[Ed. note: The original version of this review was posted on November 19, 2005 at The Review Revolution.]
In my day job, I see just about every religion book that’s published. I have come to believe that these fall into four basic categories:
- Truly excellent, unique, memorably written books that make the reader look at the world in a wholly new way. The type 1 book is exceedingly rare. Every author thinks he or she has written one, but almost no one ever does. I’d put the stat at about one to two percent of the books that I see.
- Basically worthy books that fall into an established, recognizable genre or category but add one or two new insights to that category. This is about a quarter of the books that cross my desk. I’m always happy to see them.
- Derivative, commonplace, ordinary books about perennially overpublished topics. This category constitutes the vast majority of books that are published—more than seventy percent. Most of these books are a sad, sad waste of trees.
- Books for Which We Will Answer at the Dreadful Seat of Judgment. Like Type 1 books, Type 4 books are extremely rare – less than one percent, I’m guessing. But they are very special. These are books that are so pernicious that their authors, publishers, and readers may actually have to account for them at the pearly gates.
And, glory be, I think I’ve found one!
So please go out to your local bookstore to gawk at Becoming and Align, the two newest installments in Thomas Nelson’s BibleZine line. Don’t actually buy the Zines, or the publisher may continue to jeopardize its employees’ eternal salvation by making more. Some very kind and wonderful people work at Thomas Nelson, and we should be thinking of them. These good folks are basically at the mercy of you, the fickle book consumer. Their eternal fate rests on you having better taste than past sales might suggest.
So, what are Becoming and Align? At first glance, they are intended to look exactly like magazines—they have beautiful models, catchy and utterly self-involved headlines, and glossy pages. In fact, the half-star I’ve awarded to these Zines is because of their terrific design and layout. They are wonderful to look at.
But, um, the catch is that this is the Bible you’re lusting over. These magazines harvest parts of holy scripture (cause no one thinks you’re up for reading the whole enchilada) and mix them up with the most unabashedly self-absorbed aspects of popular culture. So the top headline of Align, the men’s BibleZine New Testament, screeches “Sexcess: Success with the Opposite Sex!” If you read the fine print, of course, the Zine does concede that “sexcess” consists of waiting until marriage. But it’s sure a long and titillating journey to get to that admission, and along the way we have to pass through sidebars on how men can improve their sex lives by bringing their wives presents and letting them take bubble baths while Dad puts the kids to bed. Now, I’ve no argument with either of those things—men can knock themselves out, as far as I’m concerned. But this chores-for-sex exchange relates to the New Testament how, exactly?
Some of the BibleZines’ sidebars are so unrelated to, or even contradictory of, their accompanying biblical content as to be almost funny. Thus we see a layout with sidebars on how men can use Quicken to better manage their finances and how they can attract women by adopting a pet sitting right alongside Paul’s words to the church at Thessalonica:
When we speak, we are not trying to please people, but God, who tests our hearts. You know that we never tried to influence you by saying nice things about you. We were not trying to get your money; we had no selfishness to hide from you. . . We were not looking for human praise, from you or anyone else . . . . (1 Thess 2:4-6; NCV)
This dichotomy points to the larger problem with these BibleZines: they are all about conforming to, and succeeding in, the culture in which we find ourselves. The fact that it is a broken, materialistic, sex-crazed, celebrity-obsessed land ridden with Affluenza does not seem to matter. The Bible can help us be more of everything this world values: more attractive, more successful, more prosperous. So what if these values contradict much of what the New Testament actually says?
The biblical print is literally “fine print”—you have to strain your eyes to read it, and it appears as stark, traditional black text on white background. When you contrast that to the dizzying array of colors, fonts, and graphics that are used to enhance the sidebars, you really begin to wonder which text the editors consider more important. The Bible here is used as the don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it background to the more exciting and “culturally relevant” material of the juicy sidebars.
The women’s Zines are as bad as the men’s, or possibly worse. Because while the men’s advice at least grants men the agency to pursue their success-driven agenda, women’s concerns seem, apparently, to revolve around being considered pretty and well-liked by others. There are fitness tips in the men’s magazine, but the women’s materials (on the NT and also the wisdom lit of the OT) are practically obsessed with looking good. There are sidebars on lipstick, teeth whitening (ludicrously tied to the verse from Ecclesiastes about there being a time for silence—would that such advice had been heeded), hair styles, and hiding skin blemishes. The editors include the “fun fact” that more than 8.7 million people had cosmetic surgery in 2003, up a third from the previous year. Another fun fact reminds us that 80% of women are dissatisfied with their appearance. With Bibles like these, it's little wonder.
The women’s Zines come with quizzes (“are you overcommitted? Are you a savvy shopper? Is he a player?”), while the men have apparently been spared such glib self-reflection. Basically, the women’s advice centers around beauty and relationships, including etiquette tips for pleasing others (being a good hostess, writing a lovely thank-you note), while the men’s advice is geared toward career success, financial prosperity, changing the world, overcoming sexual temptation, and weighing the pros and cons of various nifty gadgets. (The “Tech Support” sidebar on home networking, I kid you not, comes smack dab in the middle of Luke’s passion story. Jesus is hanging on a friggin’ cross, and we’re marveling at “inexpensive wireless routers” that can connect all our computers to the same hub. Thank you, Jesus!)
All of the Zines come with a monthly calendar, Martha Stewart style. In addition to happy little recommendations about nice things we can do to improve ourselves still further, like lifting weights and eating a salad with dinner, we’re encouraged to pray often . . . for celebrities. I know you’ll feel your day isn’t complete today unless you pray for Meg Ryan, because apparently this is her birthday. And here’s what you can get for the actress who has everything: the BibleZines include loads of recommendations for books that are supposed to help readers in their Christian journey. And . . .gee! They all, by coincidence, happen to be other Thomas Nelson products!
So, while you’re out there today, walking your Christian walk, praying for Meg, enjoying wireless interconnectivity, covering your facial blemishes, and contemplating how plastic surgery might make you a better ambassador for Christ, be sure to thank the Lord for BibleZines. Suggested marketing tagline: You don’t have to change the culture; just let the culture change you.