The End of the Word as We Know It
Adding God to Your Shopping Cart
How religious consumerism is replacing religious literacy.
By Timothy Beal
For those with ears to hear, Mike Huckabee's Super Tuesday semi-victory speech on Feb. 5 proclaimed him to be something more than any kind of comeback kid. Deftly alluding to biblical stories of King David and Jesus, the Baptist preacher assumed a more holy mantle.
"Tonight," he declared, "we are making sure America understands that sometimes one small smooth stone is even more effective than a whole lot of armor," referring to bold young David's slaying of the supposedly invincible Philistine Goliath with the first of "five smooth stones" that he plucked from a nearby wadi (1 Samuel 17). "And we've also seen," Huckabee continued, "that the widow's mite has more effectiveness than all the gold in the world," referring to the Gospel story in which Jesus praises a poor widow who gives all she has, two mites, and declares that her offering is more valuable than all the offerings of the others from their great wealth.
NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty wondered how many actually did have ears to hear these biblical references. Not many, as it turned out. Passersby on the National Mall conjectured that the "smooth stone" might have something to do with war. Or maybe peace? None seemed to recognize it as biblical. How about the "widow's mite?" A mite's a bug, right? Maybe a spider?
These responses were no great surprise to Stephen Prothero, author of the bestselling "Religious Literacy." If Preacher Huckabee’s intention was to give a wink and a nod to his evangelical base, Prothero told Hagerty, "It's an exceedingly small target audience, about as small as the percentage of animals climbing on Noah's ark."
Nor was popular ignorance of these biblical references a surprise to organizations like the Bible Literacy Project, which lobbies for the academic study of biblical literature in public schools, arguing that it is a fundamental component of cultural literacy. How can anyone read Shakespeare or Steinbeck, let alone understand American identity politics or even Huckabee 101 without some basic level of biblical literacy?
Yet fewer and fewer people have it. Recent research from Gallup, the Barna Group, and the Bible Literacy Project offer these biblical revelations:
* Less than half of all adult Americans can name the four Gospels of the New Testament.
* Almost 82 percent of Americans believe "God helps those who help themselves" is a Bible verse, and I suspect almost as many would say that the Serenity Prayer is in there somewhere.
* One in ten adults believe that Joan of Arc was Noah's wife, and more than half of graduating high school seniors guess that Sodom and Gomorrah were husband and wife. (Those two must've been multiple choice survey questions.)
* Almost two thirds of Americans can't name at least five of the Ten Commandments—including Georgia Representative Lynn Westmoreland, co-sponsor of a bill to display Ten Commandments in the House of Representatives, who got three out of 10 on “The Colbert Report.”
Thus, pollster George Gallup, Jr.'s oft-repeated pronouncement that Americans have truly become "biblical illiterates."
Now here's a really weird thing: as biblical illiteracy continues to rise in the United States, so does popular reverence for the Bible. Polling from the Barna Group indicates that well over half of all Americans agree with the statement that "the Bible is totally accurate in all of its teachings," and that 88 percent of all "born-again" Christians believe the same. Likewise, Prothero cites research indicating that about two-thirds of Americans believe that the Bible has the answers to "all or most of life's basic questions." This statement, of course, is shorthand for the idea of the Bible as the literal, divinely authored, authoritative, inerrant, univocal, comprehensive Word of God. That is its popular cultural meaning. That is its iconicity, and its irony: devotion to the bible is growing even as peoples' familiarity with what's written therein declines. Conclusion: the Bible is the most revered book never read.
And here's another, even weirder thing: as biblical illiteracy soars, so do Bible sales. Although the biggest Bible publishers in this highly competitive business guard their data very closely, the best estimates indicate that 2007 saw about 25 million Bibles sold for about $770 million in the United States alone. That's an increase of more than 26 percent since 2005, which saw U.S. sales of about $609 million. Market research shows that the Bible business in America is enjoying a healthy growth rate of close to 10 percent per year. One marketing executive at a major evangelical press told me that according to their research, the average Christian household owns nine Bibles and purchases one new Bible every year. And that was a couple of years ago. I suspect that per annum Bible buying has gone up since then. But while Bibles are flying off the shelves, the rest of book publishing is hardly flourishing. There, as one editor friend told me, "flat is the new up." Conclusion #2: In an expanding bibliographical desert, the Bible industry is a land flowing with milk and honey.
