At the end of the last century, a 20-year project to clean the soot and grime off the Sistine Chapel ceiling was finally completed. In my book After Chapters and Verses, I use this cleaning as an analogy for the way The Books of the Bible similarly strips away the accumulated accretions that have obscured the original appearance of the biblical writings.
It should be noted, however, that this cleaning was actually quite controversial.
Many responded with delight and wonder to the discovery that Michelangelo’s colors had originally been so bright and bold. But others were deeply disappointed. They felt that the true art of the chapel was its frescoes as they had come to be known. They lamented that this art was lost forever when the darkening and harmonizing patina was taken away to reveal what they derided as “ice cream colors“ beneath.
As one observer put it, “Many people loved the Sistine Chapel’s subtle hues and shadowy figures and were dismayed by the brilliant pink, turquoise, lapis blue, and tangerine now uncovered from beneath centuries of candle smoke and other gunk. Through the dramatic transformation, these people lost what they had loved—even if they might have gained a masterpiece more similar to what Michelangelo had created.”
Another observer (Tim Griffins, in a post no longer on line) said the cleaning of the ceiling raised the profound question, “What is art?” He wondered, “Do cultural associations and markings of the passage of time heighten or mar the aesthetic value of art?”
This same question applies to the Bible. Is the traditional Bible, like a sooty fresco by Michaelangelo, actually better off for the wear? In other words, have the chapter and verse divisions become an essential part of what the Bible now is for us today?
For many people, they apparently have. One young man described his initial experience with The Books of the Bible this way: “My very first impression was one of discomfort. It felt weird and somewhat disrespectful to me to pick up the Bible as a book without those little verse numbers and chapter headings. Bibles have those.”
However, after he had read in the edition for a little while, he changed his mind. “Reading Scripture this way flows beautifully,” he reported. “Rather than missing the verse numbers and chapter headings, I like them gone. They got in the way.”
In the end this young man had a very positive experience with the Bible in a new format. But a certain belief nearly prevented this—that when it comes to chapters and verses, “Bibles have those.”
Expressed more generally, this is the belief that the Bible is what it has become. This is actually an aesthetic commitment: that a work of art is not finished or complete in the form in which its creator releases it. Rather, it continues to grow and take on substance and meaning throughout its subsequent history as a cultural artifact. If that’s the case, then something essential to the Bible actually is lost when the shaping of later centuries is undone, as happens in The Books of the Bible.
Does the full creative process include settings and adaptations introduced by later users? Do the marks of an artistic creation’s subsequent history as a cultural artifact become part of its essential substance and meaning? Is the Bible what it has become over the centuries? And if so, does that mean we should keep engaging the Bible as it has come to be known, rather than seeking to repristinate it in some way? I’ll start exploring these questions next time by considering another artistic creation that has become a cultural icon.