I got an email a while ago asking for help promoting a crowd-sourced study Bible called everyword. Maybe my mention of it here will count as promoting it, but that’s not my intention; rather I want to challenge the concept while exploring the worldview that seems partly to be motivating it.
(Here’s a PDF of the Kickstarter page in case the link goes dead someday.)
The project description includes,
By crowdsourcing Biblical commentary, everyword seeks to bring people of diverse faiths and perspective together in a common goal and allow them to support one another in the most basic of Christian habits—scripture study. The power of the project, we believe, is just this: Nothing breaks down barriers, fills in trenches, or curbs animosity so well as working side by side towards a common goal.
If it were just that I would have one response, but with what follows, I have another. Here’s some of the rest of the project description.
There are a multitude of study Bibles online offering impressive resources for anyone interested in exploring Greek and Hebrew etymologies and culture. I prefer using the Blue Letter Bible myself. But sometimes they feel a bit dry. They forget that the Bible and Bible verses have inspired art, music, poetry, philosophy, et cetera, from diverse religions and perspectives. There is a whole world of biblical reception that, for the most part, remains ignored. That’s why we are creating on online, crowd-sourced, interfaith study Bible. We are interested in hearing anyone’s response to the scriptures—Jew, Gentile, Mormon, Atheist, Catholic, Muslim, anyone. We want to connect verses to sermons from Methodist ministers, U2 lyrics, the writings of early church fathers’, graffiti, and more. Anything that ties back to the Bible is welcome, which is why it is so important to generate a large and diverse following (think Wikipedia: the more followers there are, the more accurate and complete the information is). In that spirit, we invite you to invite others. Anyone you think may be interested….
Our project is motivated by the power of a common goal. Our goal is to trace the influence of the Bible wherever we find it—any art, any denomination—and to tie it back into the verses of scripture that inspired it. The ultimate end of this project is a more enriched reading experience and a better understanding of just how influential the Bible has been to various cultures.
Project One: Cultural Influences
I see two different projects here. The first is Scripture study, informed by people of diverse faiths and perspectives. The second is a crowd-sourced compendium of artistic and literary allusions to the Bible, providing “a better understanding of just how influential the Bible has been to various cultures.”
I’m all in favor of the second purpose. I’d be in favor of the same kind of thing being done with Milton, Goethe, Dickens, Cervantes, and (especially) Shakespeare, not to mention the greats from other countries and cultures. The more we know about where our ideas come from, the richer our knowledge.
Project Two: Unity Through Sharing Opinions
The Scripture study purpose, however, seems to be based on the premise that the more we understand what everyone thinks about the Bible, the better our Scripture study will be, and the more unity we’ll experience.
I wondered whether I interpreted these two purposes correctly, so I emailed Josh Sabey, project leader, who very graciously gave me permission to use part of his answer here.
I very much appreciate your thoughtful response. What you say is very true. The goals of the project is diverse, and the interfaith outcome is, I believe, more of a side effect. What unites the seemingly diverse project is a common broadening of perspective. Let me explain. Many study Bibles are limited by faith (doctrine) and what I will call genre (or a certain kind of perspective focusing on a specific discipline). Everyword seeks to be interfaith and interdisciplinary. These two aspects of the project match the two disparate goals you mentioned. What is common is that we hope to broaden both perspectives. This undoubtedly means that users may run across unwanted perspectives, but they will be able to filter their results so that they can use everyword however they see fit. The interfaith harmony is a result of broadened perspectives.
I have two responses. First, and less important, the two purposes are so different as not to belong in the same project. One is a matter of gathering everyone’s discoveries about the Bible in literature and the arts, the other is about gathering everyone’s impressions of what the Bible means, as if that were better than proceeding from knowledge concerning (for example) Greek and Hebrew etymologies and culture.
Second, there’s a common Bible study error that’s being supported here in spades. It’s the mistake of beginning with what this verse means to me, rather than what this passage meant in its original historical and linguistic context. This project seems to be built on the belief that this is a good thing, when in fact it’s a cause of misguided beliefs and behaviors.
Bible Study by Personal Opinion
I’d like to explain that further if I may. I’ve often observed that when persons speak of “what this verse means to me,” what they often come out with is some previously acquired personal opinion that the verse reminds them of. It isn’t what the passage says, it’s a riff of their own on it. Thus it’s not the word of God, it’s their word, or their pastor’s or teacher’s word.
Now, if they’ve been good students in the past, or if their pastor or teacher has been, then it’s very possible that what this verse means to me is tolerably close to what the verse actually means in proper context. So what this verse means to me doesn’t necessarily mean heresy is about to be spoken. Still it’s a bad habit. We need to subject ourselves to the discipline of discovering what a certain passage of Scripture really means.
For that, we need to hear from people who have actual knowledge to offer, not mere opinion. That’s why commentaries often inform us of Greek and Hebrew etymologies and culture. There’s discipline involved in that study. Commentaries should support that discipline, not obscure it. The Bible is a book of information leading to inspiration, not vice-versa.
Will This Really Break Down Barriers?
I’ll only make passing mention of the naïveté I think is expressed in this project. The kickstarter website says,
Nothing breaks down barriers, fills in trenches, or curbs animosity so well as working side by side towards a common goal.
This is impossibly over-optimistic. Witness the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible: what goal do Christians and hardcore skeptics have in common when we study the Bible?
Bible Study by Personal Opinion: Not Just everyword
So is everyword a good idea? As far as I can tell, it’s two conflicting and competing ideas. One of its purposes could conceivably contribute to knowledge, the other is certain to support misinformation.
Unfortunately this isn’t only about everyword. As I’ve already said, there’s a common Bible study error being supported here: study by personal opinion. Whether everyword gets funded and grows or not, that mistake is a weed already growing wild in Christian culture. Christianity is a knowledge-based religion, so Christian opinion should be rooted in knowledge, not uninformed opinion.