The Social Author #3: On the Social Authorship of the Bible Print

Bible(Guernica November 13, 2013)

Here at the end of the four-century reign of books in our culture, which is to say in the digital age, I’m curious about what happens to the Bible, publishing’s crown jewel. As Robert Pogue Harrison writes in a 2012 New York Review of Books multi-book review on the King James’s 400th anniversary, that book "is rapidly becoming terra incognita. Whether in the King James Version or in new versions, the Bible is neither read, nor read aloud, nor memorized to anywhere near the extent it was when Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson extolled the KJB as America’s 'national book' a century ago."

If it’s true that the digital era is iconoclastic, muting the sacredness of religion-spawning texts, then can we still say that this “holiest” of Western books is still “holy?” By “holy,” I mean first that the Bible is supposedly decreed by God and so inerrant; and second that its long veneration as a literary masterpiece has earned it unimpeachable value. Both of these lend it an aerie all its own. The “divinely inspired” Christian canonical book, Old testaments and New, codified in Greek in the late 4th century, translated into Latin in the 5th century and English in the 17th, sells some 25 million copies each year. Would Christianity be possible without the Bible?

I’m unable to drop the quotes around “holy” since I think the idea of this particular book, a thought that extends to other revered documents like the Quran, the Vedas, and the Torah, contains a paradox: its assertion as the infallible, inalterable laws and teachings of God exists in cultures whose kings and republics have declared moral claims beyond, and in disagreement with, the Bible. In the West, neither states nor religions govern by the Bible anymore. And yet a majority of Christians still avow that the Bible’s laws apply to all human conduct—or should. After centuries of unremitting proselytization, both oral and written, the Bible continues to spread its influence across literature, government, politics, and education. That spread has made it the most sociable text in our language, in ways other books and their claims to truth only wish they could appropriate.

The Old English poem Beowulf, for example, is a mighty tale; it is heroic, fiercely dramatic, mythic, first oral, then written (its finest hair-raising translation is by Seamus Heaney). But, unlike the Bible, Beowulf has not been copied, preached, interpreted, and sung via synods of revisers and popularizers over the past 1500 years. The Bible has always been spoken from pulpit and pew, in church basements and in Congress. It is spoken of and for vastly more than its printed self is read in silence. (As of 1850 only ten percent of the world could read, and during the era of the Bible’s development it was a tenth of that.) The Bible is spoken, hence: The greatest story ever told. It is, therefore, “true” because people speak it on—tributaries to a continent-crossing river.

In a sense, this is the definition of a “holy book.” A book whose claims and identity are recast and testified to as true and false by every generation—the greatest story ever told and sold—for two-and-a-half millennia. As such, those who debate or believe or deny its origins participate in, indeed drive, its collective prevalence, what we might call its social authorship.

The written Bible carries its oral tradition in its musicality. As Charles McGrath writes in the New York Times Book Review, even though the King James Bible of 1611 is “deliberately archaic” in its “grammar and phraseology,” preachers have trumpeted its dactylic prose: “God giveth and taketh away.” Its invitingly musical style features periodic and parallel phrasing, dramatic parables, metaphoric grandeur, the pith of the Anglo-Saxon tongue, its aphorisms, its cadences, its “begots”—chant-like on the ear and memorable to the mind, for readers and listeners alike. Even God gets “lines.”

All that arose from speakers and comes out of speakers still. Think about where the Bible’s been aurally. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion: Christ’s story, with choir and orchestra and soloists, in the reverberating space of a medieval church, sung. Bible-based testimony, in an African-American church, with organ, tambourines, clap-happy bodies swaying, sung. Biblical allegories from a Pentecostal minister in a pulpit-rocking country church or Joel Osteen in an arena before ten thousand of the pious, hearing his sentimentalizing self-help intoned. And so on. Whoever created the Bible, the intent was a written twin that back-strapped its oral antecedent and reproduced that pairing ad infinitum so that both could live on, stronger for the bond.

Texts are venerated not only when they are spoken but also when they are handled. Ask the Gideons International, still placing Bibles, some 1.8 billion over the last hundred years, in the hands of soldiers and college students and the drawers of American motels. Scripture spreads by hand as well as by ear, especially objects of felt intimacy: dog-eared, pawed, thumbed, indexed, gilt-edged, leather-bound, copied, carried, consulted, recited, pulpit-pounded, buried with, sworn an oath over, backpacked on D-Day, the Good Book, so help me God.

