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The Case Against Reference Bibles

Posted By Worldview Academy on May 1, 2015

What is a hammer for?

Imagine you’d never seen one before, and had no clue there was such a thing as nails?

Could you, just by holding the hammer in your hand, discern its function?


Some tools make their purpose obvious by their very design, as I learned after hours in a London museum when the curator placed an eighth century Viking sword into my white-gloved hand. The heft and balance of the twelve-hundred year old tool made its function ominously clear: this sword was made to chop people apart.

This sword was made to chop people apart.

What does all this have to do with reference Bibles? Bear with me.

If form follows function as the cherished maxim of modern design insists, then it ought to be possible by studying the form of an object to discern its intended function. The form is, so to speak, an expression of its function. The thing is trying to tell us what it is, and how to use it.

Bruno Munari in his influential little book Design as Art draws a distinction between design and mere style. Whereas a designer conceives an object from the ground up with its purpose in mind, a stylist simply embellishes the object in a way that reflects the spirit of the age. He illustrates the point by imagining a road sign from the reign of Louis XIV, the infamous Sun King who built Versailles. The sign warning of a treacherous double bend in the road ahead is framed with a neo-classical pediment topped with a pair of cherubs. The point is clear: the decorative flourishes detract from the object’s effectiveness. Actual road signs embody the ethic of good design by eliminating everything that does not contribute to the goal.

One last tangent: In David Macaulay’s brilliant illustrated satire Motel of the Mysteries, the idea that we can easily infer function by studying form is skewered by having future archaeologists dig up a twentieth-century motel and ascribe all sorts of ludicrous uses to the objects discovered inside. The motel room becomes a temple, the television a high altar dedicated to the god Zenith. The real-life archaeologist who discovered Mycenae and Troy, Heinrich Schliemann, took a famous photograph of his wife wearing ancient jewels from Hisarlik. Macaulay recreates the portrait with a model wearing a toilet lid around her neck and toothbrushes dangling from her ears, the banner across her forehead reading: Sanitized for your protection. The point is, if the imaginary archaeologists get our own time so wrong, how much trust can we put in our interpretation of the past?

Reference Bibles have influenced the way we read Scripture, the way we think about it . . .

Books are design objects whose appearance varies based on their intended use. Some books are meant to be read front to back. Others we dip into here and there depending on what we’re looking for. A book meant for reading looks different than a book intended for reference. Compare a novel to an encyclopedia or dictionary and you’ll see what I mean. The way the book is designed tells you how it’s meant to be used. Where the novel’s design tends to defer to the text, offering it up to the reader without interference, a reference work divides the content, numbers and annotates it, in some cases even rearranging it to serve the needs of the scholar more effectively.

Since the dawn of printing presses, most Bibles have been designed as reference books. The text was divided early into verses, the verses numbered and set apart by beginning each new one on a line of its own. To allow smaller type to be legible, Scripture was set in two columns, with additional columns of reference to the side. Headings were added along with superscript references pointing the reader to textual variants and similar passages in other sections. Notes explaining the meaning of the text quickly followed. By the time the printed reference Bible reached its apogee in the early twentieth century, the words of Christ (at least in America) were being printed in red ink and difficult names were being spelled out phonetically. These Bibles are great for looking things up, great for verse-by-verse study. But the better they served the function of reference, the harder they became to read.

If we want people to read the Bible, we need to give them Bibles designed to be read.

Let’s not overstate the case. The Reference Bible doesn’t render Scripture as inscrutable as the objects in Macaulay’s Motel. A determined reader can hack through a Reference Bible with relative ease, especially if she’s used to having to ignore all the little intrusions that detract from an immersive, deep reading experience. I have been writing about the design of Bibles for nearly a decade at Bible Design Blog, and I’ve had many people who grew up with old-fashioned reference editions assure me that they are able to read them just fine.

The problem is, we’re not always conscious of the ways in which design choices influence our behavior.

