How the Christian Media Industry Made “Bible” into a Category Instead of a Proper Name

how the christian media industry made bible into a category instead of a proper name by john dyer

Tonight, after dinner, baths, and a lot of screaming, my wife and I will settle down next to our toddlers and attempt to inculcate them into the Christian mythos telling them the stories of Abraham, Rahab, Paul, Silas, and the rest. Sometimes we read from our own leather-bound Bibles, but most nights we use books with titles like the The Jesus Storybook Bible and The Beginner’s Bible, and yes even one called Princess Stories: Real Bible Stories of God’s Princesses.

I deeply appreciate the role these books are playing in forming the imaginations of our children. However, there are times when I find that a story I want to tell them isn’t included in these books, and sometimes the stories are a little too sanitized for my tastes. I don’t really mind this, because it lets me add little artistic flourishes (“David didn’t just defeat Goliath, he cut of his head!” “And then Elisha sent bears to eat the disrespectful kids!”) or pull out the “Bible without pictures” from time to time.

What is interesting to me about this is not simply that children’s books contain only selected stories or that the stories are altered for young ears, but that the capitalized word “Bible” is used to describe something that isn’t the same as “the Bible.” In his book How the Bible Works; An Anthropological Study of Evangelical Biblicism (2004), Brian Malley attempts to understand this phenomenon by showing various ways Christians, and evangelicals in particular, use the term “Bible” and “the Bible.” He introduces the idea that “the Bible” does not necessarily refer to a specific object or set of texts, but to a category – “That is a group of objects that are treated, in one respect or another, as an equivalent class.” (60)

Malley arrives at this concept by listening to how members of a specific church under his study referred to “the Bible.” Here we will look at broader data focusing on products that use the term “Bible” in their title and attempt to see what that means for how Christians understand the word and the concept of “Bible”.

Does ‘Bible’ Mean All 66 Books?

Many of us have heard that the term “bible” originally meant a collection of books, and it came to be used as a proper noun – “the Bible” – to describe the Christian Scriptures, a collection of 66 books (or more for Catholic and Orthodox believers). Since “the Bible” is generally considered authoritative for Christians (especially evangelicals), the term “bible” has also come to be used more broadly to describe non-religious authoritative works (The Dog Breed Bible) or definitive collections of important information (The JavaScript Bible).

When publishers and content creators add a descriptor before or after the term “the Bible” it can mean a variety of things. Sometimes the descriptor is used to indicate a unique translation of the Bible such as the New American Standard Bible and the Holman Christian Standard Bible as well as less well known versions like the LOLcat Bible and the Queen James Bible.

Publishers have also use “the Bible” with descriptors to indicate the addition of various systems of cross-references, notes, maps, and pictures. This goes back as far as the Geneva Bible (1560), and continued through influential titles like the Scofield Reference Bible, the Thompson Chain-Reference Bible, Ryrie Study Bible, the NIV Study Bible, and the Women’s Study Bible.

the bible as category table one

More recently, however, the term “Bible” is being used not as the primary noun, but as an adjective describing something else. This will be detailed below in products like “the Bible App” and others, but first it maybe be helpful to see how this use of “Bible” as an adjective or category is similar to the multiple uses of the term “biblical” in products and Christian speech.In each case, the term “Bible” is a proper noun indicating a book that contains the entire Protestant canon, and is preceded by a description of the translation or the added parts.

What Does it Mean to be ‘Biblical’?

The word “biblical” is an adjective that English speakers would normally place before a noun. The most obvious use of the term would indicate a direction relation to the Bible such as “Biblical Criticism” (the study of manuscripts of the Bible), “MA in Biblical Exegesis and Linguistics” (a Bible translation degree from the school where I work), “Jeremiah is a biblical name” (i.e. it is found in the Bible).

But the term “biblical” is also used as a synonym for “Christian,” meaning something along the lines of “in a manner consistent with what’s in the Bible.” For example, there are books on “Biblical parenting,” “Biblical ethics”, and even “Biblical eating.” Sadly, there are often wars over these terms with various sides attempting to carve out what is and isn’t “Biblical womanhood” or “Biblical manhood.”

the bible as category table two

Finally, there are also outlier projects that use the term “biblical” more broadly in a sense more like “related to the Bible in some way” such as this fine Biblical Essential Oils set. Linguistically, then, “biblical” is a fluid concept with varying degrees of closeness to the actual text of the Bible.There are also ambiguous uses of the term “biblical.” For example, does Haddon Robinson’s book Biblical Preaching refer to preaching “in a manner consistent with” the Bible or to preaching “directly from” the Bible (both are intended with an emphasis on the latter)? My own institution has a degree called the MA in Biblical Counseling which merges both of these meanings. Students receive quite a bit of training in the exegesis of the Bible (the first meaning), but they also receive training in modern psychology and how to integrate both fields in a way that is intended to be consistent with Scripture (the second). Others use the same term “Biblical counseling” to refer to counseling that uses “the Bible” as its sole source of truth, avoiding any influence from other disciplines of knowledge (e.g. Nouthetic counseling).