So how’s the Bible doing in our device-ridden time? It seems that if it’s seldom read, and not being handled as a book, it’s less likely to be believed. Which is one message of literary critics and outspoken atheists. It may be part of the drying up of deep reading and scholarship, of college majors in religious studies and the humanities. People need to train for good-paying jobs; they have no time to engage books, even “holy” ones. And yet the millennial purveyors of the Bible seem not to lament this loss. They simply recast their message, as they’ve always done. For a century, from Cecil B. DeMille and the Jeffrey-Hunter Jesus, to Martin Scorsese and Mel Gibson movies, to the VHS tape and the CD-ROM, the Bible’s multimedia reach has exploded, re-tribalizing itself in multifarious electronic forms.

The leap from Holy Book to Holy Multimedia has already been made. The 1979 “Jesus” film, produced by Warner Brothers, has been translated into 1000 languages; it’s exported primarily to people who cannot read and write. Mark Burnett’s 2013 ten-part miniseries, The Bible, won this year’s largest TV audience: 100 million views. There are a dizzying number of Bible apps. Among the most popular is YouVersion, for cellphone readers, which in July reached 100 million downloads. The company that produced it,, describes its products as “digital missions.” The app’s church services and worship videos are easily accessed as well. CDs of the Bible are far easier than books to get into countries (read Muslim theocracies) where Bibles are not allowed. Let’s not forget marketing to children—the most abundant font of unclaimed souls—with The Super Heroes Bible, ages six to nine, which alleges its characters “are not make-believe. These super heroes really lived.”

One audio Bible producer is Faith Comes By Hearing. The company’s website reads, “Jesus taught with stories, parables, and dialogue. Then, as now, most people in the world communicated orally, processing and remembering information only when it’s clothed in narratives, poems, songs, and similar formats. Modern research confirms that people who don’t read or write well (or at all) learn the way Jesus taught.” What’s more

The 43 percent of adult Americans who test at or below basic literacy levels are clearly oral communicators. Surprisingly, so are increasing numbers of readers who would simply rather not use a literate communication style. These ‘secondary oral learners’ prefer instead to receive information through film, TV, and other electronic media. The bottom line: neither group will learn the life-giving truths of the Bible by reading it.

I realize this is PR flap but these claims—readers who would simply rather not use a literate communication style and neither group will learn…by reading—feel ominous. They are asserting, rightly so, that the preferred mode of learning is moving from literate standards to “oral communication.” This may pander to an a-literate religious base: people who can read but don’t. A cynic might conclude that oral/visual learners are more susceptible to being swindled (or saved) than literate learners. But it hardly matters. Those who create and adapt Biblical fare for mass audiences, now in thrall to the megapolies in entertainment, media, and publishing, are uninterested in literacy and its putative civilizing benefits.

Can the Bible, in its new multimedia forms, still feel sacred? Do religions need sacred texts to underpin their truth claims? What happens when the Bible is another app, another PowerPoint presentation, another Showtime movie, with Brad Pitt as the Man of Galilee? Doesn’t digitization erode the slowly burnished patina from the sacred object?

Before answering, let me back up to disputes about the Bible’s origin. Some say God wrote it; some say Moses dictated the first five books; some say it was Jesus’ apostles, and later Paul, who were its author-editors; some say those who issued the Nicene Creed (381 CE) cherry-picked conflicting sources to cement an orthodoxy as “the Scriptures” as well as, diabolically, narrow women’s roles in the church. Such disputes have been the Bible’s greatest asset. Why? If the Bible’s authorship evolves over centuries, is pinned on God as much as humankind, and remains subject to verification by archaeologists (see the challenge the Dead Sea Scrolls made to the Hebrew Bible’s canon), then more people are continually involved in its construction, and the book’s mystery never dies.

And yet, if the book as book fades, and the telling remains, will it remain “holy?” I’m not sure. We don’t know what’s happening to books and their aura. Walter Benjamin famously observed how the aura of original art loses its authenticity in the age of “technological reproducibility.” Still, incessant copying and re-posting revivify the object via whatever technology renews that aura. It’s the range of copying that proves worth. The film industry, for example, invented its mass audience and has never stopped feeding it—producing not only the films themselves, but also a narcissistic focus on star-worship, “true life” stories, teenagers in peril, the hero’s journey, and Armageddon rerouted by Bruce Willis, not to mention the new contexts (drive-in, TV, cable, Internet, cellphone) in which the industry expands its spectrum of access every decade. As a result, film is not unlike messianic religions. Its business model must convert new audiences. By contrast, the book, under hardcover, wants to remain hallowed in its cloister.

