The Bible as Icon

The Bible as Icon August 9, 2013

For Vic Sizemore

With six children in a Southern Baptist family in the 1970s, we could easily have had a dozen Bibles in the house: There was the giant, gray Family Bible with the embossed cover that resided on the bottom shelf of the living room, which nobody ever read. And there was a scattering of those palm-sized New Testament and Psalms around the place, like silverfish in a drawer—always white or pale green, with ersatz gold leafing that would flake off under the prodding of a fingernail.

There was a Novum Testamentum from when my oldest sister took Latin in college, sandwiched on a shelf. I also always liked the ones from the Gideons (do the Gideons even still exist?) that had translations of John 3:16 in the back. My favorite: Sinhalese.

The vast majority, though, were what could be termed “presentation Bibles.” Invariably from Broadman Press (headquartered in Nashville, the Baptist Vatican), either slick shoe-polish black or steak-slab red “bonded leather” (Ooh, baby!), these had been awarded as part of Sunday School or scripture memorization schemes, and always had about them the whiff of bribery, with the name of the person to whom the Bible was “dedicated” written in ostentatious cursive in the front. “The Words of Christ Are in Red,” it was noted, and in the back was a sheaf of Biblical maps, the topography of the Exodus and Paul’s missionary journeys rendered in Sweet Tart pink and blue.

I received my Red Letter Edition from the hand of the Reverend James F. Yates some time in second grade, on one of the Sundays I was actually compelled to show up for Sunday school. Brother Yates was a towering figure in the Southern Baptist Convention in the years before what was later termed the “1978 conservative takeover.” In the little speech that accompanied the gift, he charged us all to read our Bibles so much that they would end up looking wrecked.

That was a tall order in my family’s household. As I’ve said before, we weren’t those kind of Baptists. I could count on one hand—one finger, even—the Bibles that actually had a broken spine in our house: The one into which my mother stuffed the yellowed wedding announcements and “Along the RFD” columns from the Clarion-Ledger newspaper.

But I believed in Jesus. Overnight, as though descending into a cataclysm of words, I became someone who was charged with reading those words, the Word, every day.

Reading the Bible was what real Christians did; it was a key metonymy indicating that the reader truly did have a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ”—unlike those nominal schlubs who thought that showing up at 11 a.m. on Sunday and “being a good person” (Oh, the nerve of that!) were enough to merit the Kingdom.

Reading the Bible, meanwhile, took place in “quiet times” that optimally occurred first thing in the morning. (It was often hotly debated whether it actually “counted” otherwise.) I smile at that term “quiet times” now; it has a condescending euphemistic sound of something that might be sold in the drugstore Family Planning aisle.

The talk about quiet time, for my friends at church and then in fellowship groups as I went through college and after, was how hard it was to actually have them. Too easy to get distracted by Morning Zoo radio and then, when we were older, by NPR, or The New York Times. A day in which I plowed through another chapter of Ezekiel or practiced memorizing a Psalm or Proverb was a victory achieved.

I look back at the Bible I owned then, a New American Standard as big as a clock radio—or at least as big as clock radios used to be. (Are there even still clock radios? Or is everything phones now?) The leather covers are torn as though by an act of violence, and to look at it, I took seriously the Jewish sage Yochanan Ben Bag Bag’s oft-quoted dictum to “Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it.” (Though he was speaking strictly about the Hebrew Scriptures.) The thin pages are wrinkled from reading, and the margins are laced with blue ballpoint commentary I can now barely read. Verse upon verse is underlined.

I jest about the Bible culture I received along with the faith, the ways the Bible itself (and I mean the object) became an icon (and far too often, an idol) expressive of our belief and hopes—and ultimately our pride. I do not, though, believe any less in the value of daily Bible readings, read—yes—every morning.

Now I read the Bible on my phone instead: Yes, via a simple online sign-up through the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North America, I have the daily readings of Epistle and Gospel delivered to the glowing blue virtual lozenge I hold in my hand.

The “real” Bible, meanwhile—the one with gold leaf and bonded leather—rests atop a table at my home altar, under an icon of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. I have taught my children to search out chapter and verse, and am working on having them memorize the order of the books, but the Bible is something chanted for them, breathed in and out of the Liturgical year, and witnessed in brilliant egg tempera on frescoes, not a legal document leafed and interleafed for illustrations and exceptions.

Their understanding of the Bible both predates the West and postdates logo-centric culture.

And the crazy truth of it is, I read the Bible more now: its narratives and discontinuous continuities inspire me, serving as greater and more effective boundaries to my ethical imagination. The Bible is, for me, no longer a matter of concepts, but of the person whom they picture—I cannot imagine anything more evangelical, and Orthodox, and Catholic, all at once.

It is the unseen Image breathing at the center. It is the reality that I think disenchanted American youth seek when they set out, almost as by default, for the truth at the heart of eastern meditation.

It’s here too, I want to say. Here. Now. Here. Ever.

