The Oxford Handbook of the Bible in America

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Editor(s): 
Paul C. Gutjahr
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , December
     2017.
     728 pages.
     $150.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780190258849.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Perhaps with the exception of the Constitution, no text has been more constitutive to American history than the Bible. The Bible is and has been both battleground and olive branch, served as a source of subjugation and redemption, and prompted institutional entrenchment and spawned religious renewal and innovation. As editor, Paul Gutjahr states at the outset of the volume the Bible has “formed, framed, and fractured American society over a series of centuries” (xix). The aim of this text is to provide a broad picture of the ways that the Bible has transformed America and how religious people have interpreted, produced, employed, critiqued, and written about the Bible since the 17th century. From the standpoint of both intention and execution, The Oxford Handbook of the Bible in America is undoubtedly successful. There are chapters that feel more familiar—but never hackneyed—such as those that engage biblical interpretation by century or tradition and chapters that engage areas of study that may have been relegated to niche disciplines, including chapters that explore the Bible as a source and site of artistic expression and as a foundation for American public life. This volume explores the story of the Bible in America from multiple angles, which, when combined, reveal how intimately entwined American life has been with the Good Book.

The Handbook is structured thematically and the ordering of the five sections is one of the anthology’s strongest selling points. Foibles of the trade, studies of the Bible in America are often hermeneutically and linguistically focused. Here, Gutjahr devotes the first section to the Bible as a material artifact.  This move signals to the reader not only the sheer economic and cultural tour-de-force that is the Bible in America, but the fact that the development of physical components such as the very paper on which the Bible was written has impacted its use. Such concepts frame the rest of the book as a study of the Bible, both as a cultural product and a producer of culture. Such framing informs later chapters including John Weaver’s “The Bible in Digital Culture,” exploring whether the Bible is still “the Bible” if it exists as “bytes” or if it is, in effect, “disembodied” (153), and Andrew T. Coate’s “The Bible and Graphic Novels,” which asks just how much license can be taken with the “Word.” Focusing on the production of the Bible also sets the stage for the excellent scholarship regarding Bible versions and translations—the use of different Bibles to confirm or refute chattel slavery (in Abraham Smith’s “The Bible in African American Culture” and Emerson B. Powery’s “The Bible and Slavery in American Life”), to the revolt against the New International Version brought by King James acolytes (in Jason A. Hentschel’s “The King James Only Movement”), to the creation of Bibles for various interest groups (see Edward Waggoner’s “The Bible and the Military”). These and other chapters reinforce the idea that when one speaks of the “Good Book,” one is really talking about Good Books. And versions matter: even for those who adhere to the  “plain Bible thesis” (see Randall J. Stephen’s “The Bible and Fundamentalism”), doctrine and confessional theologies are often tethered to a specific Bible translation. The effect of this narrative and organizational thread—that the Bible is both the contested site of sacred knowledge and a physical book—is a coherent collection of essays woven together without any heavy-handed exposition explaining what the reader “should find.” While this is a credit to the editor, certainly, it is also a credit to the authors whose individual contributions each acknowledge, directly or indirectly, that contemporary scholarship should engage both the Word and the words.

As Gutjahr acknowledges in his introduction, this anthology does not try to be comprehensive. Thus, to critique the text for omissions or inclusions of certain topics proceeds in bad faith. Not only does each chapter feel essential in subject matter, all are meticulously researched by their respective experts. Thus, while the publication of this volume in 2017 prompts questions as to why such a volume was not produced earlier, it is hard to imagine an anthology compiled more capably, nor one composed of essays that are equally notable for their authors’ breadth of historiographical and historical knowledge, and distinctive disciplinary flair. Nonetheless, given the excellent treatment by Jonathan Sarna in his chapter on “The Bible and Judaism in America,” a chapter devoted to the third Abrahamic tradition, Islam, and its engagement with the (Hebrew) Bible would have been a welcome addition, perhaps examining whether the publication of American Bibles has influenced Qur’anic publishing practices. Given the emphasis on the Bible as a material and cultural product in this volume, such a chapter could further confirm the influence of Bible culture beyond the scope of Christian household and institutions. Further—and I must admit a professional bias here—the volume did not include treatment of liberal Christians, such as Unitarians and Universalists, whose own engagement with and work on the Bible was robust, but is often ignored in the current historiography.  In this vein, such lacuna has the unwitting, but self-fulfilling, effect of removing these groups from the conversations on Bible matters in America, even though they were very much engaged in the discourse. Taken together, however, these suggestions may simply signal the need for a second volume—one excellent volume spawning the need for more.  For the time being, however, scholars of religion in America, the Bible, American culture, lived religion, or material religion should make room on their shelves for this book.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Lydia Willsky-Ciollo is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Fairfield University.

Date of Review: 
January 30, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Paul C. Gutjahr is Ruth Halls Professor of English at Indiana University. Among his numerous books and articles, he is the author of An American Bible: The History of the Good Book in the United States, 1777-1881 (1999), Charles Hodge: Guardian of American Orthodoxy (2011), and The Book of Mormon: A Biography (2012).

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