Friday, July 14, 2006

Does the Bible Need to be Hip?

High up on the list of things I really appreciate are Books and Free Stuff. So when announced they would send a free copy of a forthcoming book to people who'd agree to read and review the book on their blog, I signed up. That book is Pocket Guide to the Bible: A Little Book about the Big Book (hereafter PGTTB), by Jason Boyett (2006 Relevant Books), and this is my review (and then some).

I started reading PGTTB during a flight to Nashville, and finished reading it a couple weeks later while being driven around Columbus, so while its dimensions make it larger than any but the most spacious cargo pant pocket, I will attest to its portability and shoulder-bag friendly size. (As a bookseller I find it amusing to note the various sizes of books purported to be "pocket" sized, my favorite being the 4" thick foreign language "pocket" dictionaries that weigh at least half a pound, easy. I also know that I'm a nerd and probably the only one to be amused by that. Anyway, back to the review...)

The book has five main sections: a glossary (or "Biblicabulary"), a list of characters, book summaries ("the Bible at breakneck speed"), a brief history of the canon, and a guide to modern translations. To fit all of that into a 191 page 5"x7" tome is a feat to be applauded, no doubt. It would have been a refreshingly brief, unstuffy, and perhaps even helpful supplement to my Bib Lit texts back in college, particularly when it came to differentiating between the minor prophets. (e.g., Zechariah: "One of Haggai's prophetic contemporaries who leans more toward the crazy Ekekiel vein than the prophecies-we-might-actually-understand vein."

Even though the book starts out with the Biblicabulary, "a handy glossary for the scriptural noob," I'd say the primary audience for this book is young (as in teen through mid-30s) Christians who have been in church and reading the Bible for many years, or even a couple decades, as in my case, who need a punch in the arm to get out of the "easy" Epistles and go back and read some of the more obscure--and at times weird and shocking--passages found in the rest of the Bible. While someone outside of or new to the faith and/or the Bible will certainly learn a lot of helpful (and perhaps not so helpful) Biblical info by reading PGTTB (and indeed, even those with gold-star Sunday school attendance and a degree from a Christian college will gain some knowledge), I admit I'm a bit leary that they could come away from reading PGTTB with the impression that the Bible is more an intriguing and at times amusing curiosity than the trustworthy, holy, God-breathed, true Word of Life. Now, I am confident that's not at all the author's view, but still, it makes me a little uneasy.

PGTTB did make me laugh out loud on more than one occasion (so beware if you choose to read in public). A couple of my favorite quips: "Apostle...Not to Be Confused with Aeropostale, a mall-based retailer of casual apparel for teenagers. One sells hoodies. The other wears robes and sandals. It's not hard." Or, in reference to the time Elisha sicced some bears on kids jeering at him for being bald, "You know the saying, 'Mock the bald and get violently mauled'?(1) That's where it comes from. [footnote] (1) Not a real saying. But it should be." Or, "Jesus and his followers share a Last Supper together. (Though at that time they probably just call it 'supper.')"

Unfortunately, for every comment that made me chuckle or want to grab my Bible and read up, there was a comment that made me cringe. Obviously, when one's intent is to bring a little levity to the reading of holy scriptures, there's a thin line between what is considered wit and what may be called bad taste at best, sacrilege at worst. The truth is that among Christians, where that line lies and what crosses it is going to differ. What bothered me might not make others blink, and what made me laugh might make others grimace with disdain.

That said, while there were parts of PGTTB that I enjoyed, learned from, and will probably go back to, what made me uncomfortable is that this book seems to play the game of "How Close." Now, I realize I'll have to explain myself because it was reading this book that made me think about and put a name on this game. How Close is played out in a lot of Christian media and Christian lives, mine not excluded. Basically, the unspoken objective is, "How close can I get to [speaking like, dressing like, spending like, drinking like, etc.] the world without being "worldly"?

As I was reading this book, there were several times that I felt like there was such an effort on the part of the author to be "hip" and "relevant" that he went too far and ended up emulating the language and values of a perverse culture. Yes, to simply call Jezebel evil does seem like an understatement, but is it necessary to sanitize the common epithet and call her a "beeyotch"? Or describe Nebuchadnezzar's wilderness lunacy by adding "izn" to the colorful "apeshit"? (Which, by the way, I am apparently not "hip" enough to have in my vocabulary, so I had to turn to to confirm the context clues.) Does relevance make it acceptable to dishonor the dead by taking their name in vain? Yes, I realize that only God's name has a commandment attached to it, but "most angels in the Bible scare the bejudas out of people" and "once his boss has Cobained himself" just seem in really bad taste.

I acknowledge that my sensibilities lie on the conservative side. I know that I am far more concerned with diction than the average person. And I realize that I have now gone way beyond the scope of a book review, but seeing this book play How Close with its speech made me realize, again, how big a temptation that is for Christians, including me, and how so much of the stuff marketed by and to Christians is really just a supposedly salubrious imitation of an idea the world had first. It brings to mind a quote from one of the books I did some freelance work on, which said something to the effect of (and the author of course said it much better), "The Christian's greatest temptation is so often not this or that particular sin of indulgence, but the draw to be 'normal' at the cost of being holy." Ouch. On how many occasions (thousands, at least) have I desired and chosen fitting in over being set apart?

Okay, I have left the realm of review altogether and entered the realm of commentary, and even conviction, and this post is far longer than I intended. If you've read this far you're either (a) really bored; (b) still trying to figure out if I'd recommend that you read this book; or (c) wrestling with How Close a bit yourself. To (a) I say, "log off and go read a book;" to (b) maybe this one; and (c) let's chew this over together.

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