Does Every “Bible” Have “the Bible” in It?

Moving from the various uses of the adjective “biblical” to the idea of the noun “Bible,” we also find a variety of meanings and naming conventions, especially of newer products related to the Bible.

While study Bibles and other audience-focused products tend to use the “adjective + Bible” convention (Soldiers Bible, Fire Bible)the bible as category table three to denote a complete Bible with additions, in the world of children’s books “adjective + Bible” usually means an incomplete Bible with stories and themes intended to be accessible to children (The Jesus Storybook Bible and The Beginner’s Bible).

In addition to the children’s books, there are titles that use the formula “adjective + Bible” to denote a product that refers to stories in the Bible but often present them in a different media such as comics (The Action Bible) or LEGO bricks (The Brick Bible).

New Software Naming Standards

But not all products named this way are visual Bibles. Several Christian publishers have recently created text-based products designed to give adult readers an overview of the main plotline or story of “the Bible.” To varying degrees these use the term “Bible” in the title or subtitle. See for example The Story: The Bible as One Continuing Story of God and His People includes passages from the New International Version (NIV) and additional “transitions” to help readers see connections, while The Whole Bible Story: Everything That Happens in the Bible in Plain English doesn’t use any directly translated passages but is rather a unique novelization that attempts to show how all the stories fit together cohesively.

Moving outside the sphere of printed books, software designed to access the Bible introduce additional naming conventions. While older, established Bible software packages use the traditional naming structure (Logos Bible Software, Accordance Bible, PC Study Bible), the term “Bible” is also being used in unique ways for newer digital products, most notably reversing the “adjective + Bible” study Bibles pattern to “Bible + descriptor.”

For example, one software application is alternatively called “Glo,” “Glo Bible,” and “Bible Glo.” It contains the entire text of all 66 books plus notes and other add-ins, but more interesting than the content is how the naming convention switches the word order under certain circumstances. My guess is that the two names are there to ensure that when a user searches for “bible” in an App Store (such as Apple’s iTunes), “Bible Glo” appears earlier in the search results (compared to “Glo Bible”). This may indicate that the priorities of digital marketing are driving new naming conventions.

One of the most popular mobile apps is the YouVersion’s “Bible App” which also follows the reversed “noun + descriptor” pattern. If LifeChurch.tv had followed the “Study Bible” convention, it would have called its product “App Bible.” But in the mobile software world “App Bible” would likely have be interpreted as “an authority on apps” (much like the aforementioned “JavaScript Bible”). The name “Bible App” makes more sense in the idioms of mobile application naming, and it also likely yields a higher search result.

While these examples are relatively clear since they contain the entire Bible (plus additional features like reading plans, notes, illustrations, etc.), there are other uses of the term “Bible” for software that does not contain the entire text. For example, YouVersion’s “The Bible App for Kids” follow’s its grown-up naming convention but instead describes an interactive game and story-telling application. It functions much like the Bible products marked to children mentioned above. The recently released “Press Bible” also contains stylized versions of books of the Bible (currently the Gospel of John) with interactive elements.

the bible as category table four

One final recent entry to the use of “Bible” was the television series on the History Channel entitled simply “The Bible.” Here, the creators have used the naked term “Bible” with no descriptor before or after (save the definite article) to describe something that does not contain the entirety of “the Bible.”

The Bible as Category

In this brief product survey, I’ve attempted to show that content creators and Christians use the term “Bible” not simply to describe an object or definitive set of texts, but as a general category of things related to those texts.

In many cases where the term “Bible” is used to describe something that is not “the Bible” proper, the rationale appears to be a move away from plain text toward visual media such as “The Bible” television series, “The Beginner’s Bible” illustrated children’s book, and “The Bible App for Children.” But even for plain text products, content creators seem to feel freedom to use the term “Bible” freely. There are some cases when a product is named in such a way that clearly states it is only derived from the Bible (such as Princess Stories: Real Bible Stories of God’s Princesses), but these are the exceptions where the rule is free usage.

One might easily conclude, then, that free usage of the term “Bible” in the publishing industry has, at least in some small way, contributed to the general confusion and sharp differences over what means to live a “biblical” Christian life. Moreover, one might ask in this age of products, software, and movies, what does it mean to be a “people of the book”?

It may be that it all depends on what you mean by “book.”

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About the Contributor

John Dyer

John Dyer
John Dyer is the Executive Director of Communications and Educational Technology for Dallas Theological Seminary. A former youth pastor and long time web developer, he has developed tools for Microsoft, Apple, Harley-Davidson, Anheuser-Busch, and the Department of Defense and now writes on technology and faith for publications such as Christianity Today and Outreach Magazine. His first book is From the Garden to the City: The Redeeming and Corrupting Power of Technology, and he is currently working on creating software to distribute digital Bibles in closed countries. 

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  1. ^THIS^

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