I finally made it over to the Chazen Art Museum to take in the current exhibition featuring illuminations and text from the St. John’s Bible. Surprisingly, seeing the text of the New Revised Standard Version in beautiful calligraphy had a more profound effect on me than the many remarkable illuminations. Seeing familiar words in a radically different form on a very different medium was strange, powerful, and revelatory.
As I wandered through the exhibition, reading Psalms and other texts I know by heart, texts I’ve preached, study, taught, the text became holy again, sacralized by the vellum, the years of work and craftsmanship, the beauty on the page. As I wandered and paused to read familiar passages, I realized how very different this encounter with scripture was from my normal experience of it.
I rarely read the text of the Bible on a printed page. When I read scripture, whether it’s studying in preparation for a sermon or the personal devotion of the daily office, the text I read is digital, on a computer screen or ipad. There are sound reasons for this. Access is much quicker and easier. I can call up the text I want in my web browser or my daily office app. I can manipulate the font size to make it easier to read; I can easily cut and paste the verses I want into the text I’m working on. All of that instrumentalizes the text. Even when I’m praying the psalms or using lectio divina, I’m approaching the text of scripture using the same techniques and technology that I use when I’m browsing the web or reading online. The text serves me; it’s at my beck and call.
One of the most disorienting things about the St. John’s Bible is that it is the New Revised Standard Version—the version I use when preaching; the version I used when I taught Bible. It’s the version I know; the version I’ve instrumentalized. Even more shocking is that the calligraphers included the footnotes from the NRSV, the textual variants or alternative translations that complicate the text. To see even this minimal scholarly apparatus in beautiful calligraphy, at the bottom of beautiful pages is jarring.
The exhibition includes items related to the production of the Bible. At the very end are several examples of early printed bibles, a leaf from one of the first editions of the Authorized Version (King James Version) from the collection of the Hill Monastic Library at St. John’s University, and two 17th-century editions of the same version from the University of Wisconsin Library. The inclusion of the two latter bibles in the exhibition invites reflection about the different role of scripture in print and Protestant culture as opposed to its role in Medieval Christianity. The Protestant Reformation was shaped by the new technology of printing and Protestant culture was shaped by printing as well. The possibility of cheap, mass-produced bibles was unthinkable in the fifteenth century. While printing made the text accessible to anyone who could read (or hear), it also began a process of transformation that has only been accelerated by the arrival of the computer. The introduction of versification led to the extraction of the text from its literary context, just as my ability to call up the verse I want on the internet permits me to ignore the same literary context. That, along with the reproduction of the text on cheap paper and in cheap bindings, appearing visually very much like any other text we might encounter, allows us to approach the text, to read it even, less deferentially. What we have gained in accessibility over the last five hundred years we may have lost in sacrality.
More information on The St. John’s Bible is available here: http://www.saintjohnsbible.org