Books


So I’m staring blankly at this almost-but-not-quite-finished conference paper for the SBL meeting in Boston in a couple of weeks and I keep being distracted by other logismoi. Paper: Physical remains of early Christian memory. Distraction: Wendell Berry and memory. Paper: How books form part of an enculturating process that helps a group achieve some sort of hegemony. Distraction: Berry’s books as challenges to existing cultural hegemony wielded through education, the economy, and the media.

There is a connection here.

Must … resist …

(To Be Continued…)

Thy Word is like a seductress at my feet?

Thy Word is like a seductress at my feet?

Ran across this piece today on Walletpop.com: Flashy ‘Bible’ seeks to inspire the ADHD generation.” Fascinating stuff, and tons of food for thought. The publisher’s basic idea is to produce a New Testament that the visual learner (and, evidently, visual reader) can connect with and relate to. No doubt a second motivation is to capitalize on the popularity of Thomas Nelson’s Revolve Bible with a rival book. The reviewer, Bruce Watson, has this to say about it:

Ab Forlaget’s Bible Illuminated seems designed for people with a total lack of imagination and only a tangential interest in scripture. The text is presented in a three-column style, with highlights around important passages, and key sections reprinted in large-type insets. All in all, the style should be familiar to any reader of Playboy, Harper’s Bazaar, or Us. Essentially, it looks like a fashion mag that has been annotated by a not-particularly-bright high school student.

Bible Illuminated is, as Watson points out, yet another example of how Bibles are produced for niche markets. But usually, these other bibles at least usually “look” like Bibles. Take the very popular Women’s Devotional Bible, for example, or the Mom’s Study Bible, or The Green Bible. These appeal to specific audiences with particular concerns and ideologies that these Bibles highlight and provide commentary on. But they “look” like Bibles in that they are about the same size as most others, actually say “Bible” on the cover, have nice, thin, crisp paper, and are formatted in easily recognized “Bible-style” layout and typeface. The media and the published form of the media tell the reader before even opening the book up that “this is a Bible, and you should read it as a Bible.” There is a material “iconicity” that these books depend on for their use and authority. (Shamless plug alert! Go to the Iconic Books Project Blog at http://iconicbooks.blogspot.com/ , another blog I contribute to, for tons of stuff on the iconicity of books in general, including this new Bible, and world scriptures in particular.)

Like these other “niche Bibles,” Bible Illuminated is oriented to a specific audience: those for whom the only reading they do is the high-gloss eye candy mass produced in pop culture. It’s iconic aspect screams out “Read me like you were reading Cosmo or Maxim!” It is a “hybrid” text that co-opts the material and iconic element of one type of reading in order to seduce the reader into reading something from a totally different iconic plane. In effect, Bible Illuminated is telling us to read the Bible the same way a sixteen-year-old “reads” Playboy or Seventeen.

What is fascinating, though, is that so much of the content in the Bible is tailor-made for a presentation like this. Good preachers interpret the text through verbal and semantic description of the content that makes the text come alive. An image accompanying the Book of Revelation, for example, depicts a young man in flames, apparently trying to hurl himself into a flooded street. One can only imagine what image from pop culture accompanies the story of David and Bathsheba; Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, maybe? Who do they tab to play Hosea’s wife Gomer? Jenna Jameson? The possibilities are endless.

The image of “the Bible” and what it is supposed to look like, feel like, read like, and so on is, I think generally disconnected with much of its content. A hybrid book like the Bible Illuminated may, in some ways, make parts of the Bible that are usually skipped over actually come to life not just for the ADHD generation, but for us old fogeys as well.

St. Benedict reading a bookBooks can be holy objects, and reading is a spiritual discipline. I thought I would here present some thoughts from the Christian ascetic and monastic tradition on books and reading.