This transfer of the Bible from text to multimedia (print back to oral) may bring it even greater fame. The more living exchange a text inspires, the more authority, or “holiness,” it garners, generation after generation. Thus, it’s better—for the text’s claim and for the number of subscribers—to assign the Bible multiple or disputed authors, to force disciples to swear fealty to its moral injunctions, to insist on its transliterate incarnations, and to print, preach, sing, tweet, text, and app the message.

Leave the Maker out of it. You are the Bible: you, its maker, you, an iron link in its chain. The Bible is supposed to be mysteriously transcendent; it’s supposed to be dubiously inerrant, it’s supposed to be a miraculous enjoining of fact and fiction, then, as now—and the Bible is supposed to appeal to everyone. Or else it’s failed. That’s its logic.

Amiri Baraka once said, “Words have users but, more important, users have words.” Evangelical Christianity seeks—has always sought—to use any means at hand to hail and sell its product. Evangelicals have used social media for centuries—if by social media we mean the technological tools of a culture that ring the young around a fire to hear a theocratic worldview. The read-aloud text of the Bible is the foot in the door. Listen to others intone it and you’ll hear the truth. Internalizing it does little. The Bible is a book that has to be shared to be believed. That sharing occurs in the spoken realm—where authors are socialized—a realm acoustic, dramatic, non-reflective, in the moment. (A lot like television.) Any text that will remain true requires social authors—proselytizing showmen, unembarrassed testifiers, indefatigable repeaters, digitizing replicants.


Marshall McLuhan, in his 1962 book, The Gutenberg Galaxy, explored how electronic media, especially television (a prototype of the computer), would push literature away from the linearity of print and return it to spoken and interactive forms. His famous line—“We shape the tools and the tools, in turn, shape us”—noted that any language is dependent on the medium of its expression, a medium that, invariably, the message must adapt to. In the age of digital authorship, this reads like a prophecy.

The work of the writer, published and engaged, is morphing from a self-conscious, learned, literary style to one performative, shared, everyday, heard, and instant—the speaker the equivalent of the writer. What I will examine, in this series of essays, is who and what is lifting writing off the page and making it auditory and multimedial, where this out-loud movement originated, how its performative character is developing, and to what end.

Technology is transforming the writer into an author—that is, the private persona of the print-based writer is being overtaken by the public persona of the multimedia author. To be heard in the news din of our culture (internet and cable TV), writers add audio, video, and, if possible, a TV presence to their kit bags. They target niches of the public and cultivate venues where they might speak their work aloud. Nowadays, writers search for stages where their voices can first be heard so they can then link audiences to their writing.

Pushing the writer to be “out” with his work are the readers—active, immediate participants in, and sometimes co-creators of, an author’s material. Writing is expanding to include broadcasting the writer’s speaking voice or using video to enhance his text, while reading is expanding to include hearing that voice or seeing text counterpointed by images and hyperlinks. Increasingly, readers are presented with the writer’s physical being, accompanying her page-bound words with the author’s sensory actuality.

The trailer opens up her honest, revealing nature—certainly one reason the memoir form continues to draw a crowd—and a sort of Elizabeth-Gilbert friendship, we hope, ensues.

Here’s an example: the book trailer for Dani Shapiro’s memoir, Devotion. It’s a classic soft sell in which we see pastoral images, hear New Age music, and feel the author’s self-presentation. Shapiro is sharing herself with us, making eye contact, projecting the persona of the thoughtful writer. (I’m not suggesting she’s faking it; on the contrary, the relational hominess is the point.) The goal, I think, is to warm her place beside the communal campfire, so we feel invited to cozy up with her book’s emotion.

With this self-offering, Shapiro hopes to involve herself in the reader’s experience in a new way. To experience her, prior to reading the text, is to smooth the way for what may be a distressing or painful endeavor. In addition, the author’s sociability is heightened. The trailer opens up her honest, revealing nature—certainly one reason the memoir form continues to draw a crowd—and a sort of Elizabeth-Gilbert friendship, we hope, ensues.

