Starting from Scripture

Taking a look at religion and book culture means going beyond sacred texts, to fictions, memoirs, self-help books, pamphlets, and commentaries – but it also means looking at the material qualities of books, the infrastructures of reading, and the actions and reactions of readers.

What do you mean, “religion and book culture”? Isn’t that the same as Bible study?

While there’s certainly a lot to grapple with in the sacred texts of religious traditions, “book culture” is a lot bigger than a set of sacred books.

We often tend to think of religion, especially Western religion, as tied to a sacred text. Christians, Jews, and Muslims can all be considered “people of the book(s).” The Book of Mormon distinguishes Mormons from other Christians; the Guru Granth Sahib plays a key role in Sikhism. Introductory religious studies students learning about Hinduism tend to begin with the Vedas and Upanishads rather than current Hindu experiences.

The importance of sacred texts in these traditions means that “reading and religion” tends to focus exclusively on those texts. For example: Surveys of religious life often ask how frequently people read the Bible or whether they view it as literal – and analysts then use those answers as markers of intense religiosity. We often end up evaluating whether someone is “really religious” not by participation in a community or by their ethical actions but by their attitudes toward a particular sacred text.

Yet reading and religion come together in a thousand ways that are only tangentially related to sacred texts. Once we start from scriptures and move outward, a new and wild field opens up with its own pressures and patterns.

For every sacred text, Torah, Gospel or Qur’an, there are thousands of texts that touch on religious matters but are not canon (nor even aspire to be so). Sometimes these are fictions that have their roots in those sacred texts, challenging or deepening them. The Red Tent, The Satanic Verses, or Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal all extend and toy with moments from scriptures. Sometimes these texts are instructions about how to live, read, and exist as a Christian, Mormon, or Jew in today’s world. New Atheist books challenge religion as a monolith, Joel Osteen and Rick Warren offer Christian-tinged self-help volumes, and even more books claim to explain “The Gospel According to…” everything from Peanuts to Shakespeare.

Books don’t have to be shelved in the Religion section of Barnes and Noble to be part of religious lives. When we want to encounter religious Others, for example, we often turn to novels and memoirs. Reading about other religions can offer us a tamed encounter, where we do not risk losing face, insulting others, or dealing with the more complicated or challenging parts of a tradition. At its best, the result is close to the “public imagination” described by Martha Nussbaum in Poetic Justice, as readers see through characters’ eyes, follow their struggles, and gain empathy for others. But the reading-mediated encounter with the religious Other can just as easily lead to antipathy and prejudice, when religious persons are cast as villains: evil atheists, cruel Catholics, ignorant evangelicals, wild-eyed fanatics, and so on. Even so, some readers have their first encounter with a new tradition through these texts, and may even be so enchanted as to consider conversion. Thomas Tweed’s “nightstand Buddhists” have Thich Nhat Hanh on their bedside table, reading and nodding along with Pema Chodron.

All of these examples deal with the contents of books, starting from sacred texts and moving out into more profane territory. Reading’s influence on religion doesn’t stop there, however.

Even when we’re reading alone, we’re surrounded by the networks that support literacy (publishers, booksellers, reviewers, teachers, libraries) and the societal standards that help determine what we read and how we read it. Elizabeth Long describes this as the “social infrastructure of reading.” Church, mosque, and synagogue libraries, Christian booksellers, and publishers that remove books from shelves based on religious protests (as Penguin India removed Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History in February of this year) are all part of this infrastructure.

The book itself is also important, the actual physical object, designed and printed and manufactured. How do the material qualities of books affect their religious uses? Roger Chartier (among others) argues that the shift from scroll to codex in the early Christian era dramatically changed ways of reading, simply by offering a means of quickly flipping back to check earlier parts of the text. How are current advances in digital texts changing how we read? What differences exist between the dog-eared family Bible and the King James Version iPad app, and how do we use them?

The text itself, the books as objects, the content and contexts of reading – what’s missing? The actual reader, of course! Thriving communities of interpretation, debate, and reinvention all change and renew religious lives. That includes church book clubs, GoodReads reviewers, and the authors of Bible-fanfic collections in the Archive of Our Own. In these networks and groups, we teach each other ways to read and interpret, transfer reading techniques from sacred to profane texts, and explore the potential for touching transcendence or gaining empathy through books of many kinds.

By looking at readers, reading, the structures that support reading, and yes, the actual content of books, we can see so many ways that people use books in their religious lives. From Chick Tracts to comparative fictional theologies, from Kindle daily devotions to Pagan publishers, “Reading into Religion” will explore these places where book culture and American religious lives intersect.

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