Jan 15, 2012

The almost magic Bible in a 30-second ad

"Conservatives," Steve Bruce once wrote, meaning, specifically, Christians who hold to the literal interpretation of the Bible, "have an almost magic view of the ability of scripture*."

Understanding how this view is "almost magic" explains two things about the 30-second ad spot of scripture aired during yesterday's Bronco-Patriots football game.

First, it explains why it made sense to Focus on the Family to make and run the ad even though it's not an ad for anything. It doesn't ask anything of the viewer or push the viewer to do anything, and Focus on the Family really has no possible way or measuring or judging the affect of the ad. If there is any. But they ran it anyway.

Second, it explains why, beyond the obvious reason, the ad featured children even though though it was inspired by the actions of the Denver Bronco's quarterback, and shown during a game watched mostly by adult men. There's a reason beyond that kids are cute and watchable, one that actually connects to the theology of scripture that makes the ad make sense.

The Bible works, in this view where it's almost magic, it has its effect, on its own power. Of it's own accord. It need not be accompanied by explanations, explication, or exegesis. Bibles, by themselves, and passages excerpted from these Bibles by themselves, without even any context, have, to misapply a refrain from a great hymn, a "power, power, wonder-working power**."

Theologically, the distinguishing doctrinal feature separating the Biblical literalists***, especially historically during the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversies, was not this idea about the power of the Bible. It's related, though. The doctrine the Fundamentalists at that time felt needed to be defended was the hermeneutic of literalism. I.e., that the Bible should be read, in essence, by itself.


Read for what it said, its simple meaning, the meaning easily accessible to readers reading without an interpretive theory, which is to say, without a hermeneutic. Or, anyway, with the hermeneutic of having no hermeneutic.

In most cases, this is argued as reading for the original meaning.

One is supposed to read, when one read's literally, for the author's intended meaning at the moment of actually writing. This "original" meaning is especially also to mean God's meaning, as the texts are understood to have been written under inspiration, which is what religious readers are actually trying to get at anyway. The emphasis in the argument, though, is often mainly on the actual writer, the hand, the author who wrote it.

Yet, where some higher criticism could have been understood as helping one peel off the layers of assumption that come with centuries of distance from the original text, piercing through to the original historical context of a text and, in that, aiding one at arriving at what the original writer might have meant, a historical-critical approach is still considered unhelpful by literalists. One might think that, e.g., to know the "original meaning," it would be necessary to know who the original authors were. Whether, for example, Exodus was written by Moses, or by a school of prophets writing later in the context of conflicts of their own time.

It isn't the original meaning that literalists are after, though.

It's the plain meaning. Or: the simply self-apparent meaning***.

This is the meaning that, when one reads, yields itself up.

The plain meaning is the meaning that gives itself to the reader, so long as the reader reads without bias, in an uncomplicated and easy-to-understand form. A singular form, too. The meaning yields itself, easy and singular, the meaning one single meaning that's self-apparent enough to be beyond complication.

It's with this idea of what it means to read -- to, as it's said, just read -- that people promote the Bible as a means to Christian unity. I.e., if only people would "just read the Bible," there'd be no more denominational divisions in Christianity. The multiplicity of readings is understood as being necessarily the result of misreadings, people willfully adding complication by explication, rather than accepting the one meaning that comes from simple reading, naive reading, reading without interpreting, etc. The hypothesized singularity of meaning is understood as being the pure version of the text; the multiplicity the human corruption. Confusion, even confusion that appears to actually come from reading (or, rather, readings), is thought to be cured by reading. Because reading is understood this way, as having this power.

It's from this idea, this belief in the possibility of simple readings rendering plain and applicable meanings, that one gets the view of scripture as "almost magic."

As Steve Bruce explains: "The assumption that the Word has exactly the same meaning to all people gives the conservatives a confidence in the use of impersonal and mass means of communication which liberals cannot share."

The wonder-working power of the Bible, that is to say, is that it communicates clearly and uncomplicatedly by itself. It needs only be broadcast, gotten out there.

This allows for the Bible to be distributed anonymously -- it works "like magic," in anonymity, needing no context and no interpretive community***. It works even just by showing it on TV. Or leaving it in a hotel drawer. Or printing it on tiny slips of paper and then leaving them like holy confetti on the ground.

It works, so long as the reading is naive. It might work better, actually, in that context-free delivery, since it's a surprise, and more likely to be read in the sense of being just read.

This is why it makes sense to Focus on the Family to pay how ever much they paid to put a 30-second spot on TV in the middle of a football game.

The fact it was out of place or felt out of place, from their perspective, worked in their favor. Distributed that way, it lends itself to the sort of plain reading that allows the powerful text to work it's magic. To yield itself and give itself, unbidden and without burden, it's truth, it's unfiltered and singular meaning, it's life-changing power, to the viewer. Though he may have, at that moment, been drinking a beer and thinking about the last down. The thought is not that the viewer will get up and Google it, or ask "what does that mean?" Rather, it's that he'll know what it means, and more, know what it means in a deeper truer way than he's known anything maybe ever, and know it so deeply maybe even that he, without even thinking about it, begins to pray.

The knowing will be clear. Certain.

As the CEO of Focus on the Family explained it, the whole idea behind the ad was so people wouldn't have to look it up. He said "It just hit us when there were something like 100 million Google searches on [John 3:16]: 'Why not make it easy for people? Why make people get off the couch during the game to look for it?'"

This same view of how the Bible works explains why the ad is kids reading or reciting the text.

Of course it's kids because kids are sweet. And people will watch kids. There's a kind of openness to the too-well-known scripture text that wouldn't be there if it were being read by the local members of AA or a collection of middle aged ministers or, say, believing football players. Also, it may in its sentimentality invoke a kind of wistfulness and longing for wholesomeness and things being OK and innocence.

But also, that innocence and naivety is imputed to the text. The kids act to influence the way one perceives the text, and to model how the text should be taken. The fact they add gosh-wow! asides to the verse helps this. The message around the text about the text is communicated by their wide-eyed kid-ness: just read: just listen. It's really simple and plain.

That's supposed to be it's almost magic power. The power of the ad, yeah, and also of the power of the Bible itself.

*Oddly, this is often held to be true of other scriptures as well. So, there's this idea that one can read any religious texts, without interpretation, get at the plain meaning, and then even be able to disagree with the official interpreters of that religion about what it really believes. Case in point: Islam. Obviously. This goes to show that literalism is understood by literalists as a hermanuetic; It's a theory about texts, and how they work, how they mean, and not specifically having anything to do with the Bible per se. It certainly doesn't involve reading the Bible in a fundamentally different way than other texts, even though that's often the complaint cited against literary theory being applied to the Bible, i.e., that it's being read like any other books.

**The hymn is referring to Christ's blood, not the Bible.

***Mostly evangelicals, though not exclusively. There are evangelicals who don't hold to Biblical literalism. There are non-evangelicals who do. Also, importantly, there's a distinction between Biblical literalism and the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, though the two are as often as not conflated, both by those opposing them and by those supporting.

****There is a function for church, in this theory, but that function is not supposed to be interpreting the Bible.