scholars needs to be lowered. If believers can open their minds to an expanded view of the scholars’ learning—and scholars can accept the vitality of lived faith—a revitalization of the Bible in the church may be in the offing. It’s an unproven notion but one I came away with.
What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway and the Bible Gateway App?
Kenneth A. Briggs: I’m very appreciative of Bible Gateway for the freshness and vitality of your productions. In these remarks, I haven’t specifically addressed the value of Bible apps but in my view they have the potential to be a powerful means of changing the way we think about Bible reading and study. I like your app very much. It’s clean, attractive, and appealing. The questions pertinent to the app’s ability to generate a turnaound hadn’t been pursued very rigorously during my book research but perhaps they are now. To me was the matter of how those who download them actually use them. Also, how prevalent is snippet-reading taking place without context or group participation—and does it matter? Many who are concerned with biblical illiteracy point to apps as a great asset while repeating old doubts about whether they will nurture more depth learning and wisdom or will perpetuate the distribution-without-engagement that has brought us to this juncture. I don’t know, but am thankful you’re making this wonderful resource available.
Bio: Kenneth A. Briggs is a journalist and commentator who worked for many years as religion writer for Newsday and as religion editor for The New York Times. He’s taught journalism and religion at Columbia University, Lafayette College, and Lehigh University. His previous books include Double Crossed: Uncovering the Catholic Church’s Betrayal of American Nuns and The Power of Forgiveness.