Reference Bibles have influenced the way we read Scripture, the way we think about it, and the way we preach and teach it, often with such subtlety that we’re unaware of the impact design choices are having on our experience of the text. Because we now think of the Bible as being written in verses rather than sentences and paragraphs, we tend to read as if through a microscope—zoomed in, but lacking breadth. Instead of following the argument made in a Pauline epistle, cross references make it easier to jump from letter to letter comparing verses with similar themes. Sustained reading—getting lost in a good book—is harder thanks to the many distractions on the page.

A Mind Awake
Check out Jana Gering’s thought-provoking article about what happens when we read: Read here.

That’s why the design of Bibles is beginning to change.

It started a generation ago when verse-by-verse formatting began to give way to paragraphed text, with poetry formatted like poetry to set it apart visually from the prose. Then designers began to experiment with single column text settings, which took awhile to get right because readability requires the size of the type and the width of the column to be in proportion. Early designers made single column Bibles with type too small, making them harder to read than their two-column rivals.

In the past few years, a number of new editions have gotten the balance more or less right. Cambridge publishes the Clarion reference edition which is the best of both worlds, a readable single column, paragraphed text with references to the side, available in a variety of translations including the KJV, the ESV, and the NASB. Crossway introduced the elegant Legacy edition, which emulates Renaissance proportions, and followed up in early 2014 with the Reader’s Edition, a single column text-only edition without verse numbers, which lends itself to deep, distraction-free reading. The Books of the Bible, published by IBS and Zondervan, goes a step further, re-organizing the books in an effort to provide a more direct experience. Last summer Bibliotheca, a Kickstarter project aiming to create a readable multi-volume edition of the Bible, exceeded its original funding goal of $37k and went on to raise nearly $1.5 million, putting reader-friendly Bibles front and center in the cultural conversation. (I’ve written about all these and more at Bible Design Blog, so if you’d like more detail, check out that resource.)

When design works, reader intuition is all you need.

Reference Bibles aren’t going anywhere, but in the future we should see Reading Bibles develop as a popular category. This is a good thing, because the way readers experience these editions is very different than the reference books of old. Here’s a story shared by a pastor friend that illustrates the point:

I had a conversation about Bible design with Max, my eleven year old. Actually, he had the conversation with me.

His Middle School Christian Studies class requires the ESV, so I gave him a Single Column Legacy. Last night we were looking at the nativity stories in both Luke and Matthew. His Legacy was at school so he was reading a double column ESV and I had the NRSV in hand.

He said, “I like my new Bible because it’s more like reading a book and there’s nothing that gets in the way of what I’m reading.”

For Max, this is all about reader intuition. We haven’t had any conversations about book design and, as far as I know, he isn’t reading your blog under his pillow late at night.

When design works, reader intuition is all you need.

While study is important, more important is the need to be immersed in Scripture on its own terms . . .

Having worked with many high school and college students, I know that reading the Bible doesn’t always come easily, even to people who’ve grown up in church. Maybe it shouldn’t come easily. This is an ancient book, after all, and you expect there to be challenges when modern readers confront a mindset so different than our own. But I think the challenges ought to be inherent to the content, not imposed by well-intentioned design choices. That’s why, for as long as I’ve been teaching the Bible, I have been re-formatting the text so that my students experience Scripture as a book for reading, not just looking things up. The advent of so many good reader-friendly Bibles makes the task much easier now.

This isn’t the case against Reference Bibles, really. It’s the case for Reading Bibles. If we want people to read the Bible, we need to give them Bibles designed to be read.

He said, ‘I like my new Bible because . . . there’s nothing that gets in the way of what I’m reading.’

Right now such editions are still a niche item, suggesting that reading the Bible (as opposed to looking things up in it) is still a niche practice. This makes no sense. While study is important, more important is the need to be immersed in Scripture on its own terms, immersed in it as a story—our story, the story. That’s a better goal than to merely possess a picked-apart familiarity with the Bible’s content. Hopefully the balance will redress itself now that the options exist.

In the meantime, if you struggle to lose yourself in Scripture the way you would in any other good book, spend some time with a Bible designed for reading and see if you don’t experience the same thing as my friend’s son Max.

Biblical Authority and Cultural Relativism – rzim.org

How to Read Both Sides of the Bible – gty.org

To a Beginning Reader – storywarren.com