The Bible in America: Harry Potter and the Demons of Gergesenes

Adult nerds have a new reason to dress up in funny costumes and line up outside of bookstores for days on end.  Seems J.K. Rowling has announced plans to publish a new novel for adult audiences.  She has apparently not released the details of this plan.  As of this writing, we don’t know if it will be about grown-up wizards looking for magical answers to middle-age troubles like underwater mortgages and sagging physiques, or if it might be an “adult”-adult novel in which bodices will rip.

Whatever it is about, Rowling will be hard pressed to improve upon her record of publishing success.  Rowling’s series of Harry Potter novels charted a meteoric path through the worlds of publishing and culture.  All told, by early 2012 her seven young-wizard books sold some 400 million copies.  That’s a lot.  Predictably, academic types rushed to analyze the cultural impact of the phenomenon.  Some argued that the Potter novels succeeded on such a grand scale because they captured the deep mythic memory of our cultural heritage.  Harry represented the powerful trope of the fairy-tale prince and the archetypal Hero.  Others wondered whether the novels could shed light on contemporary Britain’s struggles with “the legacy of a racial and class caste system.”

In any case, it seems hard to argue with the notion that these enormous sales figures tell us something about the nature of American culture.  Though it’s true enough that some measure of the runaway success of these books is due simply to the faddishness of Americans, it also seems reasonable to think that something in the books resonated with something deep in American culture.  The books fascinated so many people because something in the books made sense to Americans.  We identify, perhaps, with the young Harry, when he was surrounded by hostile blowhards who neither understood him nor appreciated him.  Or maybe we feel like the older Harry, when he was struggling to understand himself as an adult with new powers and daunting responsibilities.

In any case, something about Harry Potter means something in American culture.  The sheer numbers of its publication can tell us that.

If that is true—and by now you may have guessed where I’m going with this—then we must also recognize fundamentalists’ claims that the Bible is not just another book.  If Harry Potter’s enormous publication numbers mean that the books struck a chord with American culture, then the staggering publication numbers of the Bible must mean it says even more about that culture.  Consider a few numbers.  The American Bible Society, muggles all, was founded in the early nineteenth century to distribute Bibles and tracts to the population.  Between its founding in 1826 and 1979, the ABS distributed three BILLION Bibles and tracts.  THREE BILLION.  Those are Sagan-esque numbers, and they put Rowling’s sales figures to shame.  In just one year, 1979, the ABS distributed 110 million bibles and tracts in the USA alone.

If literature scholar Rebecca Sutherland Borah is at all correct in her surmise that the fan communities of the Harry Potter novels can tell us a good deal about the ways communities can form around a shared devotion to Rowling’s texts, how much more of a cultural indicator is the Bible?  Fan communities of Harry Potter may camp out overnight to receive each new installment of the series, but fan communities of the Bible have worked for centuries to help all people of all nations hear the Word.

Consider the work of the Gideons, for instance.  If you’ve spent any time in America, you’re familiar with the ubiquitous Gideon Bibles placed in nearly every hotel room in the country.  The organization began in the late nineteenth century, founded by a small group of Wisconsin businessmen.  They decided they could best spread Christianity by using their travels to spread the Bible.  Starting in 1908, they began distributing Bibles and New Testaments to hotels around the world.  By 2012, they claimed to have given out over 1.6 billion Bibles and testaments.

Granted, they’ve had a century to do so.  Nevertheless, the devotion of such Bible distributors as the Gideons and the ABS demonstrates the reverence with which many fundamentalists hold the Bible.  Mere distribution of the text itself is seen as the most effective type of missionary work they can achieve.

And the success of their efforts has been impressive.  Taken by numbers alone, the Bible really is America’s book.  No other book can come close to rivaling the Bible’s physical presence in the United States.
Nor is this due to devoted missionary distribution networks alone.  The Bible also sells well.  I spent some time recently with a guy who had an easy first job: selling Bibles door-to-door in Texas.  It was easy work, he described, since everyone he met could be convinced that they needed a Bible.  Even though they already had one.  Or several.  ‘Like selling beer at a baseball game,’ he told me.  ‘Heavy to carry around, but not hard to convince people they could use another.’

A glimpse at some sales numbers for the Bible seems to bear this out.  Not only in Texas, but around the country.  For example, there have been 2500 different English-language editions published between 1777 and 1957.  When a new version, the Revised Standard Version, came out in 1952, it sold an average 1,000,000 copies annually for at least a generation.  Similarly, the Kenneth Taylor Living Bible paraphrase sold 25,000,000 copies in its first eleven years of publication.

People buy the Bible.  People distribute the Bible.  We don’t know for sure from these facts what the Bible actually means to people, but we would be a little kooky to assume it doesn’t tell us anything.  If the monstrous sales of the Harry Potter books means something about American culture, then surely the even more startling sales and publication history of the Bible means even more.  It is hard not to agree with leading historians Mark Noll and Nathan Hatch when they insist, “the cultural history of America is unthinkable without the Bible.”

 

FURTHER READING: The Ivory Tower and Harry Potter, edited by Lana Whited (University of Missouri Press, 2002); Nathan O. Hatch and Mark A. Noll, eds., The Bible in America: Essays in Cultural History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982).

 

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6 Comments

  1. Yasha Hartberg

     /  April 5, 2012

    For all its best selling status it’s not a particularly well read book. It is more like an encyclopedia than a novel in that regard, with different people reading, emphasizing and focusing on different parts. Without knowing which parts, if any, people are engaged with it really is hard to know what its popularity tells us.

    Reply
    • @Yasha,
      Great point. Another function of the Bible might be as a cultural symbol. So, for instance, some folks might pack their bookshelves with books by Lenin and Marx that they never read. Others might fill shelves with Heidegger and Kierkegaard titles that they never read. Many more people put a few Bibles on the shelf and spend their time not reading them.

      Reply
  2. Lana Whited

     /  March 25, 2014

    I’m the editor of The Ivory Tower and Harry Potter, and I just wanted to note that my name is Lana, not Laura.

    Reply
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