Friday, November 13, 2009

Mosaic Bible - The Branding of Devotional Christianity

I agreed to write a "review" of the new Mosaic Bible, a new formatting of the Protestant Scriptures published this Fall by Tyndale Publishers. The publisher provided me a deluxe, imitation leather version. Joining Tyndale's campaign afforded an opportunity for me to look take a closer look at some of the sociological aspects of Bible marketing today.

Walk into any local bookstore, and you will find dozens of choices for bibles today. The production and distribution of market-savvy bibles may surprise some, but it is one of the most interesting developments in modern Christianity.

Crafting Editions of The Word of God

This Gutenberg Bible is displayed by the Unite...Image via Wikipedia

We can look back and see how the printing press certainly enabled a more ambitious structuring of the Protestant scriptures. The Geneva Bible first printed in 1560 was the first Bible to add numbered verses to make referencing passages easier. In addition, every chapter included extensive marginal notes and references making the Geneva Bible the first English "Study Bible." Between Between 1560 and 1644 at least 144 editions of this Bible were published.

Yet the initial effort to craft these bibles was considerable. It took scores of hours to typeset new bibles, and innovative systems of notations, illustrations, and footnotes created enormous difficulties. Take a glance through any edition of the Thompson Chain Reference Bible to gain an appreciation for the tremendous hours of work required to craft these books as ultimate "Bible Study Tools" intended to take personal reading of the scripture to unprecedented layering of hermeneutic possibilities.

Furthermore, the structuring of "notes" became the occasion to self-consciously promote whole theological systems. Consider the successive editions of the Scofield Reference Bible for its quite specific (and to many people peculiar) discussion of world history, the relationship between Israel and Christianity, and anticipations of eschatological happenings.

Now, the rise of digital typeset and new print techniques (including the ability to print color pages cheaply) have greatly expanded the possibilities for bible formats. Production houses have become increasingly creative in the formation of new types of bibles. While the "text" of the bible (the translation formats) may often be the same, the formatting, illustrations, and notations accompanying the text are what make a new product.

Bibles Proclaim a Brand of Faith

Moreover, bibles are not only intended to provide exhaustive notations but also reorientation toward the faith. In other words, while it may initially seem that "a bible is a bible is a bible," it is important to note that the crafting of a bible is equivalent to forming a strategic presentation of the Christian faith. In short, any carefully designed bible proclaims a brand of faith.

Enter Holy Bible: Mosaic NLT.

The Mosaic Bible strives to make a book primarily meant for meditation and prayer. It claims to be "a new genre of Bible—a weekly meditation Bible." In comparison with the large, white bible that occupied the living room table of my home growing up, the Mosaic Bible is portable and durable. But more than its portability, what makes the bible intentionally geared to personal reflection is that nearly the first half of the whole book is a series of weekly "installments," a set of scripture readings, prayers, reflections, and empty lines (for writing) accompanied by religious artwork. The weeks are aligned with church seasons. (For those who don't know which season it is, a website can be consulted; this is the 26th week of Pentecost ("Righteous Judgment"), pg m314.

The readings and prayers are intended to be diverse, affirming Christianity as a historic and global religion. There are readings from ancient to contemporary authors from every continent and every century. Of course, these excerpts are all highly orthodox and contain the presentation of Christian concepts and virtues to those generally accepted by more conservative Protestant Christians.

There is also a notable striving to affirm of the use of art in religious devotion. Full-color artwork, hymns, and poems are included.

The New Living Translation provides the base scriptural text, a newer, freer English version that allows for contemporary and colloquial speech constructed by a team of (mostly Evangelical) biblical scholars.

So, what is the branding of Christianity that comes through this particular bible?

I would suggest several dominant themes:
  • A bible can be aesthetically pleasing, yet should still evoke a pious consideration of the "sacredness" of the book as traditionally understood.
  • The bible is to be a personal, devotional tool such that the notations in "your" bible will not be the same as those in "my" bible.
  • However, the bible is not meant to be read "individualistically," but in the context of a broader community of believers through history.
  • The bible is to be read regularly and systematically.
  • The bible is most profitably read accompanied by prayer and focused reflection on themes.
  • Although structured devotions are useful, individuals should take corporate themes as launchpoints for personal reflections and commitments.
  • Bible study tools including cross-references, dictionary, maps, and concordances, are now "assumed" as essential in personal bibles.
  • The use of contemporary translations means that there is a recognition that the spiritual value of the bible is not found in traditional words or phrasing but rather in the meaning of those words to the extent they can be accurately conveyed.
  • And the aggressive marketing of a bible is appropriate in that the goal is not self-promotion as much as the distribution of a tool that gets people to read the scriptures for themselves.
My participation in the "blog tour" of the Mosaic Bible certainly indicates that bible publishers are attempting to work with a crowded marketplace. There are already many bibles on the market; the attempt to craft a message to highlight the uniqueness and devotional utility of any new bible presents a considerable challenge. To these ends, Tyndale has a dedicated website, a blog, a twitter account, and a listing of other blog reviews available.

Finally, as part of the marketing blitz for the product, Tyndale is giving away a few copies of this new book. If you are still reading this and are interested in one, the first person to email me with a request will receive a certificate from Tyndale that can be redeemed for your own personal copy.