1. Antony was so attentive at the reading of the Scripture lessons that nothing escaped him: he retained everything and so his memory served him in place of books. (Life of Antony)

2. The books read at vigils should have divine authority: the Old and New Testaments and explanations of them given by recognized and orthodox fathers. (Rule of St. Benedict)

3. During Lent, they should each receive a book from the library that they are to read straight through to the end. (Rule of St. Benedict)

4. On Sundays, all should devote themselves to reading, except those who are assigned to special duties. (Rule of St. Benedict)

5. Reading is bound to silence. … Constant and attentive reading done devoutly purifies our inner self. (Peter of Celle, The School of the Cloister)

6. I consider a room without reading to be a hell without consolation, an instrument of torture without relief, a prison without light, a tomb without ventilation, a ditch swarming with worms, a strangling noose, the empty house of which the Gospel speaks. (Peter of Celle, On Affliction and Reading)

7. Reading is the food, light, lamp, refuge, solace of the soul, the spice of all spiritual flavors. (Peter of Celle, On Affliction and Reading)

and finally…

8. Study is hard work. It is so much easier to find something else to do in its place than to stay at the grind of it. We have excuses aplenty for avoiding the dull, hard, daily attempt to learn. There is always something so much more important to do than reading. There is always some excuse for not stretching our souls with new ideas and insights now or yet or ever. (Sister Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict)

Word Made Flesh.Whatever else Christian faith may be, it is incarnational at its core. It is common for us to think of this in the classical expression of “God becoming man,” but the gospel of John speaks of it in terms that are not spoken of nearly as much. For John, the incarnation is the Word becoming Flesh.

I offer up some thoughts of reflection on the idea of Word becoming flesh.

Flesh is passionate and desirous.

But it is not only passionate and desirous for other flesh, but also for knowledge.

Knowledge for us comes in the form of Words, and we are oversaturated with words in the twenty-first century.

Knowledge is erotic. The Bible tells us as much in its Hebrew expression, and the classical Greeks knew this to be the case in Homer as well.

To know something is to regard it, and as Jane Hirshfield notes, “what we regard must seduce us, and we it, if we are to continue looking.” The power of the Word is in its power to seduce us and to awaken desire for knowledge.

Adrienne Rich: “I dreamed you were a poem, I say, a poem I wanted to show someone…”

Rich, again:

What kind of beast would turn its life into words?
What kind of atonement is this all about?
-and yet, writing words like these, I’m also living.

and:

I have written so many words
wanting to live inside you
to be of use to you

The Desert Fathers of the Christian tradition believed the flesh to be evil on account of its capacity for passion and desire, and so they fled into the desert, long the archetype of dryness, infertility, and anti-passion. Yet it is in this environment where passion and desire are awakened most. They also had a profound mistrust of the written word, and yet their own words were assiduously recorded onto parchments. It was as if the Fathers knew the eroticism of knowledge and the desire for the Word.

The connection between parched desire and parchment may be more than coincidental.

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I had the good fortune of attending a conference a few weekends back on Iconic Books, which considers the “iconic” role that books and physical texts play in religion and society. On of my personal interests in this is the way that books and scrolls iconically represent power, authority, divine sanction, and so on.

I’ve been engaged in serious reading of the Book of Revelation, and, in this connection, the image, or icon, of the “scroll” is of significant import; we’ve got scrolls being passed around between heavenly beings; God has the 7-sealed scroll written on both sides in his right hand in chapter 5, which gets handed over to the Lamb who proceeds to open the 7 seals; there’s the little open scroll that the angel carries around with him (apparently in his left hand, since his right hand is busy with swearing an oath to heaven) in chapter 10, which he gives to the Seer to eat (and which makes him sick); there are books of judgment, and restrictions on changing the book that John is busy writing.

The image of the scroll in the hands of God, the Lamb, and the Angel preparing the “seven thunders” has stuck with me; I keep thinking I’ve run across this somewhere before, but I haven’t come across anything in my own library of books that reminds me of what I’m thinking about. But in reflecting on the symbolism here, it is clear that the scrolls and books (Revelation uses biblion throughout the text) are signals of the power of God’s rulership over the kingdom(s) of this world and his ability and willingness to exercise judgment over his empire. It’s as if to say that “whoever holds the scroll”, ta biblia, is in charge or an agent of the One in charge.

Then it hit me; this image is exactly the same as the iconic representations of Roman Emperors holding scrolls in their hands. Check it out (Left to Right: Trajan, Alexander Severus, two of Domitian, and Nero):

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Whatever else it may be doing, the scroll certainly is functioning here as an icon of empire; it seems likely that it is doing the same in the book of Revelation as well.

