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Recently I found myself explaining to a group of surprised friends from Protestant and secular backgrounds that, despite being educated in the Catholic faith up to the sacrament of confirmation at age 14, I didn't read the Old Testament until I was assigned it in a college literature course. Traditionally, the Catholic Church did not encourage its congregation to read the Bible; we had the priests to explain it to us. In fact, the church once took such a dim view of the idea that, in 1536, the English reformer William Tyndale was tried for heresy, strangled and burned at the stake, largely for translating the Bible into English for a lay readership. Tyndale House, a major American Christian publisher, is named after him.
Though I'm no longer a believer, and in principle I support the notion of adherents to a religion familiarizing themselves with its scriptures, it sometimes seems like the old Vatican had a point. In his new book, "The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book," religion professor Timothy Beal describes all the angst and doubt that Bible reading provoked in him during his youth, as well as the frustration many American Christians experience as a result of their own encounters with the book. This doesn't prevent them from buying truckloads of the things -- Beal notes that "the average Christian household owns nine Bibles and purchases at least one new Bible every year" -- but actually reading them is another matter. Beal believes that's because today's Christians are seeking a certainty in their holy book that simply isn't there, and shouldn't be.