Oct/Nov 2003 Book Reviews

The Big Publishing Boom in Secular Books about the Bible

by Kevin McGowin

Have you noticed how they seem to be everywhere lately? Well, I have. Maybe I just tend to notice these things, but mid-list mass-market publishing moves in little trends and spurts, and this is certainly one of them, one with us as I write. It used to be antiques or architecture or the Sordid Underground Histories of Cities. Now the large-press publication machine's gotten back to what started it: the Bible. Or rather, I should say, Books for a General Audience about the Formation of the Bible in English. (The King James Version was not the first Bible in English by a long shot, and the Bible was not originally composed in English. Just thought we'd get these two little common misconceptions cleared up at the outset.)

This Trend seems to replace the secular publishing trend about What They Left Out of the Bible and Who Wrote It and How the "Canon" was Formed of a few years back: Hidden Gospels by Philip Jenkins being a high point of that movement and the pretentious ponderings of John Dominic Crossan its nadir, with Elaine Pagels's Beyond Belief its last gasp—for now. These things in publishing, like trends in fashion, they move in fads.

And as with all such things, it has both its high moments and its low, with the higher moments tending to appear towards the outset. In this case, that book is probably Wide as the Waters: The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution it Inspired by Benson Bobrick (2001), originally from Simon & Schuster, now out as a Penguin paperback. This is a comprehensive and readable overview of the whole issue from about 1350 (and earlier) to the Eighteenth century in under 400 pages, with plenty of information in its several appendixes and bibliography for those who wish to read further about the key players, political contentions and overall times in which these Bibles were produced. That said I won't go into it all here; in fact, the book is "readable" because it doesn't, though Bobrick's contention is that the most successful book in history, the KJV, ironically brought about the Reformation and English Civil War at least in part by allowing the common people (and probably some landed gentry, too) to question for the first time the Divine Right of Kings, as was held to be God's Will by James I, the fellow who commissioned it.

This was a pretty wild era by our current standards anyway, especially its intense and violent religious arguments, though Wide as the Waters does a pretty good job of showing the reasoning behind all of this. The recent top-10 hardcover bestseller, God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible by Adam Nicholson (HarperCollins 2003), covering ground partially covered by 2001's In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture by Alister E. McGrath (Anchor Books), while informative and a bit kinder to James while yet demonstrating the legendary dualities of the age's morality, has been castigated by Jonathan Yardley in The Washington Post for failing to sufficiently acknowledge the KJV's huge, unequalled, unparalleled (even by Shakespeare) influence and impact on literature and culture through to the present (as does the former book). This is a legitimate criticism, not merely a truism, for Nicholson indeed spends just a little too much time discussing the complex politics involved in the committee's seven-year production of such a work. While he calls it a work of genius, etc., and provides some entertaining character sketches of the Translators, he's also quick to point out the corruption, both societal, personal and linguistic, that accompanied the work which "lifted" as much as 85 or 90% or something from the earlier New Testament of William Tyndell—to the point where it seems at times that he's "KJV-bashing." He's actually not, and yes, the translation is flawed, as were the men who produced it—but the real craziness occurred a century earlier, in Tyndell's time, as God's Bestseller by Brian Moynahan amply if sometimes dryly shows (how can the same insanity or the same arguments be terribly interesting for long?). This book, first published in 2002 by Little, Brown Ltd. in Great Britain was rushed out in August 2003 in America by St. Martin's Press when they saw how fast his Secretaries was selling, so they thought they could perhaps get another Bestseller out of him. It's a good book, but the most "specialized" of all four works.

One thing I truly did not know and am ashamed I didn't before I read God's Secretaries, though, was that it was the 1% or so of English Puritans who didn't accept the KJV that became America's Founding Father's—THEY used the "Geneva" Bible, a superior translation to "The Bishops Bible" (the one read in most churches of the time). So Shakespeare would have been familiar with the latter and not so much the former, most probably—or Tyndell, whose English was already dated by almost 75 years when appropriated in the KJV.

—Okay. Since this leads us into the hazy and much-debated world of Bible Translations, let's have a little fun now, shall we? Like Allan Swafford used to do. Which current translation AND edition is YOUR favorite, and why? Is it the New Scofield New King James Study Bible, by chance, for instance? Well, write a review of it and send it here, and I'll publish the best review in the next issue. I'm part of the last generation in America to have truly been "brought up" on the KJV (though plenty of people still buy and read and study it, and will doubtless continue to do so). My best friend, Allen Tanner, a Methodist who teaches history to middle school students, loves it. I don't, as much... but I like it more than the once wildly popular NIV. The NIV (1973) is a glorified paraphrase, but it's better than The Good News Bible or The Living Bible (both 1966—hidden messages, anyone?) or The Message (1994) that Tanner and me were ragging on (its packaging, actually) in Barnes & Noble last Tuesday. The NKJV is popular, and while I don't love it unconditionally, I don't feel it's "that work of the devil" like Laura, the mother of my son, Holden McGowin. She looks up my name and Holden's name on Google and Yahoo! and if Holden's name appears on the same page where I wrote a bad word she prints it out and mails it to my mother, even though there's a good deal of profanity in The Catcher in the Rye, where we got the name-but anyway, me & Laura both love the NRSV, and thus Holden. But anyway, the NIV is good for summer Beach Reading—you're reading ACTS, you're having a beer, it's a Corona, you're reading II CHRONICLES, whatever.

One I especially like of late in 2001's New English Version, which benefits from tasteful packaging. It tends to read a bit more smoothly than the New American Standard, a Bible championed for its accuracy.

So this trend. Where will it end? Cambridge University Press brought back an edition of Tyndell a few years ago—now, I want to find the Geneva.

The Word of the Lord.


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