“The Invisible Bestseller” – A Review
by Kenneth A. Briggs, copyright 2016, 255 pages
Published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
The Berean-inclined believer can very generally lump their Biblically-filtered assessments about what is or isn’t sound doctrine into a few easily classified categories. Most blatantly are those ideological encounters that are so far from sound faith that they require very little Biblical acuity in order to promptly dump them into the apostate category. Roman Catholicism is – or should be, if it isn’t for you – in this category. Though those in the apostate category often claim the moniker Christian, as does Rome, they are logically subsumed into the Biblical category of “the world.”
The next category, false teachers, might be more replete with membership but is no less threatening than outright apostasy. False teachers also parade themselves under the banner of “Christian” with often subtle doctrinal errors, and are not so easily discerned as the apostates, but represent no less a serious threat to the faithful. From our Lord in the Gospels through almost every other book of the New Testament, warnings are given to beware these sorts.
The common source of errors for apostates and false teachers – beyond the evident question mark their own regeneration makes obvious – is a mishandling of Scripture. The twisted verses, the distorted teachings, the “doctrine of demons,” as Paul calls it, (1 Timothy 4:1) is merely the continuation of the enemy’s modus operandi first noted in Genesis. All error in faith results from failing to know, obey, and trust the utterances of God. His Word is ever under incessant diabolical attack. And it is His Word against which believers are to measure all things.
We see this played out Sunday after Sunday from “Christian” churches led by “Christian” pastors whose allegiance to Scripture may be positively affirmed on their respective websites – it’s what’s expected, after all, for a church, right? – but their proclamations from the frequently pulpit-free zones of their stages gives evidence to the contrary. Even they, these men – and increasingly, though wrongly, women – deny the absolute truth, authority, and sufficiency of Scripture. I’d submit Andy Stanley as perhaps the most notable recent exhibit of Scriptural disregard.
When Kenneth A. Briggs, then, released his book this month, The Invisible Bestseller, Searching For The Bible In America, I was eager to read his observations. Briggs may or may not be familiar to you as a journalist and commentator on the religious scene in America. He has been a religious writer for Newsday and worked as the religion editor for the New York Times. So, he’s had more than a few bylines on the religious goings-on in America.
Briggs is a self-proclaimed evangelical, but not a conservative one. While he reflects respectful engagement with “conservative Christians,” whom he labels as Biblical literalists, his own perspective on the Bible is from “liberals and moderates – in whose company I count myself.” That is important to know from the outset, for while in the introduction he states that “Scripture remains fundamental to my understanding of life,” its position is less one of authority and more one of favorable influencer.
Still, Briggs brings a journalistic approach to his commentary, written with the goal to understand “the place the Bible occupies in the lives of Americans as individuals and within the nation itself.” Not to provide an early review spoiler, it seems that, while Briggs may have reached such an assessment acceptable for his own purposes, the book seems lacking any gotcha moment in which one might summarily point the finger and say, here’s where the Bible is in America today. Indeed, from Briggs analysis, while the Bible is being collected widely, read in some corners of the country, dissected in others, the evidence he presents from his several snapshot glimpses of its whereabouts concur with the obvious – it’s remarkably, generally, just disregarded.
The first few chapters of the book finds Briggs outlining what is likely obvious to most attentive observers of the modern church – the Bible is as popular as ever as a must-have relic, as pollsters such as Barna and Pew show, if not on a continual decline through the years, but it is increasingly ignored as anything other than a “collector’s item.”
Briggs seems to correctly acknowledge the various approaches to Scripture among the major “Christian” religious orientations. “Its significance has always differed among the various confessional groups: from Protestant (inspirational) to Catholic (distant), from liberal Protestant (heady) to evangelical (reverential)…” But Briggs’ interest and the bulk of the book isn’t in the particular presupposed theological approaches to Scripture among its various handlers; his interest is what is being done with the book itself.
Throughout The Invisible Bestseller, Briggs engages in a narrative commentary to be expected from a journalist’s approach. He seeks understanding from sources actively engaged with the Bible, from seminary and college professors to pastors to average pew-sitting congregants. One such engagement, early in the book, yields an observation perhaps not altogether shocking to the astute believer, but nevertheless one that reflects the woeful lack of Biblical knowledge in America, an America that, at one time, found its sixteenth president calling the holy book “the greatest gift God has ever given man.”
“In his introductory Hebrew Bible class at Smith College, for example, Prof. Joel Kaminsky drolly uses some startling, even counterintuitive, facts to break the ice. Do his students realize that a whopping two-thirds of Gallup’s surveyed adults cannot name half of the Ten Commandments? That a majority of high-school seniors believe that Sodom and Gomorrah were husband and wife (while Barna found that 12 percent of adults thought Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife?)