Which leads to another observation: The Bible itself has historically been used as an icon of colonialism and imperialism, either in defense of colonial and imperial power, or, negatively, in rejection of it; rejecting “the Englishman’s book” was one of the strongest signs of rejecting colonial England’s imperial policies and programs.

Similarly, this iconic usage of the scroll/book/Bible is obviously alive and well today; for this phenomenon, I can do no better than to refer readers to the Iconic Book Project’s blog.

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Dear friends and other readers:

I do miss blogging, and thought that I should post a little update on why I’m not really doing much with it these days. Since June, I’ve prioritized my life around my doctoral exams, which will mercifully be over at the end of this month (inshallah). I’ve got a ton of material to blog about though, so “the good stuff” will be back soon. I’ve discovered I feel more connected to my work when I blog about usual topics, so I’m really looking forward to being part of the world again. (And yes, I’m fully aware of the irony in that statement.)

Showtime in two weeks. Wish me luck.

Cover of Davis McCombs, Ultima ThuleI’m sitting here doing a little reading from Davis McCombs’ Ultima Thule, a collection of the author’s poems inspired by Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. Told from the vantage point of a slave cavern guide to tourists of Mammoth Cave in the 19th century, these poems are stunning reflections on beauty and provide some pretty awesome metaphors for life, spirituality, the whole bit. As a religionist and student of scriptures who also views the natural world in metaphoric terms for deep spirituality and community ethics, I was particularly taken by the poem “Tours:”

Tours

The services of a guide cannot, as a rule,
be dispensed with; we alone can disentangle
the winding passageways. I will admit
the tours for me grow burdensome.
How long must I endure their need to fill
with talk the natural silence? I have heard
it all before, their proposed improvements:
Widen the trails so that two carriages
may pass abreast … Here, a capacious ballroom.
Mere fancies. And yet beneath their words
I have discerned a kind of rough-hewn fear.
From drawing rooms and formal gardens
they come to me, from sunlit lives they enter
the chill, grand and instantaneous night. (Ultima Thule, p. 17)

This is such a striking metaphor for what we as educators do. It also speaks to me in terms of stewardship; like the poet, we have all heard of proposed improvements to just about everything from Bibles to Bayous. Despite my vocation, I do feel moved to sometimes just turn off the exegesis, turn off the exposition, the discussion, and just let the text/landscape speak for itself, in silence.

And the rough-hewn fear … yeah, for both student and educator, laity and pastor, reader and expositor.

To do this poem justice, I must cease now, and let it speak to you in the silence.

Carnegie Library at Syracuse UniversityJohn Kimbrough of the University of Chicago Library, recently submitted a thoughtful piece to the university’s Divinity School publication “Sightings on the implications of being a librarian of faith who views his job as “library ministry.” As a former (and, God knows, perhaps eventually a future) academic librarian who shares the Christian tradition, this article caught my eye last week.

Kimbrough makes what most of us in the library field would concede as an obvious point, and indeed, most of the teaching faculty would concede it as well. He notes that “Entering undergraduates often do not know how to use our collections effectively.” Absolutely true, although I would stick my neck out just a little further to emend the last phrase to “do not know how to use our collections at all.” It is also my own observation that graduating seniors and, heaven help us, graduate students are only marginally better at effective collection use. And yes, the internet is partly to blame; Kimbrough rightly points out that “the library is just another website among thousands that students have at their disposal.” But this is a smoke-screen for the larger problem, which is that the librarians themselves are promoting this mentality by providing more and more bibliographies that are available on the library’s websites or reference kiosks that give students the impression that all they could possibly need for their study of religion (or whatever) can simply be picked up at their convenience. I have been guilty of this myself, having developed a number of such bibliographies and research guides. As a reference librarian, students would trickle in for reference assistance, but it was exceedingly rare for a researcher to actually ask a serious research question. Librarian (me): Can I help you with something? Student: No, I think I’m all set, I just grabbed this research guide. Thanks, though. Librarians who are better than I was might pursue the student’s interests a little more here, but usually the student was more than happy to take his or her three-page printed list of reference works and websites and go home and write their paper. And then, the library directors and trustees are perplexed by ever-declining reference statistics and bemoan the loss of the library and its budget.

