Bibles for Reading, or Reference?
I already mentioned the thirty-day test drive on the Literary Study Bible, but Michael Spencer of Internet Monk fame has posted a review, “Ten Reasons to Love the ESV Literary Study Bible,” that’s worth checking out. He highlights the format’s value in the classroom, where he wants to instill in students a big-picture understanding of Scripture, rather than the traditional microscope scrutiny of verses and phrases in isolation. Which prompts the question, how is the Bible meant to be read?
If I had to boil down my perspective on Bible design, I could distill it into one statement: The Bible is for reading, not a reference work. On the inside, the Bibles I grew up with looked like nineteenth century reference books: crusy old fonts, crowded double columns, an alphabet of symbols hovering over every line. Verses were set off one to a line, difficult words divided up syllabically with pronunciation guides. While the importance of reading the Bible was stressed, in everyday use I was more likely to see people grab a Bible to “look something up.” The sorts of Scripture knowledge we valued involved being able to recite verses from memory or having a command of obscure trivia. The “Master Story Line” Spencer mentions in his review wasn’t much in evidence.
People sometimes dismiss design as frivolous, and I can see where a blog like this one could be seen as an emphasis on the superficial. Who cares what the Bible looks like, so long as it’s read? But that’s the thing. Design has an impact on use, though we aren’t often conscious of it. A Bible that looks like a dictionary or a phone book is going to end up being used that way. If we really want to encourage the reading of Scripture, then our design choices should reflect that fact. Otherwise, it sounds like so much rhetoric, without any real intention behind it.
I’m not calling for the abolishment of the reference-style formats, the disappearance of chapter and verse markers, a law against double-column settings. All of these things serve useful purposes. But I do think it’s worthwhile to reserve them for their proper place, and to make sure that they don’t get in the way of simple, straightforward reading. Based on what I’ve seen so far, the Literary Study Bible makes appropriate choices to facilitate this, and I’m always encouraged to see something “outside the box” make it to the shelves.