Believers might not need the evidence, but it’s clear that if Biblical illiteracy is rampant in pews because of disregard by pulpits and a de-emphasis on the need for its engagement, there can be little shock that Briggs has found cultural familiarity with even fundamental facts of Scripture to be effectively vaporized since our founding.
Briggs proceeds to ponder the influence of growing secularism, citing a 2007 seminal work by Charles Taylor, “the esteemed philosopher at McGill University.” Taylor’s work, A Secular Age, is a gargantuan work that attempts to weave together “vast philosophical, theological, sociological, and historical strands” in order to make some sense of where God is in 21st century America. Briggs summarizes Taylor’s endeavor, “Why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say, AD 1500 in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy, but inescapable?”
What Briggs finds surprising from seeking the place of the Bible as a result of Taylor’s analysis on belief in God in a secular age is a paradox. “The astonishing result of the secular age, according to Taylor (via Smith [an academic ‘interpreter’ of Taylor’s magnum opus]) is that it has multiplied religious expression rather than choking it to death.” In other words, 21st-century secularism, following the collapse of the modern era with its deconstructionist rationalism, has resulted in an explosion of interest in what Taylor calls “modes of believing.”
What is derived in response to secularism in our post post-modern era is not religious faith drawn on Scriptural truth, but subjective spiritualism based on personal experience, often, as we know, slathered sufficiently with snippets of Scripture so as to “Christianize” what is otherwise thoroughly pagan. This confirms, of course, what cognizant believers aware of false teaching in the church already know. Mysticism and contemplative pursuits outrank the simple task of reading and knowing what God has said in His Word.
After injecting a chapter’s worth interlude about the actual history of Scripture’s production – the importance to America of the Geneva Bible brought along on the Mayflower with the Pilgrims to the modern eruption of “the assortment of versions” – which Briggs puts at “about nine hundred” – the volume hits the historic mountain tops of cultural influencers that contributed to the Bible’s demise in personal relevance, though not correspondingly in widespread prevalence. We may not engage with it because of these secular advancements, but the Bible is still around.
Briggs features the influence of Darwinism’s general acceptance precipitated by the Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tennessee as a benchmark in the debate within religious circles regarding Biblical inerrancy. He sees the rise of knowledge from the natural sciences as key to understanding the necessary consequential slide of Biblical relevance in America.
“The slide has been inseparable from the coincident rise in science’s prestige and the diminishing status of the humanities, the academic category in which the Bible belongs. Astonishing breakthroughs from the beginning of the twentieth century in physics, medicine, archaeology, chemistry, paleontology, geology, and astronomy radically altered the understanding of the natural world and boosted science’s standing as a source of truth – either in concert with religion or in opposition to it.”
With science becoming increasingly the source of truth, adherence to Scripture’s inerrancy necessarily wanes. Briggs says “a steady stream of defectors, some of them with high profiles, have abandoned inerrancy.” Indeed, again, I’d point to Northpoint’s Andy Stanley as a prime example, one that just happened not to occur in time for Briggs’ publishing deadline. One noteworthy example Briggs does provide is Rachel Held Evans and her “coming out salvo that upends the pillars of fundamentalism,” in the form of her book entitled Evolving In Monkeytown, a title that clearly plays on the importance of the Scopes trial in her hometown.
“What has struck Evans in Dayton, and elsewhere she has traveled as a popular author, are the growing numbers of young people who are ‘struggling with doubts’ that they don’t feel churches are willing to hear and discuss. That flock of searchers (whom Barna also identifies) is moving far away from the language, practices, and pieties of the Scopes era, beyond the churches – to who knows where? She is part of that generation, still looking from the inside out but aware that the ground beneath her is shifting.”
Faithful believers will, of course, recognize that when a man-centered substitution for absolute authority is introduced, such as scientific absolutism and the current prevalence of subjective spiritualism, it’s no surprise the ground is shifting. Such is the “Did God say?” response man has been offering to the persistent diabolical query since the glory days of the garden.
Briggs offers the reader an interjection of a more faith-oriented response to the shifting ground by considering the transition from printed Bibles to digital forms. His book’s centermost chapter, Moses in Cyberspace, describes the development and growth of the YouVersion Bible app. As “a free download customized in hundreds of languages and versions, [YouVersion] has only existed since 2008, but in the span of just five years it had already enrolled over 100 million users, two-thirds of them in the United States.” (As of this writing, the app reports over 240 million installs.)
The overwhelming response to YouVersion, however, seemed to produce merely a digital collectible reminiscent of generation’s past veneration for the printed Book. The high-tech generation might know they need to have it, but the quickly realized observation was that even having Scripture at our cloud-based beck and call did not result in its actual consumption.
