One of the interesting things about Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences (1948) is the dust jacket for the first edition.
The cover art features an assortment of headlines “ripped” from the front page of newspapers — “Thousands Flee Arab Mobs,” “Riot Torn India Free Today,” “Girl Delinquency Found Increasing,” “Guns Roar in Palestine,” “11th Red Veto Jolts U.N.” — and scattered across a gray background in an off-kilter collage of Really Bad News. Not superimposed over these grim headlines, but crowding them out and pushing them aside is a large oval of bright red, like a great big pill. Against that red lozenge the title of the book appears in bold white font, delivering a much-needed dose of truth to explain, if not to cure, the malaise of the era manifested in the headline news.
In a meta-modern move, print advertisements for Weaver’s book that ran in newspapers reproduced the cover art beneath headlines which discussed the headlines. This was the case, for example, in an ad in the New York Times book review section of March 14, 1948 (p. BR17). The top half of the ad pulls some of the more alarming headlines from the book cover — girl delinquency is right up there with mobs and strikers — and asks the newspaper reader “If you believe our civilization is the most advanced in history — how do you explain these headlines?”
The ad copy helpfully tells the reader what to make of them:
“These headlines are symbols of our civilization…bomb-shattered cities, stricken faiths, world-wide misery and disillusion. What’s at fault? Who’s to blame? IDEAS HAVE CONSEQUENCES will tell you. The answer may shock you. It may also start you on the road toward changing these headlines….” And so on.
What makes the headlines in question “symbols of our civilization” is, according to both the advertisement for Weaver’s book and the argument of the book itself, the “misery and disillusion” they record and report. Basically, everything has been going to hell in a handbasket ever since the snake of Nominalism got loose in the West’s epistemic garden, and the only thing that will save the world from a disastrous future is a return to the distinctions of the past.
But beyond its value as an easy way to symbolize a world in disarray, the newspaper theme of the cover is also in keeping with the important role the newspaper plays within Weaver’s text. In his diagnosis of what ails the modern era, Weaver points to the press — along with film and radio — as the moving parts of the Great Stereopticon, a three-part media machine projecting its malignant metaphysical vision upon the walls of the communal cave. This configuration of Weaver’s Stereopticon dates the book as a relic of the pre-television era. Had he been writing a decade or fifteen years later, Weaver’s machine would almost certainly have included a fourth moving part, television — though “radio” might have morphed into “music industry,” or perhaps (as in Allan Bloom’s version of Everything Wrong With Kids These Days) more specifically, “rock and roll.” But even if Weaver had written that book as much as thirty years later, the Press would still have formed a necessary part of his modern media machine.
The newspaper as the emblematic medium of modernity appears on the cover art of a very different text from a somewhat later post-war moment, the American Bible Society’s 1966 translation of the New Testament, Good News for Modern Man. While the text was published as a pew bible — black boards, gilt lettering, etc. — it was more widely and more notably available as a 25 cent paperback, cheap and portable.
The cover art for the paperback renders the newspaper form abstractly as grey columns of full-justified lines, broken up here and there with line breaks and indentations. Spanning the grey columns, but misaligned horizontally in a haphazard scattering, are the grey nameplates of English-language newspapers from around the world, in several font sizes: The Sydney Morning Herald, The Japan Times, the East African Standard, the Times of India, The Manila Times, The Times of London. The Grey Lady herself spans three columns across the top of the cover.
Breaking through this uniform greyness via a “torn” section in the upper left corner of the newspaper design is the title of the book in block red letters: Good News for Modern Man. A smaller “tear” at the lower right corner contains the subtitle in black: The New Testament in Today’s English Version.
The newspaper theme of the cover art provides a visual pun on the translation’s title and aim. “Good News” is a literal translation of the Greek word (euangelion) previously rendered as “Gospel.” In contrast to the dreary grey reportage of the daily newspapers, filled with bad news from around the world, this modernized translation “reported” the good news of God’s love for humankind — a breaking story, as it were, as current as the day’s headlines.