Now, I’m all for using whatever information resources we as scholars, students, researchers, and teachers have at our disposal. But these can only take us so far if we truly seek knowledge and not simply “information.” Knowledge implies being able to separate the sheep from the goats (theological librarians will understand that remark). In the field of religion, this means assisting in imparting knowledge about texts such as the Hebrew Scriptures, the New Testament, and the Qur’an in the Abrahamic faiths, for example. Library ministry here, as Kimbrough expresses it, would imply the librarian’s ability to sensitively direct students to these texts as well as to sources about them (and there’s no shortage of that). Yet not every student that seeks to read the Hebrew Bible is Jewish, and still less may that student be a religion major, and even less may the student be seeking an academic career in religion. It should be the librarian’s duty, or “ministry,” to grant these students genuine opportunities for authentic textual encounters with the sacred texts and religions of the world.

The ProphetI’m intellectually and rhetorically spent. Accordingly, I leave you with some thoughts on “Talking,” again from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet (60-61):

And then a scholar said, Speak of Talking.
And he answered, saying:
You talk when you cease to be at peace with your thoughts;
And when you can no longer dwell in the solitude of your heart you live in your lips, and sound is a diversion and a pastime.
And in much of your talking, thinking is half murdered.
For thought is a bird of space, that in a cage of words may indeed unfold its wings but cannot fly.

There are those among you who seek the talkative through fear of being alone.
The silence of aloneness reveals to their eyes their naked selves and they would escape.
And there are those who talk, and without knowledge or forethought reveal a truth which they themselves do not understand.
And there are those who have the truth within them, but they tell it not in words.
In the bosom of such as these the spirit dwells in rhythmic silence.

When you meet your friend on the roadside or in the market place, let the spirit in you move your lips and direct your tongue.
Let the voice within your voice speak to the ear of his ear;
For his soul will keep the truth of your heart as the taste of the wine is remembered
When the colour is forgotten and the vessel is no more.

Sister in Lectio DivinaThe ancient reading technique of lectio divina involves reading slowly, in such a way that fosters reflection and contemplation over the content read. It is typical in lectio to read only very small amounts of a text at a time so as to allow the mind to digest and the spirit to absorb. At the heart of this reading was ruminatio, or “rumination;” today, we use this word to mean a way of giving voice to something we’re thinking about (which, come to think of it, seems to be a good definition of “blogging,” at least on this site…). But it was more than that; to “ruminate” in a true spiritual sense is literally to chew on something, to allow the food and all its flavor, juices, and nutrients to be completely chewed up over a long period of chewing in the mouth. When it comes to reading sacred books, be it the Torah, the Tanakh, the New Testament, the Talmuds, the Qur’an, or exhaustive mystical and spiritual traditions of all three of the Abrahamic sibling faiths (or, for that matter the holy books of many others) in all their varieties, rumination remains a powerful metaphor.

So let’s ruminate! Here’s a sampling of things to ruminate on; my selections are not accidental, and will be leading up to something in due course. Chew, chew, chew, and wash them down with the living water of prayer if you need to.

Ezekiel: “Feed your stomach and fill your belly with this scroll that I give you.” I ate it, and it tasted as sweet as honey to me.

John of Patmos: I took the little scroll from the hand of the angel and ate it; it was sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it, my stomach was made bitter.

Talmud Yerushalmi: As the child must satisfy its hunger day by day, so must the grown man busy himself with the Torah.

Talmud Bavli: The words of Torah shall be sharp in your mouth.

Ephrem the Syrian: If there existed only a single sense of the words of Scripture, then the first commentator who came along would discover it, and other hearers would experience neither the labor of searching, nor the joy of finding.

Jane Hirshfield: Let her have time, and silence, / enough paper to make mistakes and go on.

Aidan Kavanagh, O.S.B.: It was a presence, not faith, which drew Moses to the burning bush. And what happened there was a Revelation, not a seminar.

Kathleen Norris: Revelation is not explanation.

The Qur’an: In this way God makes His revelations clear to you, so that you may grow in understanding.

Czeslaw Milosz: I have lived in apocalyptic times, in an apocalyptic century… My work to a large extent belongs to that stream of catastrophist literature that attempts to overcome despair.

Take, eat…

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