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Book History 4 (2001) 335-370

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The State Of The Discipline
Sacred Texts in the United States

Paul C. Gutjahr

Early Americans have long enjoyed the nickname "A People of the Book." 1 Because the nickname was coined primarily to invoke close associations between Americans and the Bible, it is easy to overlook the central fact that it was a book--not a geographic location, a monarch, or even a shared language--that has served as a cornerstone in countless investigations into the formation and fragmentation of early American culture. Not every book can lay claim to such powers of civilization-altering influence, but some can. Principal among these are sacred books--momentous, spiritual texts that lay claim to special insights, and thus call for special levels of allegiance, on account of some form of divine authorship.

Sacred books have certainly garnered their share of attention, but largely from individuals invested in interpreting their meanings for those interested in using them as guidebooks for thought and behavior. In this vein, thousands of commentaries have sprung up to deal with the exegetical intricacies of various sacred texts. Similar attention, however, has not been paid [End Page 335] to the fact that these texts always function within immensely complicated cultural contexts that help give them specific meanings in specific historical moments. To understand the meaning and importance of sacred texts, it is crucial to reach beyond a text's intellectual design to examine its less divine, more human, aspects. Such aspects include how and why a given sacred text was published and by whom, the motives and choices behind its translation or rephrasing, the material forms in which it appeared, the methods and people involved in its distribution, and the settings in which it was received. Taken together, these factors accent and guide the interpretive process of a text in profound, and often unpredictable, ways.

A number of helpful works have appeared in the past twenty years whose authors have sought to define, complicate, and examine the genre of sacred writing. Rewarding in this regard are studies such as Wesley A. Kort's "Take, Read": Scripture, Textuality, and Cultural Practice and Moshe Halbertal's The People of the Book: Canon, Meaning, and Authority. Although these works offer a great deal of insight, they foreground exploring sacred texts in terms of possible exegetical and interpretative approaches, paying less attention to how these texts participate in complex dialogues with a variety of cultural practices that stand outside the texts.

Scholarship displaying an interest in theorizing sacred texts as they interact with the wide range of cultural practices include Miriam Levering's Rethinking Scripture: Essays from a Comparative Perspective, William A. Graham's Beyond the Written Word: Oral Aspects of Scripture in the History of Religion, Robert Fowler et al.'s The Postmodern Bible, Stephen Stein's "America's Bibles: Canon, Commentary, and Community," Theophus H. Smith's Conjuring Culture: Biblical Formations of Black America, and Frederick M. Denny's and Rodney L. Taylor's The Holy Book in Comparative Perspective. Noteworthy case studies of sacred texts in given cultural moments include Nathan Hatch's work on the importance of print in early nineteenth-century American Christianity, in The Democratization of Christianity and Bradford Verter's stunning analysis of how print was important to the emergence of American occult communities in his dissertation, "Dark Star Rising."

In the midst of this scholarship, history of the book studies has the ability to build upon this exegetical and cultural work by pursuing angles of investigation that fuse an interest in a text's divine message with a knowledge of the importance of that message's medium. Issues centered on a sacred message's material form have all too often been overlooked, as scholars have attempted to make sense of a text's intellectual design, ignoring the reality that such a design always reaches its audience through a complex matrix of factors. Such factors include (to name only a few): material form, typography and formatting, methods of distribution, publicity, [End Page 336] and pricing. A sophisticated analysis...


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