In book trailers, some writers are oilier, others softer, still others more mysterious than Shapiro. Most employ this video-audio presence to induce potential readers. A few may even do so as an antidote to the text. If an author’s style is “too” literary, academic, or experimental, making the writer likable may thwart her work’s stuffiness or difficulty so that its demand on a reader’s emotion and time becomes easier for that reader to bear.

Alongside book trailers are other spoken-text media—video book reviews, lectures and readings as podcasts, and the living author, like Dan Brown, who gets to discuss his new novel for twelve minutes on Charlie Rose. Many authors can articulately discuss their books; but those other photogenic qualities—youth, vitality, good looks—that accompany the media spotlight are often as important, in our celebrity culture, as the writing’s immersive appeal.

The personal text or tweet assumes a response, seeks to converse, initiates debate or dissent. Text and tweet initiate responses, which, for the medium to work, must talk back.

There’s something about the author’s actual presence that makes him authentic to readers, and more readable because of it. I think of my attraction to Sam Harris in 2005. His Book-TV lectures on atheism, featuring his distrust of Muslim fundamentalism, brought a huge audience, myself included, to his book, The End of Faith. I wanted to read him because I first heard him speak. It was the passionate evenness of his voice that led Americans, skittish about being overtly anti-religious, to access his message. His reasoning voice encouraged others to write, to speak out, and to read him.

Even texting, which seems quiet and internal, the reverse of public speaking, is closer to (or a simple recording of) written speech than it is to writing. It’s almost dialogic speech: the personal text or tweet assumes a response, seeks to converse, initiates debate or dissent. Text and tweet initiate responses, which, for the medium to work, must talk back.

Whether we engage in this dialogue or not, much of digital culture is already charged with the unique spokenness of an “I” who is telling a story, reporting, confessing. News, documentaries, video blogs, poem-image-music collaborations, podcasts, and much short fiction and nonfiction emphasize the delivery of the “I,” the voice of the speaker. Christopher Hitchens’s syntactic command with improvised speech pulled us in. We expected its provocation and wit, which his writing possessed but his speech seemed to risk far more often.

Multimedial books, for example, those created by Vook, build off of the author’s voice. The audible book is no longer an adjunct to printed texts, but rather a new beast of its own. Audible books—read by authors or actors—engage a busy public of subway riders and bicyclists who live in earbud space. Text read aloud captured the attention of the editors of The New York Times Book Review: in May the Review devoted much of one issue to critiquing audiobooks as performance, books that had already demonstrated, via prior reviews, high quality as prose.

I note the popularity of Byliner and Atavist where short and long literary works, fiction and nonfiction, are available as audio, text, and more. Each piece avails itself of a garden of technological options, as the illustration below shows.

The Atavist has many more ways than Kindle or Nook for consumers to interact with a story: read, listen, musically adorn, hyperlink, comment, resize, share, review, etc. What’s the point? In part, it’s to displace the notion that there’s only one way, reading, to imbibe a text. When text rattles this many bells and whistles, it becomes as multiple and distractible as we are. The presentation of the writing begins to resemble our various personas, which shift and adapt depending on with whom and how we’re communicating.

I have toggled back and forth from audio to text and to other modes with several Atavist pieces. I find this performative side of the literary equation, which the device offers and whose buttons I press, is doing a number on the writing side.

Though stand-alone works of long-form journalism, nonfiction, and fiction are still being published, these pieces have grown shorter than their predecessors, in the ten-thousand-word range. This shrinkage displaces some text for the spatial and sound enhancement of photos, audio, and video. Last year, at the San Diego Reader, where I’ve been a staff writer for 14 years, we got the editor’s memo telling us to beef up our stories with audio-taped interviews, photographs, and voice-over video—without upping our pay. (I note the Chicago Sun-Times has just laid off its entire photographic department; they’re asking reporters and the occasional freelance photographer to take the pictures.)

There are a couple of ways to think about these changes. Is writing becoming an adjunct to the creation of products begun in and emphasized by other media? Is writing integrating its voice with other media to accentuate and redefine the purely textual?