So, the decline in biblical literacy among Americans correlates to the rise in reverence for and ownership of Bibles. What's up with that?
Of course, part of the answer is simply that fewer Americans are reading fewer books than ever before. And the very fewest Americans reading the very fewest book are the youngest among us (tweens, teens, and young adults), meaning that the future of traditional book reading is not bright.
The decline in book reading helps explain the decline in biblical literacy. I think it also speaks to the rise in reverence for the Bible as being the one and only answer to all of life's questions. The less you read it, the less you’ll have to think, and, in the process, question. Indeed, I suspect that the more you read the Bible, the less reverence you might have for it. At least the kind of reverence that proclaims the Bible to have all the right answers to all of life’s questions. In my experience, it tends to raise more questions than it answers.
But the decline in book reading doesn't explain the rise in Bible buying. I think that the best explanation for that phenomenon is this: biblical literacy is being replaced by biblical consumerism.
These days, popular culture and consumer culture are virtually synonymous. There is almost no aspect of popular culture that cannot be bought. "I shop, therefore I am." Remember that post-Cartesian proof of existence? I haven't seen it on a bumper in a long while. Maybe that's because these days it really goes without saying. Thinking is fine, in moderation anyway. But shopping is what makes me who I am. It's not just retail therapy. It's the meaning of life.
We are what we buy, wear, and carry. Identity is not about doing. It's about joining a market niche. The culture industry makes and markets identities. I want to be outdoorsy, so I buy a bunch of Gortex, some "Life Is Good" shirts, and a Yakima rack for my Subaru. My daughter Sophie and her high-school friends are visiting colleges, and the way they identify the student cultures on different campuses is by brands: students at this school are very J. Crew / Jack Johnson; at that school they're more American Apparel / Amy Winehouse. Say no more.
At the same time, we consumers are convinced that the shortest route to self-improvement is through new products. Products change lives, right? My big New Year’s resolution is to become an organized person. So the first thing I do is go to the home store and buy a bunch of plastic boxes. Never mind the empty ones in my basement that I bought last year, or the empty shelves on which they're sitting. I want to get in shape, so I buy some new sweats, new running shoes, and a membership at the local health club. Never mind that my old shoes have not seen 50 yards of jogging, or that my university's amazing new athletic center is available to me anytime for free.
Or say I want to grow deeper in my faith. I want to live a more Christ-centered life. So I buy a Bible. Reading it is another story. That takes more work. I feel good that it’s sitting there, though, like those “Lose 30 Pounds in 30 Days” books I mean to get around to perusing one of these days. It’s almost as though just the fact that I’ve bought them is effort enough.
The evangelical mission of popularizing the Bible, of making it widely available, accessible, and attractive, increasingly becomes a marketing and branding mission. To spread the Word means to sell more of it. Evangelism and marketing go hand in hand within a rapidly growing Christian culture industry that is successfully "branding" and "packaging" the Bible in forms that not only feed existing consumer markets but also create new ones that speak to the more or less latent desires of biblical consumers.
So, in a culture where identity is something we buy, being a Bible believer is less about reading the Bible than it is about buying Bibles. And these days that’ll cost you more than a mite.
I bought the storage boxes but my basement is still a mess. I bought the sweats but my fat butt still sinks deep in the TV room couch. I bought a new Bible but I still don’t feel very “in the Word.” I think I need to go do some more shopping.
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SoMA columnist Timothy Beal is Florence Harkness Professor of Religion at Case Western Reserve University. He is the author of several books, including the critically acclaimed "Roadside Religion," "Religion and Its Monsters," and, most recently, "Religion in America: A Very Short Introduction." He’s now writing a book about the Bible and consumer culture entitled "The End of the Word as We Know It," after which his column is named.
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