Search SBL
 









SBL Forum Archive
<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Subtext and Pretext: The Bible in American Culture

North Americans are not alone in seeing a special role forthe Bible in the history and culture of the United States. The Paris dailynewspaper, La Croix, did a series last fall attempting to explain thepuzzling land across the Atlantic. An entire article was entitled, "LaBible fonde la nation." Apparently today's Parisians view the Bible asfoundational for the United States. Included in the feature were a photo ofPresident Clinton swearing his oath of office upon the Bible and quotations fromindividuals affirming the Bible's importance. An earlier French writer, Alexisde Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835) concurred that Americans area people of the book. The commercial Bible business, excluding free copies,currently grosses about $500 million dollars per year in the United States. TheAmerican Bible Society has distributed more than three billion Bibles,testaments, or scripture portions since 1816.

Yet many will be skeptical regarding claims of the Bible'sinfluence. George Gallup's 1982 and 1990 polls revealed ignorance among U. S.churchgoers, many of whom could not name the four Gospels or identify whodelivered the Sermon on the Mount. Often the Bible has served self-interest,more as a pretext than as a text. Mark Twain wrote: "The Christian's Bibleis a drug store. Its contents remain the same; but the medical practicechanges."

But sometimes an outsider —across an ocean—may see anational culture more distinctly than an insider. The Bible may be both a subtext—undergirding and motivating thought and action—and a pretext—providingimages and arguments for extrabiblical causes. The question—subtext orpretext?—is preceded by another—which Bible? Or rather, whoseBible?

The Christian Bible in its multiple forms differs from theJewish Bible in both the order of books and in the number, depending on whichChristian Bible. The very term "Old Testament" construes the HebrewBible as prologue. If Jacob Neusner correctly affirms a "dualrevelation" for Judaism in Torah and rabbinical texts, then Jews andChristians have hermeneutical divergences. Many Jews see anti-Semitism as thesubtext in their relationship to Christians and the Christian Bible, while formany Christians the subtext is the status of Jesus. In the translationcontroversy over Isaiah 7:14, conservative Christians viewed the RevisedStandard Version's rendering—quot;young woman" rather than"virgin"—as a denial of Jesus' Virgin Birth.

The Bibles from differing religious communities seem to playdiffering social roles. Public religion among American Protestants is liable toinvoke the question posed by Charles Sheldon's bestseller, In His Steps(1896): "What would Jesus do?" Public religion among American Jewsinvolves a quest for social righteousness: "To do justice, to lovekindness, and to walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:8). Public religionamong American Catholics is generally less individualistic and more corporatist,akin to Jewish rather than Protestant approaches. The papal encyclical Divinoafflante spiritu (1943) called for more biblical instruction in theseminaries, and sanctioned lay Bible reading and study, an openness to biblicalcriticism, and new translations from the Greek and Hebrew. Yet many Catholicsstill encounter the Bible primarily through its liturgical reading. According tothe 1990 poll, 24% of American Protestants say that they read the Bible everyday but only 7% of Catholics claim to engage in this practice.

An enduring contrast exists between the scholar's Bible andthe people's Bible. President Grover Cleveland voiced a common sentiment when hesaid: "The Bible is good enough for me . . . I do not want notes orcriticisms or explanations about authorship or origin." For many laypeoplethe Bible is an awesome force, less a book of paper and ink and more a naturalwonder. Like tourists at Niagara Falls, they come to stand and observe, not toanalyze and calculate. The biblical scholar appears like someone who builds alittle waterwheel at Niagara's side and then claims to have tamed the falls.

Mistrust marks the relation of lay believers and biblicalscholars. Place a traditional Protestant alongside a Jesus Seminar scholar,shake well, and an argument ensues. One side asserts that the received biblicalinterpretations are just a foil for right-wing politics, and the other repliesthat so-called scholarship is but a veiled assault on Christianity. What ispretext for one is subtext for the other, and vice versa.

For guidance in understanding the Bible—and an unpublishedpoll last year indicated that 88% find annotations to be helpful—the publicturns to such newfangled editions as The Kid's Study Bible, TheOriginal African Heritage Study Bible, or Woman Thou Art Loosed! Edition.My own research has uncovered three hundred annotated editions published innorth America since 1900, and most of them since 1980. Annotations in popularBibles are basic and application-oriented. Often they convey insights, and oftenthey simplify, mollify, and folklorize the biblical texts.

In discussing the Bible's role, one must consider the chasmbetween popular and academic modes of thought, and the disproportion in terms ofnumbers and influence. The apocalyptic Left Behind novels by Tim LaHayehave now sold twenty million copies since 1995, a number that may exceed thetotal sales of all academic books by SBL members over many years.

An interpretation of the Bible's role, like an interpretation of the Bibleitself, involves a subjective aspect. To me, Americans have often degraded theBible into a jingoistic myth of national destiny, military triumph, and culturalsuperiority. Sadly, the Left Behind series, with its wicked foreigners,technological hubris, and religious complacency, embodies much of the worst inbiblical interpretation. Attentively read, the Bible exposes my subtexts aspretexts, as "a hammer that breaks a rock" (Jer. 23:29) or a"two-edged sword" (Heb. 4:12). With a self-critical stance, and astress on responsibility rather than privilege, Abraham Lincoln's SecondInaugural Address and Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter From a BirminghamJail" convey in American inflections the cadences of the Hebrew prophets.If such episodes of clarity and courage are rare, at least they serve asdefining moments for many Americans. They might even lead us to think, alongwith the Parisians, that the Bible lies at the foundation of American life.

Michael J. McClymond is Assistant Professor of American Religion at Saint Louis University. Recently he received a grant fromThe Louisville Institute to write Christ in the Margins: Bible Editions and Popular Religion in Twentieth-Century America(Oxford, 2003). He will be at Emory University during the 2001-2002 academic year to research his forthcoming book.

For another look at how Americans view the Bible see conclusions from http://www.ZondervanPoll.htm commissioned by Zondervan Publishing House

Citation: Michael M. Clymond, " Subtext and Pretext: The Bible in American Culture," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited May 2004]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=35

 
JOIN SBL   |  DONATE TO SBL   |  CONTACT SBL   |  BIBLE ODYSSEY   |  REVIEW OF BIBLICAL LITERATURE   |  SBL TWITTER   |  BIBLE ODYSSEY TWITTER

© 2019, Society of Biblical Literature. All Rights Reserved.