But the newspaper theme also gestured toward the translation’s aim to render the text of the Bible in accessible prose. The Greek of the New Testament — koine (“common”) Greek — was the Greek of the marketplace, the Greek of the street, the language of hoi polloi. It was the lingua franca of the Mediterranean basin in the first century AD, ubiquitous and accessible. The purpose of the TEV translation was to render the Bible into English that would be similarly accessible to an international readership. This was to be an English free of archaic turns of phrase or regional idioms, the kind of English being taught and acquired as a second language in schools and universities around the world, resulting in a Bible written in the lingua franca of the post-war and (emerging) post-colonial era.
So, in search of a visual representation for either relevance or accessibility, the cover art of Good News for Modern Man drew upon the newspaper. Weaver’s book also attempted to assert the relevance of ancient truths for modern times in an accessible way, and the cover art for his book reflects that popularizing tendency as well. But there are other ideational affinities between Weaver’s book and the ABS translation of the New Testament, other reasons why visual invocations of the newspaper as a medium may have served as an especially apt illustration for both covers.
If the conviction that present woes can be explained (or survived) by a return to ancient truths is common to both, they also partake of an underlying sense of apocalypticism. The newspaper motif of both covers visually conveys the idea that the present is a thin wrapper through which both past and future are breaking through with dreadful power.
Post-war evangelical missiology was informed by a sense of eschatological urgency, and Bible translation and Bible distribution lay at the heart of of evangelical mission efforts. The centrality of Bible distribution to mission efforts is an idea that has carried over from the era of the Good News Bible into current evangelical thinking. (It was part of evangelical thinking before the era of the GNB, but that’s a subject for another post.)
Some evangelicals believe that the Lord will not return until the “Good News” has been preached to the whole world, so it is the task of the church to hasten the Lord’s coming by seeking converts from “every tribe and tongue and people and nation,” in the words of Revelation. This idea seems to be a basic underlying rationale, for example, for much of the work undertaken by the U.S. Center for World Mission at Fuller Theological Seminary. Other evangelicals believe that the Lord’s return is imminent, and so it is urgent to carry the message of Christianity to as many people as possible — though preferably in their native languages — so that they can be saved from the judgment to come. This idea seems to be the underlying rationale of Wycliffe Bible Translators. In any case, evangelical missiology has long drawn a close connection between the worldwide distribution of the scriptures, the worldwide proclamation of the Christian message, and the end of time.
The end of time itself has been a particular preoccupation with a large and growing segment of evangelicals, as Paul Boyer makes clear in his absolutely indispensable study, When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture (Belknap/Harvard, 1992). Among other things, Boyer’s book highlights the tendency of “prophecy popularizers” to find in the details of news reports and current events the fulfillment of various cryptic clues in prophecies related to “the end times.” One speaker at a prophecy conference in 1967, for example, declared that a glance at the daily newspaper would confirm in current international events the emergence of the One World Government among the Western nations, with the United States playing the leading role (277).
While some preachers found in the newspaper a fulfillment of things promised or a portent of things to come, most pastors, evangelical and otherwise, doubtless used the newspaper in much the same way that they use various media today — as a source for sermon illustrations, as a way of connecting the preaching from the pulpit to the life in the pews, as a bid for relevance.
A statement to the effect that pastors could make their sermons relevant by preaching with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other has been attributed to both Karl Barth and Billy Graham. In 1963, Barth told a Time reporter that in the 1920s he used to advise young theologians to “take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible” (“Barth in Retirement,” May 31, 1963, p. 60). In 1985, Billy Graham told the American Newspaper Publishers Association convention, “I believe a preacher worth his salt holds up the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other….If your paper reports the issues, the Bible reports the issue behind the issues.”
But the idea of a connection between the Bible and the newspaper — whether the connection grows out of the pastoral role of making sermons relevant or the prophetic role of interpreting the signs of the times — is original to neither Barth nor Graham. Instead, they were both drawing upon broadly held notions of relevance — not only the relevance of “Bible truths” for contemporary life, but also the relevance of the newspaper as the defining medium of their time.
In a similar way, the cover art of both Weaver’s volume and the New Testament translation effectively date both books to an era when everyone got the punchline of the joke, “What’s black and white and read all over?” That is to say, everyone got the humor and — or, because — everyone got the paper.
But the times — and The Times — have changed. Whatever age is dawning, the age of the newspaper belongs to history. And — perhaps — vice versa.