Friday, November 23, 2007

Reading, devoutly and promiscuously

I think I've seen a pretty representative sampling of book catalogues in the few years I've been in this profession, but I just came across one that's blowing my mind.

It's a catalogue from Christian Book Distributors, and it accompanied the awesome 1560 Geneva Bible that I just received through the good offices of a colleague who's a biblical scholar and who ordered the book for me so I could take advantage of his CBD member discount.

And. . . it's the weirdest collection of items I've ever seen. There are many serious scholarly works, ranging from Greek and Hebrew interlinear Bibles, concordances and lexicons, classic works of theology and church history, and multi-volume sets of Calvin's complete commentaries and Luther's sermons. There are also more popular but seemingly substantive theological and devotional works. And then there are the Veggie Tales DVDs. The Bibleopoly board game. The CDs of Johnny Cash reading the Bible. And books with titles like, Bad Girls of the Bible. . . and What We Can Learn from Them; Passion and Purity; Every Man God's Man; 30 Days to Taming Your Tongue; and, of course, the Left Behind series. There's also a small section of "Holy Land Gifts" that includes shofars and prayer shawls (exactly what purpose those are supposed to serve for this Christian audience, I can't and don't want to imagine).

And okay, I think that most of these items are either ridiculous or objectionable (or both), and I could have written an easy post making fun of them. But on a second flip-through what most struck me was the fact that the scholarly works weren't confined to one section of the catalogue, but interspersed throughout, as if there were no meaningful difference among the wares being purveyed. I can't think of any other catalogue, or even any other organizing principle for a bookstore or catalogue, that ranges so promiscuously through the scholarly, the middlebrow, the juvenile, and the basically trashy.

My best guess is that the CBD's imagined consumer is an (obviously Protestant) minister or church administrator, someone who would be shopping for a variety of professional and personal reasons: looking for materials to aid in research, Bible study, and sermon-writing; books for his kids and wife; and resources for his church's library, youth group, and marriage counseling programs. But I'm sure that he's not the catalogue's only customer, and I kind of love the idea that there might be some layperson out there, shopping for sweetly uplifting devotional books as Christmas gifts for his relatives, who suddenly decides, "Hey! Maybe I should teach myself New Testament Greek!"

Because for better or worse, the religiously devout--not just Christians, of course, but Jews and Muslims, too--are probably the largest segment of the nonacademic population most likely to move from lowbrow fiction and self-help books to the pursuit of scholarly knowledge (in the form of the language(s) and history of their sacred scriptures and religious tradition). Now, I know perfectly well that most self-proclaimed Christians don't even know the Bible--by which I mean, the major stories in the Bible, much less anything about their context or interpretative histories--but it does seem to me that there's usually a respect for that kind of learning among people of faith, and frequently a desire to attain it.

In this respect, CBD's catalogue is also, after a fashion, Early Modern in its sensibility: isn't the variety of its offerings analogous to the variety of religious works for sale in seventeenth-century England--and actually present in the libraries of the godly? In grad school I took a history class for which my final project was an analysis of the reading habits of Adam Eyre, a Yorkshire yeoman and captain in the New Model Army, based on his 1647-49 diary. I haven't thought about Eyre in years, but I remember how wide-ranging his reading was, from Raleigh's History of the World and Erasmus's Praise of Folly; to Foxe's Acts and Monuments, analyses of various religious councils, and defenses of presbytry; to verse satires, radical sermons, millenarian tracts. . . and a whole bunch of works by the astrologer William Lilly.

So I guess what I'm saying is that while I don't exactly like the CBD catalogue or many of the specific things it has for sale, there's something about its vision of the intellectual or reading life that I find both familiar and oddly touching.


Ancarett said...

That's a great way of reading the catalogue. I must admit, I'd look at the books (and maybe the Veggie Tales DVDs because I'm a sucker for Larry Boy) and dismiss the rest. But it is the whole of an eclectic culture brought together, interesting of its own!

Susan said...

I really like your reading of this catalogue. And to Adam Eyre, you might want to add John Bunyan, whose early reading in romances provided a narrative line for Pilgrim's Progress.

Daniel said...

I have to say I completely disagree with your interpretation of the catalog. As a former protestant evangelical, I see it as they see no difference between the scholarly and the trashy. It allows them to completely ignore the scholarly work without admitting to their own anti-intellectualism. I can count on a hand the number of protestant evangelicals I have met (including those I was at Bible College with studying theology) that have taken the study of their own religion seriously.

Flavia said...


Thanks for stopping by. You surely know more evangelicals that I do--although I'm not at all sure that evangelicals are the only Protestants targeted by this catalogue--and I have no doubt you're right that one effect of erasing the distinction between scholarly and popular works is that many Christian readers will decide that the former can be done without. But that erasure also implies, at least potentially, that the layperson can be a scholar--and I see that as radically democratic and true to the best impulses of the Reformation.

tempestsarekind said...

That's an interesting way of looking at this catalogue--it reminds me of the commonplace book, a bit. I've been reading here and there in John Manningham's Diary when I get the chance, and that's the one of the things that's most appealing and yet the hardest to get used to: the fact that notes on sermons are right next to puns, stories about family, and dirty jokes. The separations one would expect just aren't there.