Prognosticators of trends in biblical studies had it easy for the past year. They could "know for a certainty" that the field would be dominated by books about the King James Version, which caused "no small stir" in its day and, since its publication 400 years ago, has "turned the world upside down" (all quotes courtesy of that venerable Bible). But this fall's publishing season brings some new directions.
Going Global and Gathering In
While biblical studies as a field examines a living text that is sacred to millions across the globe, the discipline continues to generate books of biblical interpretation and theology that fit traditional American and European church traditions. But one trend is what you might call a decisive unseating of the world's superpowers, or as Neil Elliott, acquiring editor at Fortress Press, observes, "a dislocation or de-centering of biblical scholarship from a white ‘North Atlantic'–dominated guild to a multiplicity of voices." He cites The Colonized Apostle (July), a collection of postcolonial essays on Paul, among examples from Fortress.
Don Kraus, executive editor of Bibles at Oxford University Press, sees this as the product of new attention to how traditional texts are read and understood in light of "feminist, womanist, Africanist, postcolonial" interpretation. In a broader sense, this trend includes not only the texts' reception by the modern "outsiders," including the disabled and queer, but also renewed attention to "outsiders" within the Bible itself—the foreigner, the damned, the disenfranchised. For example, Gathering Those Driven Away by Wendy Farley (Westminster John Knox, Aug.) makes a case for absolute inclusivity as basic for the doctrine of incarnation. And in Beacon Press's God vs. Gay (Oct.), author Jay Michaelson rereads texts from both testaments in ways that result in a more sympathetic treatment of homosexuality. This attention to the voices of marginalized communities both in the Bible and in response to it has gained real traction.
The marked rise of Christianity in the global south further boosts this surge in books from and about people whose voices have been muted by the Bible and by a history of scholarship dominated by straight white males. Baker Academic's Miracles: The Credibility of New Testament Accounts by Craig Keener (Nov.) focuses especially on the spirituality of people in Africa and Asia for its examination of the role of miracles today. There is also a new interest specifically in the voices of African Christians (Zondervan/Hippo Books) and in books such as The African Memory of Mark by Tom Oden (InterVarsity Press, July) that explore the Bible's African origins.
Confronting the Dark Side of the Bible
Indeed, another trend is renewed interest in what's old, really old—the Bible's ancient roots and contexts—especially as they intersect with "outsiders." Carol Hupping, COO and publishing director of the Jewish Publication Society, notes that its "largest project in decades" is the anthology Outside the Bible: Ancient Jewish Writings Related to Scripture, due in 2013. Still, for good or ill, the old ways aren't going away. Newman sees "old-fashioned biblical theology" continuing to find sizable numbers of readers, while Elliott observes with concern a vigorous industry that publishes increasingly conservative "post liberal theology."
Meanwhile, new titles show a willingness among scholars and publishers to do something dangerous and new—to reckon with ugliness in the Bible. It's especially fresh that they're not doing this with the dismissive or denigrating treatment of popular modern atheists but with respect for the corpus as a whole and for readers capable of wrestling honestly with the Bible's dark side. Laying Down the Sword (HarperOne, Oct.) by Philip Jenkins is one such book, highlighting the existence of biblical texts promoting murderous violence. Jenkins examines how the faithful can simultaneously accept their existence and reject their ideas. In a forthcoming title from Baker, Caryn Reeder explores domestic violence in Deuteronomy with The Enemy in the Household (Baker Academic, Feb. 2012).
Candid and intelligent wrestling with what is ethically troubling or problematic in biblical texts marks a healthy direction for books that address the kinds of questions many people have about how the Bible does or does not speak to issues today. Where Unprotected Texts by Jennifer Wright Knust (HarperOne, Feb.) focuses on the Bible and sex, The Bible Now by Richard Elliott Friedman and Shawna Dolansky (Oxford, June) focuses on such matters as capital punishment and the environment.
Just what readers will eat up in the year ahead is impossible to say, but they will have a spicy smorgasbord of options. And although short-lived publications in electronic media appear poised to become as common to our experience as microwaves, readers will continue to love a good book whose voice is thoughtful, entertaining, and provocative, just as we savor a slow-cooked dinner enjoyed in good company.