A native of Yazoo City, Mississippi, Caroline Langston is a convert to the Eastern Orthodox Church. She is a widely published writer and essayist, a winner of the Pushcart Prize, and a commentator for NPR’s “All Things Considered.”

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  • ric

    The Gideons are very much in existence. They just had their convention here in Orlando, Florida and one of the Gideons from Australia spoke at our Episcopal cathedral. It is still a great ministry.

    • Caroline

      Hi Ric- This is great news to me, and I am so happy, as I have seen fewer Gideons Bibles around….interesting note: when I was in India 18 years ago, they had Gideons Bibles right there with the Bhagavad Gita!

  • Vic

    Ah, yes, the Quiet Time. We were even given a notebook to prove we’d been doing it, called The Quiet Time Diary.
    Thanks, Caroline.

    • Caroline

      Hey Vic- Do you still have yours? I’d love to hear what some Quiet Time thoughts a la 1982 would be like…

      • Vic

        I never wrote in mine. My sister did though.

  • As a child, I used to check the drawers in the motel and hotel rooms for the Gideon Bible, so I could look at these pages with the translations of John 3:16. I would often try to read aloud the words (especially the Italian translation) to see how these sounded. I believe this is how my fascination with foreign languages got started, although I have yet to become fluent enough that I could make myself understood were I to go to Italy or Spain.

    • Caroline

      HI Lola! it’s delightful to know I wasn’t alone in loving that section of the Gideons Bible…why in specific did Italian attract you, do you think?

    • Keivan

      I used to read those translations of John 3:16 too. They fascinated me. It put me on the road to being a language fanatic as well. I’m glad I was not alone. I used to wonder where Persian was among the list, and marvel that Malaysian used Arabic script.

  • Tracy Dowling

    I grew up in Bible Belt culture, the only Catholic in my high school class, and it annoyed me mightily that those Baptists and Methodist could quote Scripture all around me…even correcting my pronunciation of Genesis (I pronounced both e’s long).

    Still it ignited an inner vow, that one day I would know it better than they and what’s more I would know what it meant! (Not realizing that I had been reading it all along…what else is the Catholic liturgy if not a series of readings from Scripture, coupled with the Eucharistic miracles, which those Protestants didn’t have and would never have understood.

    The 21st century culture (Western culture) that is becoming increasingly Christophobic needs to hear the Gospel and see it lived. Obviously the seeds of faith planted by those Sunday school prizes did blossom.

    Tracy Dowling

    • Caroline

      Thank you, Tracy, for the kind compliment. Trying to pray more is helping me read the Gospels more…

  • Lothars Sohn

    Hello Caroline, I appreciate your strong devotion and willingness to serve the Lord.

    Do you still believe in Biblical inerrancy as an eastern orthodox?

    I was an evangelical but left the movement behind once I understood that inerrancy leads us to assert that God ordered a genocide.

    In the bronze age, the ancient people didn’t know better, but nowadays, it is a true blasphemous to say such a thing.

    And I’m wandering over the spiritual landscape, at the search of a church where I’ll feel at home at last.

    KInd regards from Germany.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

    • Caroline

      Dear Lothar: First of all, please know that you will be in my prayers and that I do believe your Search will bear fruit. I am hoping that you will check back for this page, and to be sure, I will also venture to your wordpress page.

      With respect to inerrancy, I want to be careful about what I say: I have some personal theories about the things you find troubling, but I don’t think they matter; it’s what the Church teaches that I submit to.

      Orthodox believe that the the Bible is the Word of God; they do not conceive of inerrancy in the same manner as Protestants do. Interpretation of the Bible is through the lens of Holy Tradition.

      I find the same things troubling that you do. I urge you to look into –the very wide body Orthodox teaching and learning on these issues. You will find folks you agree with–I’d perhaps start with the Orthodox Peace Fellowship– and monastic sources–and you will find other aspects of theology for which you have far less admiration. (OPF fellowship founder Jim Forest lives in the Netherlands, so perhaps you can make some connections there.) A quick scan on the Internet tells me that there are several Orthodox churches in Berlin, so perhaps you can start there.

      Any Orthodox friends out there, please feel free to correct or add to what I have written above: I am the chief of sinners, as we Orthodox say.

      Lothars, much peace and joy and knowledge to you on your search. I will contact you so you can write to me privately if you wish.

      • Lothars Sohn

        Thank you Caroline, I appreciate your love and the way you describe your faith. I hope you’re also going to find valuable or entertaining posts on my own blog.

        I’ll follow up your next entries.

        I’m in the middle of an ongoing journey.

        Lovely greetings from Germany.

        Liebe Grüsse aus Deutschland.

        Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

  • Wonderful piece Caroline. This post is indicative of a lot of those in evangelicalism who grew up loving the bible but not falling in love with the Word. I especially love this quote: “And the crazy truth of it is, I read the Bible more now: its narratives
    and discontinuous continuities inspire me, serving as greater and more
    effective boundaries to my ethical imagination.”

    • Caroline

      Thank you so much for your kind words, Robbie? Where are you writing from and what’s your background vis a vis the Word?