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How will Bible be, and what to do with it?

NCR Special Report Writer
New York

What will the Bible look like in the 21st century? What forms will it take in a technological age? And who will be its audience? Such scriptural stargazing is engaging not only Biblical scholars, publishers, artists and institutions such as the American Bible Society, but also technologists and mass media minds.

When the society offered its halls to 16 scholars -- six of them Bible experts -- in early February and asked them to spend a day brainstorming on “Futuring the Bible,” the group -- not surprisingly -- raised more questions than answers.

Most participants saw the Biblical canon as closed, others held that it was wide open. Futurist Richard Thieme held that the Bible “will literally be unrecognizable to us in the 21st century.”

Structures of nation states, of commerce, political systems and of religious organizations are changing; humans are reinventing themselves with genetic engineering; and Hubble telescope pictures give evidence of other universes literally “teeming with life,” Thieme said. Such alterations and discoveries raise questions about the notion of religious experience and the impact of God, of spirituality and the gospel in a new age.

Thieme, often referred to as a “techno-philosopher” or an “online pundit of hacker culture,” is a business consultant to systems planners, bankers and insurers. He writes a weekly internationally syndicated column, “Islands in the Clickstream.”

Thieme could not predict what form next century’s scriptures would take. Some scholars worried that churches might empty while chat rooms fill or that the notion of a religious community could give way to an individualistic religion. Others noted that the growing hesitation of many people to view the Bible as the exclusive source of religious truth would affect how its message is received in the future.

“What does it mean when people who feel themselves disenfranchised from a church find a cyber church and participate in Eucharist on line,” asked Elaine Pagels, professor of religion at Princeton and one of the scholars at the conference. Computers have altered the concept of sacred time and sacred space, she said. Worshiping in front of a terminal rather than in church means that the message is being delivered differently, raising the question: “What is the Good News, given the change in medium?”

Jesuit Fr. Paul Soukup has no doubt that “the newer the technology, the faster it will be used in Biblical and religious circles.” Scripture has latched onto every new way of communicating, moving from the oral tradition to writing on parchment, to copying, to printing, to utilizing art, music, sound waves and film in its dissemination, he told NCR.

Soukup teaches communications at Santa Clara University in California and has written two books on the links between communication and theology. While some participants found the new technology to be “antihuman” and “antireligious,” Soukup characterized technology as “neutral. It creates a space into which human nature projects its contents,” he said.

Olga Villa Parra’s chief concern about the Bible’s future relates to how to leave this legacy to the millions of women -- especially those in Central and South America -- who can’t read. “How do we equip the mothers and the masses in the face of massive illiteracy?” she wondered.

Villa Parra, a Catholic lay woman, lives in Indianapolis and has worked 18 years in Hispanic Adult Education, as well as in social justice for women and farm workers. She noted that the legend of Our Lady of Guadalupe is “more important than the Bible” to Mexican and other Latino women.

Guadalupe offers a rich, pictorial narrative for women who are powerless, pregnant, poor or who find themselves in a new world, she said.

In her travels to Chile, Mexico and Panama, she has discovered that among those who have a Bible, it is the pictures rather than the text that are the most important.

Villa Parra urged Biblical translators to be concerned not only with language, but “with the deep wells of practicality that come from the people. Home altars may contain flowers, foods and a Bible, but they may also display a bottle of tequila,” she said, adding that faith and the Bible can only be transmitted through culture. “If a Bible is to be effective and its words to have meaning, then we have to test drive it and work with it.” Villa Parra said that a Latin American Bible is being developed in conjunction with the Roman text, with liberation theology and with the base communities movement.

National Catholic Reporter, May 14, 1999