Roasting Tin Lads

Ryan MacEachern/Penguin

We are living in a time of unlikely headlines. But one that stood out recently was that there has been a sharp rise in the online sales of Bibles during the coronavirus pandemic. Across the world, people have been turning to ‘The Good Book’ in noticeably larger numbers, with increases in the UK and more copies than usual selling in Ireland and the USA.

Furthermore, there was a global increase in downloads of the Bible app and in March, across Google Play and App Store, the most popular English-language Bible was installed on smartphones more than two million times – the highest number ever for that month. In April, British online Christian bookstore Eden saw physical sales rise by 55 percent.

There are many possible explanations. Perhaps the Bible is another of those books we always meant to make time to read, like War and Peace or Proust, and now we have that time. Perhaps for some it works as a kind of talisman, as it has done since antiquity. The content matters less than the physical presence of a holy object, which can help to keep us safe – like a St Christopher necklace for some drivers. Perhaps, as the Nielsen comments suggested, some people may want to check whether the virus is predicted in the book of Revelation. 

This last possibility reminds us that you can generally find in the Bible whatever you are looking for. The Bible is protean, shape-shifting according to our demands. In crises there is a tendency to go back to such a venerable source of illumination and look for whatever will meet one’s needs. We saw the same thing after the attacks of 9 September 2001, when there was also a spike in Bible sales.

But the essence of good Bible-reading – as of reading any other book – is not to ‘know’ in advance what it will contain, and to be able to be surprised. The surprises can be unpleasant. Plague and pestilence are often interpreted in the Bible as punishment for national sin, and there are plenty of conservative Christians today who continue to affirm that. But overall the biblical message is one of challenge rather than of threat. Often it is also one of comfort in the long run. The comfort, when it does appear, is not facile. To Jewish exiles in Mesopotamia in the sixth century BC, the words of the book of Isaiah came as a shock precisely because they promised a better future against all reasonable expectations, a future that materialised when a small group of them returned to the Promised Land.  

For Christian readers the New Testament also offers hope, in its affirmation that Jesus of Nazareth has risen from the dead and has ‘gone to prepare a place for us’, as St John‘s Gospel puts it (John 14:2). This does not promise freedom from death in this world, and certainly not preferential treatment for believers in crises, but reassurance about the long term. My guess is that it is because of passages such as this that so many people turn to the Bible when times are as bad as they are at present.

Anyone who has recently bought a Bible, from whatever motive, may be perplexed about how to read it. A word to the wise: Don’t try to start at Genesis 1 and read on through, because you will give up in mid-Exodus. If your background is Christian, start with the New Testament, and go to the very earliest books in the New Testament, which are not the Gospels but the letters of St Paul. First Thessalonians and Galatians are the earliest Christian writings in existence, written in the 50s AD, just a couple of decades after Jesus’ crucifixion. From them we get a vivid picture of how Christians regarded the current state of the world, a place of suffering but also of hope. (We also get a clear impression of how argumentative Christians already were, just as bad then as they are now.) After looking also at 1 Corinthians, a slightly later letter focused on resurrection, it is time to read the Gospels, starting with Mark, almost certainly the first to be published, from the 70s AD.

The Old Testament offers hopes of divine support for weary human beings in its historical narratives and in some of the prophets and Psalms. But anyone sceptical of easy comfort will find support in Ecclesiastes, for which the ‘meaning of life’ is a largely blank sheet.  The Bible does not necessarily tell us what we want to hear unless we force it to, but it does tell us things we cannot so easily tell ourselves, if we listen to it with open ears. 

As someone who studies the Bible professionally I am naturally pleased that sales are up. But I also hope that new buyers will read it in a spirit of enquiry, not assuming that they already know what it contains. It is a huge, baggy compendium of many books, not a single self-consistent whole: the printed format misleads. The Greek word biblia is in origin a plural, ‘books’. Buying a Bible is like buying a complete Shakespeare, a collection even though it looks like a single volume. This is indeed a good time to read it, book by book, and to enjoy its immense and unexpected variety.

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