Thus, Briggs reports on the response of a meeting of the National Religious Broadcaster’s association in Orlando in which stemming the tide of Biblical disregard became the needed marketing emphasis. By the time of that gathering, multiple digital Bible apps had become available and, thoug widely downloaded, equally left to gather cyber cobwebs on the corners of most Smartphones – “BibleGateway, Bible.IS, Olive Tree Verbum (designed for Catholics), PocketSword, the GloBible, Logos, and the NIV Bible” among them. (Read our observations about YouVersion HERE.)
“…the Bible app initiative is forging ahead under a mandate that was heard loud and clear at the Orlando NRB conference, which bewailed biblical ignorance. The gathering of evangelical and evangelistic Christians, in a state of low-grade panic, raised and rallied under a new banner that was consecrated in Orlando: ENGAGEMENT.”
Engaged or not by pew-sitters and downloading digital supplicants, one place Briggs found the Bible being diligently studied was academia. While he gives mention to Scripture’s teaching in Bible college and seminaries, Briggs spends more than a little liquid ink assessing the impact – to which he seems favorably inclined – of the scientific analysis of Scripture, not as a rule for faith, but as an analyzable, ancient piece of literature.
“The Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) is to the Bible what the Centers for Disease Control are to infectious diseases: both are places to go for the latest scientific bulletins about alien cultures. …no organization devotes itself so pointedly to wide-open study of Scripture on such rigorous historical and linguistic grounds, what has been the field known as ‘higher criticism’ since the time of its appearance early in the nineteenth century in Germany. The SBL became the most visible American clearinghouse for that brand of academic scrutiny, which removed the Bible from its pedestal as the direct word from God and put it into a laboratory, where scholars explore it primarily as a work cobbled together by mortals with God-consciousness, flaws and all, much as they would dissect any ancient document.”
Believers in Scripture as God’s inspired, inerrant Text will know that the result of such a faithless-driven endeavor in a purely academic attack – though it is called “analysis” – yields the report that it is merely a multiply-sourced collection of man-created mythologies and oral traditions that reflect ancient beliefs hardly applicable to modern man. At best, the favorable platitudes of encouragement gleaned from within it are just that, universal human truths that may speak of the divine, but hardly find their source from His lips.
Briggs includes some time within his look at the academic analysis of the Bible to touch on the Jesus Seminar, a decade-long gathering of scholars (1985-1995) who undertook to analyze the Bible’s “sayings of Jesus, and proposed to judge whether they were authentic, doubtful or counterfeit.” These scholars analyzed 1,030 passages from the four Gospels and, in the end, determined “just twenty-six made the cut as real sayings of Jesus.” For each saying analyzed these scholars, “cast colored beads in quasi-game-show fashion to vote whether they were persuaded” that the sayings were actually spoken by Jesus. (Red meant yes, pink meant maybe, gray meant it was Jesus-like, but sourced elsewhere and put in His mouth, and black meant that Jesus absolutely wasn’t the source.)
The furor enflamed the passions of Bible literalists who quickly aimed to dismiss the frivolity with which the Jesus Seminar (and the SBL attacks on Scriptural integrity) eagerly published. But Briggs comments that, “As compelling as the attacks of the faith-firsters were on the Seminar, my limited survey shows that they achieved no solid success defeating the Seminar on its own terms. Nor would they be expected to, because they begin from a wholly different place: a pledge to uphold the tenets of a prior faith and to accept a supernatural, miracle-filled world – neither of which the Seminar in general allowed to frame its inquiries.”
Briggs launches into a brief, academically related, preview of the consideration of the Scriptural canon. The integrity of the canon has, of course, been a constant point of challenge by non-believers and academics who see no providential delivery of God’s Word in the corpus of the finalized, and now ubiquitous, Bible. “Canon still has its impressive supporters, but it has lost ground in the big picture, along with inerrancy,” says Briggs. For the liberal faith camp, in which Briggs places himself, the challenge is “to find new meaning in a Bible that has been rampantly redefined and dissected,” along, of course, with identifying exactly which “Jesus” is being lauded as the founder of the faith, especially since that “Jesus” may or may not resemble anything close to the one found in the now analytically-destructed Bible.
Before closing his tome by finding the Bible in America in such places as Hollywood – he cites “The Passion of The Christ,” the “Left Behind” film series on the big screen, “Jesus Christ Superstar” from the stage, and “The Bible” on television – Briggs provides his personal observation from the debate that exists between the Bible’s historical-critical, liberal analysts and its adherents by faith. He offers an opinion on resolving the evident gulf that persists between those who challenge Scripture as divine and those who know it to be because of faith.
“Leaving aside the unwavering biblical literalists, most American Christians are probably open in varying degrees to the revisions and challenges offered by academic scholars. I say that because the research principles of science are so pervasive and credible that they are almost universally accepted, no matter what a person’s religious convictions are.”
