One of the lesser known Bruce Springsteen songs is “County Fair.” I hadn’t heard the song until I purchased The Essential Bruce Springsteen some years back when you actually had to buy a disc to get the music. Not a rock-n-roll anthem, it is a quiet, poignant song about the existential pleasures of a county fair. My daughter has been a 4-H member for six years and we’ve annually attended our county fair-the largest free fair east of the Mississippi, it is said-each of those years. In a good year 10,000 people will wander through, looking at farm animals that seem so foreign in our urban lives and which most people only recognize covered in gravy or some glaze. They see the exotic animals and pets so cute that they should be illegal. Like a fledgling college campus there are Arts and Sciences tents. Model planes, model trains, and model automobiles. To a sophisticated adult this might seem like pretty mind-numbing stuff, but I never fail to leave feeling inspired. I play “County Fair” religiously before heading out the door. Yesterday saw the close of the sixty-fifth Somerset County 4-H Fair, and despite the periodic showers, people seemed to be enjoying themselves.
Under the commercial tent stands the Gideons’ table. Each year the fair is literally littered with free Bibles. I noticed with interest that the sign, which had originally read “Free Testaments” had been redacted to “Free New Testaments.” I tried to imagine the conversations, or confrontations that led to such a change. I can’t say for certain, but I suspect Hebrew Bible professors are not among the higher demographics of fair attendees. Most of the colleagues I know would never confront a poor Gideonite about ambiguously handing out New Testaments. I did, however, experience a kind of existential downgrade here. Christians used to declare, doctrinally at least, that the “testaments” were equal. Sure, when you’re standing on the George Washington Bridge trying to decide whether or not to jump, there’s some parts of the older testament that you’d probably be better off not reading. Nevertheless, doesn’t the rule book say the two are part of a whole?
Nationally, as I well know, there are fewer “Old Testament” jobs than “New Testament.” But that slick little book the Gideons hand out feels a lot more streamlined than the bulky full edition. And I also realize that walking around a relaxing event like a county fair, seeking the most innocent kinds of fun imaginable, that a Bible in your hip pocket is probably overkill. There seems to be no devil lurking here among the sheep and the goats. Feet damp from the rain, under a cloudy, August nighttime sky, sitting in the car my daughter reflects on how this is her last fair as a 4-H member. I wish there were some twinkling stars overhead to make this a storybook ending. But all I’ve got is a truncated Bible in my pocket, and it is missing my favorite part.