I went to a fascinating exhibition last week in the British Library at St Pancras. It was an exhibition of Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts, some of them over 1000 years old. There were all sorts of documents, but quite a few of those on display, inevitably, were bits of the Bible – Psalters, or Gospel books. They’d obviously been very precious to those who had originally commissioned, owned and used them, rich and powerful people – you had to have been to have been able to afford them. Some were beautifully illustrated, others were plain, but each one would have taken a huge amount of work to produce.
First you had to make the vellum they were written on. It was made from calf skins, carefully scraped and processed. Then you had to make the ink, from oak galls – the hard substance which forms on oak trees around the larva of the oak gall moth. They had to be crushed up and left in water for several days in the sun to make the ink. When that was ready you had to make your quills, from goose feathers – first catch your goose! – and not just any feathers either. Only the first five flight feathers could be used. Then you had to score and mark the lines on your vellum. Only then, laboriously and slowly, could you start to write, but only if there was natural light to write by, or perhaps the precious light of a candle. Progress would have been achingly slow in the winter months, and cold, because that natural light would come through windows that were without glass.
No wonder books were a luxury item, not something ordinary people would every have owned, even if they could read. The books that were most often produced, of course, were books of the Bible, but usually only selections from it – Gospels or Psalms perhaps. One volume Bibles were vanishingly rare, because they would have taken such huge resources to produce, and been enormous themselves. In fact, the oldest surviving one volume Latin Bible in the world is on display in that British Library exhibition. It’s called the Codex Amiatinus, - I’ve put a picture of it on the pew sheets. It’s one of three which were produced in the great double monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow in the North East of England, around 700 AD. Only this one copy survives and it is normally kept in Florence, but it’s come back to the British Isles for the first time since 716AD for this exhibition. It’s an impressive piece of work which took decades to make . It took 515 calf skins to make. It’s about a foot thick, and 18 inches tall. It weighs over 5 stone – apparently about the same as a fully grown Great Dane, if that helps. This one copy survived because it was sent to the Pope of the time as a gift – a great and costly book for a great and very important person. It would have been a rare treasure, even for him – a bible in one volume.
It wasn’t until the invention of moveable type by Gutenberg that most people would ever have had a hope of reading the whole Bible for themselves, providing they could read at all, of course. Thankfully, it’s now easily available to most people in a language they can understand. A quick sweep around my house revealed at least 20 Bibles, in a variety of translations and in several languages too. I’ve also got one on my Kindle, and often use an online Bible as well.
So - job done, we might think; the word of God, in everyone’s hands.
But it’s not as simple as that, because having access to a Bible is one thing; reading it and understanding it is quite another, and in some ways the production of one volume, printed Bibles can complicate the way we read it, and bring its own problems.
That’s partly because it was never really intended to be a book at all. The Latin word from which we get Bible was Biblia, and it meant library, not book. It’s not meant to be one story but lots of stories, many different types of writing – poetry, history, law, prophecy, folk tales – all written to be read in different ways. Binding the Scriptures into one volume makes them seem, literally, black and white, static, fixed. It gives the impression too, that the Bible tells one unified story, as if written by one hand, at one moment, that it will be internally consistent and always say the same thing, and the Bible just isn’t like that. It is the record of many different people wrestling with their faith, glimpsing God, struggling to work out what it means to live as the people of God. It isn’t a book, it is many books, many voices, many viewpoints, some of them in dialogue, or even argument with each other. It doesn’t always even agree with itself. That’s why it has been used to justify slavery and to inspire the campaign against it. That’s why it has been used to oppress women and LGBT people but has also encouraged them with stories of people who went against the grain of their society and found new ways to live and to love. That’s why it has been used to send soldiers to war but also to inspire those who work for peace.
I’m always suspicious when people say that they are “Bible-believing” Christians, because I want to know which bits of the Bible they believe in. Usually it is the bits that bolster whatever they already think, not the bits that challenge or confuse them. In a sense we expect too much of it – that it will give us easy, consistent answers to life, the universe and everything – but in doing so we also expect too little of it, missing the richness of its diverse bagginess, its living, breathing power to reveal God in the here and now.
The diversity of voices in the Bible are its strength and beauty, but they call us to be brave when we read it, to give up our longing for simple answers to complicated questions. They call us to look through it as well as at it, and most of all, to be alert to the moments when we feel the breath of God coming from its pages. As Jesus says in the Gospel, to the Jewish leaders who are challenging his claim to have come with a message from God. “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life… Yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” They are so busy reading the words that have become sacred to them, beautifully inscribed in their sacred scrolls, that they miss the living Word of God who is standing in front of them in flesh and blood reality. We do the same when we put law before love, ancient texts written in contexts unimaginably different from our own before the real needs of living, breathing people around us.
Anyone who knows me at all will know that I’m a huge fan of the Bible, and I spend a lot of time and energy encouraging people to read it and enjoy it, but it is really important how we read it. It isn’t God. We mustn’t put it on a pedestal and worship it. Whenever we read it we need to ask not, “What does the Bible say?” but “what might God be saying to me, today, through the Bible”. Our collect for today, an ancient and beloved collect adapted from the Book of Common Prayer tells us to “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest” – and it’s that last bit that really makes the difference. Undigested food just produces pain; undigested Bible texts do the same. Digestion takes time, but eventually - we are what we eat – it nourishes and shapes us, giving us life, rather than just heartburn.
There are many ways of reading the Bible which encourage digestion, but a technique that works for me, that helps me to slow down and engage with the Bible with the whole of myself is to remind myself to read it with my head, my heart and my hands – apologies to those whom I have bored to death with this technique over the years!
First we read with our heads. We ask what the context is of what we are reading, what’s happening, who wrote it, why, for whom, when? We ask factual questions of it. Who are these people? Where are these places?
Second we read with our hearts. What do we feel about what we are reading? What happens when we imagine ourselves in the story? Where does it comfort us, or discomfort us and why? What bells does it ring with us? What experiences of our own does it touch on?
Finally we read with our hands. What response does it call for from us? That might mean prayer, or action, change in our own lives.
The head, the heart and the hands… It’s not magic, but it might just help us to engage honestly with what we hear and read. What really matters, though is that we start out with the expectation that we will discover God in the scriptures, not a set of rules, that we will encounter the living Word, not simply the words on the page.
That’s what happened to one small girl, about ten years old, who one day heard a teacher in her school reading the passage from the prophecy of Isaiah which we’ve heard today. “Seek the Lord while he may be found,” he read, “call upon him while he is near.” Those words hit that little girl between the eyeballs. They made her think, “perhaps I should look for God now, whatever that means. Maybe this is a moment that really matters”. That started a lifetime’s journey in the company of God, whom she often encountered in the words of this ancient collection of books, which strengthened her, comforted her, challenged her, inspired her, sometimes amused her or amazed her. I know all this because I was that little girl, and that experience, the experience of hearing God speak through the words of the Bible, was the first step on the road that has brought me to where I am now.
The Bible is a wonderful treasury of wisdom and of folly, inviting us to find ourselves within its ancient stories of love and hatred, of joy and despair, but inspiring us , too, to be part of the story God is telling now, through our lives.
I wonder what God might be saying to you through it today?