MRBlog | The Emoji Bible and Bourgeois Legitimation

Bible Emoji

By Thomas J. Whitley

Not many things related to the Bible get me excited these days. It’s not that the Bible’s not interesting, quite the opposite (Exhibit A). And it’s not that really smart people aren’t saying really smart things about the Bible, how it’s read, how it’s used, etc. It’s just that I’ve been doing this long enough that I’ve pretty much seen it all.

Enter Bible Emoji: scripture 4 millenials.

I set aside for a moment the inexplicable word order choice for the name, the deliberate misspelling of “millennials,” and the pandering to young people through smiley faces, and I was able to muster up genuine excitement for what such a project could look like, what it could mean for language and accessibility, and how fun it could be to read.

That excitement did not last long. One learns quickly that the anonymous “translator” used the King James Version as the base text and simply programmed 80 emoji to replace 200 words in the text of the KJV and only a small percentage of words are actually “translated” into emoji. Indeed, it is nothing more than a KJV with a chiffonade of unimaginative emoji.

It could have been so much more. Maybe it’s that it’s too conservative with its use of emoji, both in the lack of creative and natural uses and in the avoidance of controversial passages. Or perhaps The Brick Testament set the standard too high. Or maybe my theory of translation just doesn’t have room for a plug-and-play approach that doesn’t even pretend to exert any effort to understand the nuances of either the base language or the target language. Or it could be the hope I still harbor of one day creating the GIF Bible.

Regardless, the emoji Bible left me disappointed, unamused, and, as do most things these days, asking “What Would Pierre Bourdieu Say?” Indeed, part of my initial excitement about the emoji Bible was precisely because of what Bourdieu says about the intersection of language, grammar, and power. The lower classes have always pushed the boundaries of language and the elite have always attempted to reinforce certain boundaries. For he who is the arbiter of legitimate language not only exerts power to determine the very legitimacy and worth of people, but also produces the need for his own services and products.

Yet this power is threatened when the lower classes are able to exert more influence than the elite would like. The democratization of the web has resulted in near-effortless influence on language by those who have not been determined to be legitimate by the elite. And so we sit back and watch the anticipated hand wringing of the elite — what Bourdieu called the “petit-bourgeois hypercorrection” —  at the mere possibility of an emoji Bible that might gain even a modicum of popularity.

Take Albert Mohler’s tweeted exasperation for example:

Ah… Dear Millennials, please insist on using WORDS to translate the Bible, not emoji. Please. It’s important. @BibleEmoji

Mohler is the President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He not only has an interest in the Bible, but a particular interest in how it is read and how it is interpreted. His insistence that “WORDS” be used to translate the Bible, and often his insistence on which particular words be used, only stands to benefit him if he can win this linguistic scrum. Mohler knows how to read, translate, and understand the Bible, so you better listen to him. Oh, and if you too want to be a Legitimate Bible Translator, well then you need to fork over the money and go to Mohler’s seminary. Remember, it’s always about money and power.

Bible Emoji may have left me feeling [sad face], but I will do my best to defend it against the power grab of petit-bourgeois hypercorrection, except of course when I am part of the problem.