Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Three New Books on the Bible in American History

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It is a good time to be a student of American religious history and especially American Evangelicalism. Historians like George Marsden, Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch and others continue to write incisively on the subject even as a younger generation follows in their wake. Just recently, a number of fine historians of American religion have turned their attention to the story of the Bible in America. Not that there haven’t been others, but each of these stands out in one way or another from previous works.

1. Mark Noll, In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492–1783

The most notable of the recent bunch is Mark Noll’s first volume of a projected two volume history of the Bible in American public life. I can’t think of anyone better suited to write this story. Noll has been writing about American Evangelicalism for decades and along with George Marsden is considered the dean of American religious history. I have yet to be disappointed with anything Noll has written and I would venture that this new book will overshadow his acclaimed America’s God. Sadly my copy had to be shipped to the U.S. where it is eagerly awaiting my return.

Here is how Peter J. Thuesen concludes his review for Books & Culture:
In the end, it is precisely this capacity for self-criticism that distinguishes Noll’s In the Beginning Was the Word as the most profound treatment ever written of the Bible in American public life. All too often, histories of the Bible in America have uncritically glorified the American project, stopping just short of assuming that Moses and Jesus were Americans whose teachings were everywhere in harmony with the nation’s imperial ambitions. Noll exposes this delusion while also admitting the illusory nature of the sola scriptura that forms part of his own heritage as a Protestant. 
Yet Noll’s book is not all criticism. In its own nuanced way, it is a celebration of the richly fertile biblical world that colonial Americans inhabited. I have been unable to do justice in this review to the sheer volume of biblical allusions and citations that Noll uncovers in the legions of sources he examined. As he explains in the book’s introduction, his referencing of so many passages of Scripture was a conscious decision—an answer to his colleagues in the historical profession who have treated the Bible as mere “wallpaper, simply a backdrop for more important objects of attention.” To be sure, as Noll’s own account makes clear, the Bible has sometimes functioned as little more than rhetorical wallpaper, a fancy covering designed to sanctify the nation’s aims. But the Bible has also proven personally ennobling for countless citizens, even—and perhaps especially—after the republic threw off the system of inherited nobility and monarchy in the wake of the Revolution. Noll promises a second volume that will examine the “rise and gradual decline of a ‘Bible civilization’ in the United States in the long 19th century.” After the intellectual feast Noll has already given us over the course of his career, including in his earlier magnum opus, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (2002), we can only rejoice that the world does not yet “contain [all] the books that should be written” (John 21:25) by this uncommonly wise interpreter of the American religious experience.

2. John Fea, The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society 

Second up is John Fea’s new institutional history of the American Bible Society which should be of special interest to those of us who read the Bible in a UBS edition. As Scot McKnight puts it, “Every major translation of the Bible today translates the Hebrew and Greek texts produced in conjunction with ABS and UBS. This alone justifies the importance of knowing the story told by Fea.” Interestingly, Fea was commissioned by the Bible Society and agreed only on the condition that he would have full academic freedom. He says that “in the end, I am not sure some folks at the ABS understood the difference between a scholarly history and a promotional piece” (his book being the former rather than the latter).

Historian Thomas Kidd closes his review of the book with this:
As the ABS observes its 200th birthday, it has become more clearly aligned with a broadly defined evangelicalism than it has been for a century. That adjustment has been both self-conscious and controversial among the ABS leadership. ABS leaders have also become concerned that the agency has, for too long, focused simply on shipping as many Bibles as it can... Especially in America, the Bible remains pervasively owned, but little read, except among a devout minority. With the advent of the Internet and smartphones, access to the Scriptures in physical or electronic form is no longer an issue for much of the world’s population. The problem is focusing a prospective reader’s attention (or what the ABS calls “engagement”) on the Word of God.
Christians have no doubt that the Bible is “living and active,” as the Book of Hebrews puts it. But millions of dust-covered Bibles on American bookshelves don’t do much to enliven souls or even to preserve an American national culture. Addressing that neglect of the Bible may be the greatest challenge the American Bible Society has ever faced.

3. Douglas Sweeney, Edwards the Exegete: Biblical Interpretation and Anglo-Protestant Culture on the Edge of the Enlightenment

No study of the Bible’s influence in America would be complete without some consideration of “America’s theologian,” Jonathan Edwards. After a swell of interest in Edwards’s theology and philosophy over the last thirty plus years, Edwards is finally being studied at length for his contribution to Biblical interpretation. Other contributions have tackled his interpretation of specific portions of scripture (e.g., the Psalms or Revelation), but this book’s aim is much more comprehensive in setting the great Puritan’s exegesis firmly in its historical context.

From the publisher:
As Sweeney shows, throughout Edwards’ life the lion’s share of his time was spent wrestling with the words of holy writ. After reconstructing Edwards’ lost exegetical world and describing his place within it, Sweeney summarizes his four main approaches to the Bible—canonical, Christological, redemptive-historical, and pedagogical—and analyzes his work on selected biblical themes that illustrate these four approaches, focusing on material emblematic of Edwards’ larger interests as a scholar. Sweeney compares Edwards’ work to that of his most frequent interlocutors and places it in the context of the history of exegesis, challenging commonly held notions about the state of Christianity in the age of the Enlightenment.

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