It is a source of pride in many churches to have pew bibles for the use of every congregational member. I, for one, question why these Bibles are needed since each member of the congregation will have a Bible of their own at home. If having the complete text in front of them at every service is really important, then the Church leader could encourage them to bring their own copy.
What do I think is really being said when Bibles are provided for everyone in the pews? I offer my interpretation as it might apply to some more conservative churches. Followers of this blog will expect me to come up with a somewhat perverse interpretation of such an apparently innocent act, and they will not be disappointed. By giving my opinionated interpretation for this action, I hope, at least, to get us thinking about the use of the bible in church. While thinking about what pew bibles signify, we may also reflect on another related topic. This is the fact that among the churches, where Scripture is most outwardly honoured and respected through preaching and mission statements, there is also an apparent laziness among members when it comes to their knowing what the text actually says.
The placing of a Bible in front of each person is done in many places so that when the preacher refers to a particular text, the person in the pew can look it up. This will assume a facility for this kind of switching from book to book or from text to text and this ability is taken for granted in most Bible believing churches. There will be also the implication that the argument of the preacher has added weight and authority because it is supported by particular texts. The preaching is then perceived to be authoritative and this in turn will boost the status of the preacher. In other words the provision of pew bibles seems to link in with a particular somewhat ponderous style of preaching in that church. If I wanted to be critical of this style of preaching, I would describe it as tending towards being heavy and dogmatic. While taking its authority from scripture, the preaching will probably sit lightly on other sources of inspiration, for example, the images derived from nature or the wider culture. The style of preaching that I and many others would prefer, is one that can reflect on a passage, draw insights from everyday life and also seek to encourage an understanding of the mind of Jesus to deal with the business of living in the world.
The second reason for my not being enamoured of the pew bible idea concerns the way the bibles, that are used in this way, come to be thought of. I would suggest that the practice of focusing on single verses or even single phrases, gives the Bible a bitty quality. In other words, people get used to the idea that the best way to read it, is as a series of quotes or proof texts to support preaching. What is tacitly discouraged is the idea that the Bible should be read as a continuous narrative. From a cynical perspective, if anyone actually does read the Bible in this way, they might find out that certain strands of teaching are not precisely as they have been taught. Woman in one version of the Genesis text was created simultaneously with man (not after), seven pairs of some animals went into the Ark (not two) and you must not speculate where Cain’s wife (Genesis 4.17) came from! If you sit faithfully in the pew and only consult the verses the preacher tells you, then your little brain will never have to bother itself with these sorts of imponderable questions.
In the third place the choice of edition is important. There are some versions that are, on the basis of a few verses translated conservatively, considered ‘sound’ translations. The versions that are generally recognised to take a more scholarly approach to disputed passages are discouraged. In the New International Version, much favoured by conservatives, Isaiah 7.14 is translated as ‘virgin’ to reflect the conservative theology of the translators and their convictions about prophecy. The other versions, which are faithful to the actual Hebrew words, have the translation ‘young woman’ . The Revised Standard Version which first appeared around 1950 was publically burned in the streets in America for containing such a heretical translation of the Hebrew word ‘almah’. While overall the number of these disagreements across the versions are few and relatively minor, no conservative church would tolerate the current New Revised Standard Version. From a scholarly point of view it is considered the best translation, but this NRSV version is never found or read from in conservative churches.
For me, the provision of pew bibles contains the implied message that ordinary Christians should not read their Bibles except under supervision of a preacher. It is easier to go along with the preacher’s pronouncements about the bible as a ‘God-breathed’ text, if you are in fact ‘protected’ from reading it for yourself. For anyone who does in fact read the text properly, the claims of inerrancy for the narrative may very quickly become fantastic and unsustainable. The faithful and loyal members of the ‘bible-believing’ church will thus often desist from the attempt to study it for themselves, precisely because they want to avoid feelings of dissonance that the reading of the actual text may stir up in them. For that reason the Bible continues to remain a virtually unknown text for countless thousands who nevertheless will express great admiration and respect for it. What remains in their memories are up to a hundred verses committed to memory because they are frequently mentioned from the pulpit. Psalm 23 can be recited virtually from memory and most people will know 1 Corinthians 13 and John 3.16. But these will be like choice pearl nuggets mined from the vast but unknown depths of the biblical text. The bible in conservative churches remains the world’s bestselling book which is the least likely to be actually read. Sadly, for perhaps different reasons, most Christians share with conservatives an indifference and ignorance about the content and meaning of Scripture. How many times in Bible study groups have I had to give page numbers? The members do not know which Testament a particular book is in, let alone whereabouts in the Bible it is to be found!