The Undercover Bible

In Orange County, belief in God is complicated by the fact that there's so much ostentation, not to mention money and foolishness, attending it. In the Trinity Broadcasting Network headquarters in Costa Mesa, for instance, which keeps its Christmas decorations up four or five months a year (still screaming, "Happy Birthday, Jesus!" to flummoxed 405 drivers in March), we've hit our own little summit of expensive theological infantilism. To bring a black-bound, gilt-edged Bible to a public place in OC—say, a coffeehouse—just because you want to read what the thing says, as mythology, as poetry, as a repository of cultural heritage or even as, lo, revealed truth, is a really uncomfortable thing: you either attract derision from the folks reading Anne Rice or Bukowski or the smothering attention of kids with glazed eyes who want to drag you off to their surfer's ministry to rap about What Would Jesus Do. Talk of religion is unusually loaded here, laden with a defensiveness, messianism and anger that makes people who look normal enough when you meet them seem suddenly and completely out of their minds.

So what Grove Press, one of America's edgier literary publishers, is doing may have a special relevance to OC: it's releasing the individual books of the King James version of the Bible in hip little paperback editions called the Pocket Canon. The first set of 12 came out in late 1999; the second set (including the books of Isaiah and Samuel, several of the Epistles of Paul and James, Acts, Song of Solomon, and others) has just been issued. The books fit in your palm, like the Pocket Poet editions that City Lights used to publish Ginsberg's Howl, and the elegant black, white and silver cover photographs—a burgeoning mushroom cloud for Revelation, a crumbling tower for Isaiah—really are covers: they make it look like you're reading a slim volume by some elegant avant-gardeist, not the fat Book those repressed hard asses wave around on late-night cable, looking like they're going to smack you with it for thinking Devil Thoughts.

There's nothing churchy about these books; they don't give off an incense aftermath or radiate a submit-to-the-Word vibe. You can even buy them in boxed sets that'll fit in cozily with your CD sets of Sinatra, Beethoven and Hendrix. They're Undercover Bibles: just the thing the New Millennial Man or Woman might tote along to a Diedrich Coffee just because you want to read what the thing says without having to deal with either the avant-cool or missionary elements. Which is undoubtedly Grove's point and which—the obvious target marketing notwithstanding—I'm all for. Anything to scrape off a layer or two of the cultural residue, especially thick in our county, that keeps us from seeing the words on the page fresh and for ourselves.

Not that these Grove editions don't lay on a little residue themselves. Each book is introduced by a respected, sometimes world-class writer or personage—the second series boasts the Dalai Lama, A.S. Byatt, Peter Ackroyd and Karen Armstrong—and though some of the introducers are practicing Jews or Christians, none seem particularly doctrinal. And the fact that Grove chose the King James version—of English translations it's the most beautiful, but the least lucid to contemporary readers—shows that the editors were clearly thinking in the-Bible-as-lit terms.

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This secular/aesthetic bias is also the point: Grove knows that people who buy these paperbacks aren't likely to bring them to church so somebody can explain them; they're looking to enjoy, interpret, exult, and be disturbed and confused by them all on their own. Which, again, I'm all for.

To look at the Bible primarily as history, mythology or poetry carries its own dangers, of course. It leaches the Bible of some of its power—its demand to be seen as Word rather than words—and introduces a distance that may cut off the reader from the experience of the millions who read it before him. In such a modern context, the visions in Revelation can seem nearly pathological, the Song of Solomon all lubriciousness, and the ending of Job—with Job's meek capitulation to God's ominous Will after his Shakespearean suffering and fiery challenge—positively a letdown. But the modern context is what we have, and the disconnection is real—intellectual distance and even irony are what remains between the Good Book and even the most spiritually sincere contemporary readers. Science, the study of comparative religion and mythology, linguistics, and other fields have all hacked up the Bible's old claims to legitimacy as Literal Truth (even the Pope says it's pointless to deny evolution), so unless you've got your head in a hole (or a hole in your head), the Bible is at best story, allegory, revelatory myth.

So how do we read it? The Dalai Lama reads the epistle of St. James ecumenically: he's "struck by the similarities between this beautiful letter in the Bible and some of the texts in my own Buddhist tradition." A.S. Byatt links Song of Solomon's "cry of erotic longing and description of erotic bliss" to the Western literary tradition of Marvell, Milton, Paul Celan and Goethe. Alasdair Gray calls Jonah "a prose comedy about a Jew who wants God to leave him alone" and uses "the only grand truth" of Nahum ("nations who keep living by armaments will perish by them") as an excuse to grouse about contemporary British policy against Scotland.

Taken together, these Grove Press biblettes are defiantly pluralistic, and everything about them—from their paperback impermanence to their publication in separate (deconstructed) volumes to the all-over-the-place way they've been introduced—suggests that the best image for these volumes is probably the Tower of Babel. That we don't know whether this is a good or a bad thing is part of what it means to live today.

The Pocket Canons, Second Series; Grove Press 10 volumes, $24.95. Boxed set also sold separately at wildly varying prices.

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