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The good (and bad) news about niche Bibles

by Pat McCullough

The Bible: It’s not only the best-selling book of all time, but it’s also the best-selling book of the year—every year. At our local Christian bookstore, these statistics are made tangible on the entire wall dedicated to Bibles aimed at every imaginable audience. There’s the Green Bible, the Archaeological Study Bible, the Tim LaHaye Prophecy Study Bible, the Golfer’s Bible, Chicken Soup for the Soul Bible, and even the Bug Collection Bible. But are these “niche Bibles” a beautiful part of drawing new readers to the Bible or do they represent nothing more than a thinly veiled marketing ploy aimed at unassuming believers? Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in between.

In a sense, my own story models both the “good news” and the “bad news” of these niche Bibles. I encountered my first niche Bible as a teenager. As a consummate procrastinator in high school, I found little motivation for any sort of disciplined study. When I converted to Christianity at 16, my curiosity began bursting at the seams. I had hardly read any book cover to cover, let alone one with a thousand pages of small text and ancient-sounding words like “libation” or “obeisance.” Enter the Quest Study Bible, which billed itself as the “question and answer Bible.”

“If you’ve ever read the Bible and found yourself asking the tough questions,” the Quest Study Bible begins in its introduction, “then this Bible is for you.” Yes! That was exactly what I wanted. I had lots of tough questions, and I wanted answers.

I gobbled up the “answers” offered by this Bible with a ravenous hunger for meaning. My problem (similar to the one my newborn son has) was that I would spit these answers back up at everyone around me, a practice which temporarily transformed me into a zealous Bible-thumper. A couple years later, I shoved off to Messiah College (Grantham, Pa.) and, in my continuing quest for more answers, I decided to major in biblical studies. But instead of finding easy answers, I discovered deeper questions. Those questions led me to a career in academic study of the Bible. Looking back, I see that it was my Quest Study Bible that initially sparked my passion for biblical study and started my journey toward a lifelong education. Yet for at least two years, I had been blinded into thinking that the notes of my study Bible were just as inspired as the biblical text itself.

So when we approach our bookstore’s wall of Bibles, how do we deal with the difficult act of balancing the “good news” of inspired enthusiasm with the “bad news” of simplistic answers? How do we discern what Phyllis Tickle calls the “fine line between accessibility and desecration” in niche Bibles? And what do we make of all the Bibles aimed at satisfying innumerable interest groups?

At their worst, these Bibles feed into every reader’s addiction: to look for what’s most important to me. Various traditions choose which portions of Scripture are more authoritative than others—Romans for some, the Sermon on the Mount for others. Our favoritism touches even our interpretation of those passages. For some, the Genesis creation story is a condemnation of Darwinism; for others, it is an environmental mandate.

Such partiality in our Bible reading is inevitable. The Bible is a diverse and complex compendium of ancient texts, and our human brains can only handle so much of that at a time. But if used wisely, the right niche Bibles could actually help us to balance our biases. For instance, if we are passionate about social justice, we would do well to find a good devotional Bible, such as Today’s Devotional Bible to remind us of the importance of a deeply prayerful life.

On the other hand, if we are already dedicated to personal spirituality, we may be appropriately stretched by something like The Green Bible or The Poverty and Justice Bible. We may not agree with everything we read, but it should provoke powerful questions. To complement these, a good reference Bible (e.g., New Interpreter’s Study Bible) would help any reader with the historical context of the biblical writings.

Having said this, some common sense is in order here. Not all niche Bibles are created equal. While the more gimmicky niche Bibles may attract new audiences, they may also distract us from truly transformational readings. A Bible with “inspirational messages teed up to reach the golfer’s heart,” for example, may fall into this category. Worse still, other Bibles may perpetuate destructive stereotypes under the guise of authoritative biblical teaching, such as the “Biblezine” marketed for teen girls, which —somewhat disturbingly—boasts that it’s “A Bible for young women! (And it looks like COSMO!).”

In the end, I can only think of one niche Bible missing from the market: The Brethren in Christ Church Bible. Imagine a Bible that incorporates both devotional reflections and biblical study insights, all guided by our core values. Now, that is a niche Bible I could get behind. Are you listening, Bible publishers?

This article originally appeared in the spring 2009 issue of In Part magazine.
Pat McCullough

Pat McCullough is a Ph.D. student in New Testament and Christian origins at the University of California, Los Angeles, having recently completed his M.Div. at Fuller Theological Seminary. He and his wife, Christina, are members of Grantham (Pa.) BIC and currently attend Pasadena (Calif.) Mennonite Church. They are celebrating the recent birth of their first child, Declan. patmccullough.com

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