Reviewed by Andrew Spencer
Kenneth Briggs has recently attempted a diagnosis of American culture in The Invisible Bestseller: Searching for the Bible in America. The book sets out to explore the growing trend of Biblical illiteracy among the American population, which seems inconsistent with the routinely high sales of the Christian Scriptures in both print and electronic formats. However, what should have been an interesting and helpful book for those seeking to understand American culture and the Christian subculture more deeply becomes an unselfconscious illustration of the very problem it seeks to expose.
Briggs is a journalist who has written for the New York Times and Newsday. At one point he was a religion editor at the New York Times, as well. He contributes to National Catholic Reporter and also adjuncts for several prestigious universities teaching courses on religion and journalism. Given his list of credentials associated with public discourse about religion, the reader anticipates an awareness of the content of the Bible and the contours of the Christian religion in the United States.
This popular level volume contains fourteen chapters in addition to the introduction and epilogue. Each chapter highlights a portion of Briggs’ explanation for the disappearance of the Bible from American culture. The book begins with several chapters discussing the ongoing popularity of the Bible in bookstores and online retailers. According to Briggs, the Bible is everywhere but seldom read. It has largely disappeared from public life, is read less and less even by regular churchgoers, and is no longer valued as an authority outside of enclaves of Christian influence. Briggs argues this has led to a widespread panic among Bible teachers, religious broadcasters, and parachurch leaders concerned with evangelism and Bible distribution. Briggs effectively diagnoses the situation. There are many Bibles out there in many versions, but the general population lacks sufficient awareness of the big picture of Scripture to get much out of selected readings and individualistic, subjectivist encounters with isolated passages. Briggs has put his finger on the problem with much of the kitsch Christian culture: too few people recognize that Philippians 4:13 has nothing to do with athletic prowess because they do not know the biblical context.
The rest of the volume is largely dedicated to Briggs’ argument that traditional, conservative understandings of Scripture are the cause of the failure of people to read the Bible. Briggs conducts interviews, summarizes liberal scholarship, and critiques “Christian” entertainment to show that efforts to understand the Bible in its own terms have failed and are often, in the case of traditional interpretations, bigoted. This book reflects the ignorance of many journalists about what the stated beliefs of most evangelical and fundamentalist congregations are. Instead of investigating cultural beliefs about the Bible deeply and considering scholarship from theological conservatives, Briggs substitutes excerpts of interviews from small group meetings that demonstrate flawed and incomplete doctrinal understandings. Never mind that the reason Christians hold such Bible study groups is to alleviate the very ignorance that Briggs represents as typical. In other words, Briggs relies on revisionist academics for his primary understanding of authentic biblical scholarship and contrasts those learned articulations to the halting explanations and inadequacies of the run of the mill pew-sitter for his representation of conservative positions. He seems unaware of the imbalance in his approach. The conclusion Briggs offers from his research is that conservative interpretations of Scripture are the most significant impediment to a popular appreciation of the Bible. In his view, if evangelicals (often called fundamentalists in this book) would simply adopt a reader-centric interpretation of Scripture, accept the moral norms of contemporary culture, and stop insisting that historical interpretations of Scripture matter, then people might get back to reading the Bible. He never adequately explains why anyone would bother to read it under those conditions. Instead, he offers the comment that the Bible, at least the New Testament, is not really necessary for Christianity. (57)
This book frustrates the informed reader due to the author’s failure to engage with contrasting positions seriously. Briggs does not disprove the views of conservative Christians; he simply dismisses them. There are subtle cases of this through biased language usage. A liberal church is an “oasis” (164) but a conservative seminary is a “bastion.” (140) Throughout the volume, Briggs indicates that only those who affirm “historical-critical” method for biblical studies are “serious scholars.” One of the prime examples of supposedly objective scholarship Briggs provides is the Jesus Seminar, which famously had revisionist biblical scholars vote on the New Testament passages they felt represented their understanding of Jesus. (111-115) He asserts that their conclusions “had the potency of science behind them.” (114) These conclusions reveal the “yawning gap that separate[s] those who measure their studies through the lens of faith commitments from those who measure their studies by the criteria of modern scholarly rigor.” (115) The presupposition that modern scholarship is superior is unquestioned even as the voting by the Jesus Seminar leaves doubts about its empirical validity. Briggs, however, allows little space for challenges to his preferred approach to biblical scholarship.
There is evidence of cultivated unawareness about the field of biblical studies in this book. Briggs routinely conflates the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture (e.g., 75, 80), which would be more forgivable if this were not a book expressly about the understandings of the Bible in American life and the volume of ink spilt on the difference between those terms were not so great. Adding evidence to his failure to understand the field, Briggs equates inerrancy with literalism to the extent that the index entry on inerrancy refers the reader to “Literalism, biblical (inerrancy).” Additionally, he frequently insinuates that most conservative Christians hold to some sort of dictation theory of inspiration. (E.g., 123) These are not incidental errors, but part of a pattern that represents consistent misunderstandings of the nature of traditional Christian belief about Scripture.
The most significant failure of this book is the misrepresentation of conservative Christians. In covering the work of Marcus Borg, a central scholar in the so-called Jesus Seminar, Briggs writes, “Most churches saw the Bible as fact, so Borg’s starting presumption that Scripture is essentially metaphorical (“I am the vine, you are the branches”) rather than objective truth (that we are in fact, branches of a grape plant) gave his seminar a distinctively alternative appeal for those looking for something different.” (164) No reasonable person could believe the Bible according to Briggs because, “The scholars have overturned core assumptions, at least for those willing to accept the research.” (69) Add to this Briggs’ questionable assertions like the one that conservative scholars anticipate finding the autograph manuscripts of Scripture (70)––a claim that no scholar makes––and the reader is led to wonder where Briggs gained his understanding of traditional Christianity. There are no notes in this book, but the limited bibliography demonstrates limited conservative scholarship, though works by Peter Enns, Rob Bell, and Rachel Held Evans make an appearance. This seems telling in light of the consistent misrepresentation of traditional Christianity in this book.
Even given Briggs’ left-leaning attitudes toward Scripture this could have been a valuable study of the present state of biblical literacy. However, the few nuggets of useful data are mired in caricature and preachy progressivism. This is the sort of volume one expects to find in the airport newsstand, not gracing the pages of respected Christian publisher. In the end, Briggs may well have illustrated one significant cause of biblical illiteracy: many journalists presume to represent Christian beliefs without first seeking to understand them.
Andrew Spencer is Director of Assessment and Institutional Research at Oklahoma Baptist University. He is a PhD candidate in Theological Studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
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