At random, I found online The Five Love Languages: book, e-book, audio, DVD, free study guide, and mobile app. The author, Dr. Gary Chapman, a Christian, offers the product on an all-things-to-all-consumers website. One dropdown menu says, “Interact”—blog, podcast, videos, stories, links. Why the multiplicity? My sense is that he and his production team designed a lifestyle worthy of electronic proselytizing—and the book is just one part of that sell. If you want to read about these “love languages” in-depth, here’s the book. But these other tacks are just as valid. (As of late August, 2013, Chapman’s book is number one on The New York Times “Advice, How-To and Miscellaneous” print bestseller list.)

The writer must lean in to an audience whose communication devices are either already set or quickly expanding. The writing must adapt because in digital storytelling scenic writing can be videoed and sounds can be sounded.

This broadening of text and voice and image is indicative of the social author (who works in any media) who is encouraging social reading (by any social media available) with an audience (ears as wide as eyes) who may be interested in the author’s writing, but is probably more drawn to the multi-channels of the author’s delivery.

It’s not that the writer writes less—or less passionately. It’s that the writer must lean in to an audience whose communication devices are either already set or quickly expanding. The writing must adapt because in digital storytelling scenic writing can be videoed and sounds can be sounded. We now expect the writer/producer to include such admixtures.

I watched the recent HBO film, Behind the Candelabra, about the embattled love affair between Liberace and Scott Thorson. Such a biopic dramatizes the summarizing voice of the biographer, and a TV series, like House of Cards, challenges the singular voice of the novelist. Both are spectacularly economic narratives. In Candelabra, I marveled at the filmic use of the actual cars, costumes, homes, and jewelry of the real Liberace, which, in turn, carries the description for the screenwriter and for the audience. And does it instantly.

What has this done to the novelist’s placing of a character into a descriptive milieu, of having her interact with that milieu for the sake of verisimilitude? It’s unsettled the visual authority of the writer and driven the author inward.

I don’t mean that a writer can’t elaborate details of place and era; of course, she can. But because of the all-at-onceness of film, the capacity to move and detail objects, the author seldom feels the need for such depiction. The fact that rival forms today accomplish what narrative writers once had to do—the arduous job of scene-painting and context-creation, erecting such epic stages as Sister Carrie’s Chicago or the Joads’ trek from Oklahoma to California—is pushing them to plumb other wells of literary art: the inner world, the meditative, the analytical, the linguistic. And the collage. Each of which is scenically and sensorially magnified with video and image.

E.L. Doctorow once said that “the whole enterprise of literature is writing in silence and reading in silence.” While many writers still work this way, others use audio and video to highlight the inner, the meditative, the analytic elements to which writing is uniquely prone.

Kristen Radtke is an intriguing—and young—video essayist. In “That Kind of Daughter,” she reads a fragmentary prose poem, in three parts, while the video slowly assembles recognizable images, in herky-jerky silhouette, the whole taking six minutes. She builds her images by constant addition or subtraction—fingers one by one form a hand on which a bird appears and is held and then disassembles.

The options for expression technology also expand the idea of authorship. The new author can choose to socialize his ideas and voice with technology as well as with new venues and new audiences.

Watching and listening, I experience the spoken words and the erected images in counterpoint. Words and images merge and resist merging, the ensuing structure a kind of “visual voice.” On occasion, text and video fuse and harmonize. But it’s never simple. The spoken words push the visual puzzle into known images that do and do not illustrate the text. Once those images suggest a meaning for the words, they begin to dissolve. Radtke achieves a kind of levitating effect: the video defers to and buoys the voice, the unchanging tone of which, in turn, keeps the jittery images anchored.

The writer is quickly being socialized by technology, forced out of Doctorow’s cloister and into the mediated arena where silence is not allowed. Writers are fashioning new forms from the easy availability of companionable technologies. Ten years ago, the novelist or the nonfictionist had no access to such interplay: the door to imagining collaborative possibilities for new pieces had neither been built nor unlocked. Suddenly, such teaming-up makes the writer as enhanceable as the writing is. The options for expression technology also expand the idea of authorship. The new author can choose to socialize his ideas and voice with technology as well as with new venues and new audiences.

It’s important to remember that I am not implying the abolition of print-exclusive prose, literary fiction, creative nonfiction, or poetry. What I am suggesting is that the vast sea writing has filled for five centuries is, with our eyes and ears, swelling anew, becoming multimedial and multidimensional—its practitioners, in a word, transliterate. The writer better find his oars, for his dinghy is small, and the waves are splashing over the gunnels.