19 January 2010


How many copies do you need?

Similar to the common statistics on the number of TVs in the average American home or the number of guns, it's rather remarkable to me that there are almost 4 Bibles in an average home. For full disclosure, even though it's obvious that I have no religious or spiritual uses, I have one copy. I also have an English translation of the Qur'an, Tao te Ching, I Ching, and various Confucian texts. My taste in literature is usually a lot higher of a standard but these books tend to influence a lot of minds in often surprising and complex ways so they're sort of important to have laying around, almost like people used to have encyclopaedias in the days before google.

So what is fascinating to me isn't that people would have a copy of the Bible. It's that they would have more than one. I think the only book I have more than one copy of is the Art of War (the second copy has the original Chinese and accompanying commentaries). I could see a couple who each had a copy in their private pre-marital days having two copies. Not sure what the point is beyond that. You don't need one for every child who is produced. Just give them yours as a parent.

While it probably seems odd to a Christian, the commercialization of the Bible itself into these often heavily niche mutations (thus explaining the vast quantity of versions available on average) doesn't strike me as particular odd. Organized religion is nothing if not a heavily corporatist venture with a tax exemption. The trouble with it isn't that it tries to get more people involved; it's that it tries to get more people involved. It becomes harder to cohere around a central philosophy and you get people running around saying that Jesus' message was one of free-market capitalism to which I say, what Biblical parables are you reading? Adam Smith's? It's indeed a book heavy on economic tidbits and stories involving money and property, but so is Das Kapital. I'm pretty sure nobody gets confused when they read Marxist works that it's pushing a very particular worldview from the start, just as the Bible does.

I think the basic problem free-market evangelicals are having is that there's a crossing between living within worldly views and accumulating possessions and comforts (something which I have no problem with, given my outlook on any hope of an afterlife), and the essential message of how to minister to the suffering of the poor and downtrodden (that is, to administer love and compassion to people who need it more than you do, which is basically everyone). I don't see any inconsistency that somehow a market economy collapses when people actually take an effort to care about each other. The inconsistency is in claiming that market incentives are being distorted by observing the condition of poverty and administering some attempts to alleviate it. These are still human beings deserving of compassion and dignity. There are ways to help them. I'm pretty sure many of them are detailed in the Bible and elsewhere (for example Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments and other Enlightment era writings had very impassioned pleas on how the condition of others can be studied and aided, and how very often human beings mistake the size and extended generosity of their compassion for something rather unrelated, in fact the opposite: hatred and even the infliction of more suffering.)

With all the hokey mutations, it's a lot harder now to tell what exactly people are reading as a gospel from which to base their assumptions on the nature and condition of mankind (from the spiritual perspectives provided alongside other more common sense wisdom). But on the plus side, it's a lot easier to describe to people how markets actually work. Even though they seem to be getting that knowledge in a heavily structured and woefully incomplete way: by observing the vast diversification of religious distribution of scripture to fill precise demands (in this case, scripture which validates "my" choices and lifestyle as having Biblical ordained roots) on the part of the public as opposed to the demands of organised religion itself to impose a singular and particular view, however good or ill that view may be, upon its followers.
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