One evening while thumbing through the Quality Paperback catalog I came across a blurb for Timothy Beal’s 2011 book The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book. Intrigued by the book’s brief description, I added The Rise and Fall of the Bible to my Goodreads list of books to read and just like I do with most books that go on that list promptly forgot about it. Then, one afternoon during one of my library visits what did I spot on the shelf but Beal’s book. Suddenly remembering I’d been wanting to read The Rise and Fall of the Bible I quickly grabbed it, adding it my small but growing stack of books already in my hands and headed to the automated check-out machine.
With The Rise and Fall of the Bible being a fairly short book naturally it didn’t take me too long to read it. As I do with every book, upon finishing it I asked myself if I enjoyed it. With Beal’s book on the Bible, perhaps the easiest way to answer that question is to say, for the most part I did. But like with many books, with The Rise and Fall of the Bible there are things to like, and things, well not to like. But more about that in a bit.
In the first half of the book Beal spent a lot of time talking about your average American’s lack of biblical literacy, even though most Americans possess at least one copy of the Bible, and if they don’t they can easily obtain one in any number of translations or formats. According to Beal, while we supposedly revere the Bible we also have a habit of misusing it at as a mere oracle for answering all life’s questions – a role the individual books of the Bible were never intended to serve. By flooding the market with countless “value-added” versions of the Bible ranging from manga to comic book and to even glossy magazine-like formats, Madison Avenue and its agents have turned holy scripture into a cheap commodity.
In the second part of the book, Beal concentrates on how the Bible evolved from a collection of revered scrolls used by the early Church for devotional and teaching purposes to the eventual binding of that cannon of scrolls or “books” into one large tome we now refer to as the Bible. With the rise of literacy, advances in printing and Protestantism’s emphasis on scripture as a basis for religious authority, the Bible could be read by just about anyone. But such accessibility would come with a price as almost anyone could now use the Bible for almost any purpose.
Now on to my likes and dislikes of Beal’s book. My biggest complaint with The Rise and Fall of the Bible is it seems to lack focus. While I didn’t mind Beal’s occasional meanderings, I definitely found his points valid. But unfortunately with the first half of the book focusing on the Bible as a consumer good and the second half another on the Bible’s origins and evolution, to me The Rise and Fall of the Bible felt like two books cobbled together and instead of one. Trust me, I could find no fault in the book’s content, but I do question how it was presented. (It looks like I’m not the only one who might feel this way. If inclined, check out Dubious Disciple‘s review on his blog.)
But I must give strong kudos to Beal for how he intelligently, and using accessible language showed how the Bible slowly evolved into his current form. More importantly, by pointing out how the various books of the Bible at times contradict each other, or at the very least speak with different voices on so many matters, he makes a strong case that the Bible should not be treated as a single book per se, but as a library. Of course, just like the books of any library, the books of the Bible come from multiple authors and multiple time periods and multiple locations. And because of that, instead of being a source of easy answers, the Bible should be the inspiration for intelligent questions and engaging dialog.
Keeping all this mind, maybe Beal’s choosing to structure his book in this way was not an accident. Melding together disparate parts into a single whole, maybe his book will inspire readers to ask thoughtful questions about the West’s most famous and influential book.