The Bible is a really big book. It’s an anthology, actually, a book of books. The version preferred by American Protestants includes 66 books divided into 1,189 chapters which are, in turn, divided into 31,173 verses. The King James Version, an early and still-popular English translation, has 774,746 words.
For comparison’s sake, if you add together the three books of The Lord of the Rings, plus The Hobbit and The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic Middle Earth books include some 706,574 words.
Yet despite Tolkien’s books being filled with wizards and elves and all sorts of splendid magic, most people don’t think his books are themselves magical just because they contain more than 700,000 words. That would be kind of dumb.
But, weirdly, that very same kind-of-dumb assertion is often made about the Bible. It’s really big. It contains more than 700,000 words. So people treat it like magic. People treat those words differently than the words in any other book — even any other really long book.
Consider, for example, the ludicrous-but-best-selling book The Bible Code, by Michael Drosnin. Drosnin set out to find and/or to create patterns by looking at, say, every 50th word. Or the first letters of every 100th word. Or other variations of similar nonsense.
It’s possible to do such a thing with any really big book, but again, no one seems to do this with things like Tolkien. And if anyone did, they’d be ridiculed as an illiterate idiot — justly so and correctly so. People would rightly wonder if this person looking for the “Tolkien Code” understood how to read at all. Yes, all those words and letters in Tolkien have a symbolic meaning — it’s conveyed through language. Tolkien offers sentences that make up paragraphs that make up chapters. These can be read and those who read them find a terrific story. Ignoring that story and ignoring language itself would be, again, just kind of dumb.
But lots of people — including lots of not-dumb people — will do this with the Bible. They treat that book as different, special, magical. They treat that book as though its 774,746 words were not language — as though they were something to decipher rather than to read.
And that’s just weird. It’s not illiterate in the sense of an inability to read, but it is anti-literate in the sense that it refuses to allow the text to be read the way we read texts.
The right-wing click-chasing outlet The Christian Post recently both mocked and embodied this weird, magical approach to the Bible in a pair of light-hearted posts by Eric Corpus: “15 Bible Verses Denver Broncos Fans Should Know for the Super Bowl” and “15 Bible Verses Seattle Seahawks Fans Should Know for the Super Bowl.” The “joke” is that hey, look, some of those 31,000+ verses in the Bible say good things about horses and mountains, so Yay, Broncos! And some of those 31,000+ verses mention the sea and/or hawks, so Yay, Seattle! And also too, both teams have people with the same names as some people mentioned in the Bible!
These are pretty silly and not terribly well-done. They reminded me of the old “where in the Bible” puns that every evangelical grows up hearing at some point (“In the big inning,” “Bildad the shoe-height,” “David’s Triumph was heard throughout the land,” etc.), but in a way that made those puns seem sharp by comparison.
Corpus’ items share a comic premise with those old puns: It would be absurd to treat this text, or any text, this way. The joke depends on the validity of the critique. It’s funny because this is not how language works, this is not how texts work or how literacy works. It’s funny to pretend otherwise — to playfully take words or phrases and twist them into anachronistic or impossible meanings that utterly ignore language and context. But it wouldn’t be funny to really do that in earnest.
And that’s the bigger problem with these little items at The Christian Post. Many of the Post’s readers aren’t in on that joke. The same arbitrary, illiterate approach to the text spoofed by Corpus’ Super Bowl items is the way a lot of the Post’s readers also read the Bible.
As Hemant Mehta wrote, “I don’t think the Christian Post understands the unintentional humor in a couple of articles they posted.”
Yep. But he doesn’t follow through on that thought. Just because The Christian Post doesn’t get the joke doesn’t mean it’s not a joke. It doesn’t mean that Corpus’ silly demonstration of a pro-Broncos hermeneutic isn’t silly.
Again, any sufficiently large text could provide the basis for the same “joke.” It wouldn’t be hard at all to come up with “15 Passages From Tolkien That Say the Denver Broncos Will Win the Super Bowl.” And then also with “15 Passages From Tolkien That Say the Seattle Seahawks Will Win the Super Bowl.”
But it would be really, really odd to read such a silly joke and to conclude from it that Tolkien’s books are therefore ridiculous. And that such silliness proves “Tolkien can be used to justify two completely contradictory ideas” or that “Tolkien is nothing if not self-contradictory.” And that therefore such articles confirm that Tolkien ought to be dismissed as foolishness.
We know that wouldn’t make sense if we said it about Tolkien. And yet we say it about the Bible. Weird. It’s a book, not a magical code. It’s weirdly illiterate to revere it as a magical code and therefore refuse to treat it as a text. And I’m not sure it’s any more literate to dismiss it for its failures as a magical code while also refusing to treat it as a text.