The clear answer to this is the believer’s understanding that science falls beneath, not beside, our Sovereign God and science will never discover truths that conflict with Him, though misguided and faithless interpretations of those “truths” may well be (and are) misinterpreted. Science, both the natural versions of it as well as the scholastic “historical-critical” versions of it, is subservient to God, neither capable of, nor rightly intended to, validate or invalidate Him or His Word. Briggs, though, sees a need for accommodation between the two camps.
“I don’t mean that everyone on both siedes will seek a creative resolution. On the religious side, unshakable literalists will no doubt exclude themselves, as will liberals who have written off the Bible as their religious compass. Among researchers, there are those who want little or nothing to do with religious institutions that threaten their commitment to academic standards. But to that broad middle ground of Christians, including evangelicals who have eased away from strict inerrancy and liberals who wonder what role the Bible still plays, a meeting of the minds seems urgent.”
Bible believers obedient to contending for the faith (Jude 3) will find Briggs’ spirit of tolerance and accommodation to be untenable. But he believes that the Bible needs to be “rebranded, so to speak.” His search for where the Bible is in America has resulted in his opinion that the current “branding” of the Bible “is fuzzy, contradictory, and generally foreign to the receptors inside contemporary human heads.”
What does Briggs suggest, specifically, to alter the apparent erroneous contemporary branding of Scripture?
“The idea would be that the major players among that large band of more or less mainstream Christians would put their minds together to come up with a clear ‘pitch,’ as it were, that would replace current confusion about the Bible’s identity in a way that would allow for historical and linguistic honesty while remaining receptive to metaphor as equivalent truth-telling and claims of mystery. So far as I can tell, the Bible never brands itself in any specific way; it never describes itself either as a collection of factual accounts or as a patchwork of myth, legend, and history. It never says what it is or declares itself to be the truth; rather it functions as a conduit for truths.”
On two points – making Scripture accessible to those “receptors inside contemporary human heads” and on “it never says what it is” – the Word-entrenched believer will have a clear response from that Word. It’s not just modern minds that can’t apprehend Scripture. First-century followers of Jesus had equal difficulty … until, of course, He revealed it to them. Those Jerusalem-departing disciples on the Emmaus road encountered the living, post-resurrection Christ. The emphasis of their unimaginable encounter yielded not a Christ-induced ambition for continued mystical interaction with God. Instead, their “hearts burned” because “He opened to us the Scriptures.” (See Luke 24:13-35) Since Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit, every believer regenerated by Him benefits from His ministry of illumination focused on the Word. Faith is the divinely gifted ingredient that makes the Word more than just a Book to be scholastically scrutinized.
As to Briggs’ contention that Scripture never says what it is, one need only turn to the zenith of verses about Scripture itself in 2 Timothy:
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. 2 Timothy 3:16-17
The concluding chapter of The Invisible Bestseller is entitled The Story of the Greatest Story Every Told Awaits a New Chapter, and finds Briggs pondering what the next step is for the Bible, a step he believes must be made for the sake of the Christian faith itself, but one where the Bible has been “pitched” in a culturally-palatable fashion.
“Tragic as the crumbling of the old order may be to those who rely on it and maintain it, fairness demands another opinion. Moving the Bible to the periphery of the Christian life may be foreshadowing the death of one process of faith formation in favor of the arrival of another one that benefits the technological revolution. Mysterious transitions are not unknown to Christianity, and perhaps there is one aborning that will usher in a new age of vitality.”
Briggs’ ambition of accommodating Scripture to American culture’s preferences is anti-Biblical and anti-faith. But already we see the creeping impact of such notions from church pulpits, pews, Christian bookstores, and conservative seminaries. The emphasis on mysticism, contemplative, subjective spirituality not founded in, or upon, Scripture is challenging orthodox Bible-bound faith. Continuing down that path will find the church uncomfortably disobeying that inspired, apostolic command, “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers.” (2 Corinthians 6:14) And, be assured of this, if Scripture is accommodated, it will be because of unbelief, not because of faith.
Briggs’ book is available from multiple outlets, including Amazon. While it is not recommended as a beneficial resource for encouraging, supporting, and growing one’s faith, the book is a solidly written, journalistic glimpse of where the Bible is in America. The theological slant of its author is tempered respectfully with regard for those of other persuasions. I’d recommend it only as a cultural narrative with, as in all things, a discerning Berean approach encouraged. For an accurate view, however, I recommend, of course, the Word itself. The authentic believer will know what’s going on in the world because the Bible – once again – accurately and authoritatively tells us so.
(The Invisible Bestseller, Searching for The Bible In America is published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan. It is copyrighted by Kenneth A. Briggs, 2016. All quotations included above are from it. The publisher has provided a complimentary copy to me in return for this honest review. – B.A.)
[Contributed by Bud Ahlheim]