Is the Bible what it has become?

In this series I’ve used the following examples to explore generally whether the accumulated marks of an artistic creation’s subsequent history as a cultural artifact become part of its essential substance and meaning.  I’ve done this as a means of asking specifically whether chapters and verses and other historical accretions should now be considered an integral part of the Bible:
– The cleaning of the Sistine Chapel ceiling;
– The famous crack in the Liberty Bell; and
– The isolation of the figure from Whistler’s painting Arrangement in Grey and Black as “Whistler’s Mother.”

What can each of these examples help us understand about the Bible?

To take them in reverse order, the detail from Whistler’s painting provides a great example of how “snippets” from an artistic creation can be isolated and given a meaning contrary to the one the artist intended.  This effect is particularly pronounced when they’re also given a different name and when other material is added that reinforces the contrary meaning, like the potted flowers in the “Mothers of America” stamp.

This happens all the time with the Bible.  Episodes or even sentences are snipped out, isolated, and supplemented, and as a result, even if they still say something edifying, we miss what they really meant in their original context.  The “parable of the prodigal son,” for example, is a wonderful story of repentance and reconciliation, but if we don’t see it as only one part of the “parable of the unforgiving older brother,” we miss the overall point that Jesus wanted to make.  So there’s a strong case for the approach taken in The Books of the Bible:  removing chapters and verses and headings and presenting the books of the Bible as whole literary compositions.

However, the example of the Liberty Bell shows us that sometimes the settings and adaptations introduced by later users can enhance rather than obscure the original creative intentions behind what has become a cultural artifact.  This is true of the Bible in the sense that all of its individual works take on a deeper significance (but one that is still consistent with their original meaning) when they are gathered into a collection where they can be read in light of one another and in light of the grand story they all tell together.  The Books of the Bible is designed to encourage such a reading by grouping those books that can be read most meaningfully together and by situating each book within the grand story of Scripture.

Finally, the example of the cleaning of the Sistine Chapel ceiling shows that we do become accustomed to engaging artistic creations as they have become known, and that it can be a pleasant surprise (or even an unpleasant shock) to encounter them in something much closer to their original form.

Some people may always prefer what the Bible has become, and see it as a book inherently divided into chapters and verses.  But our hope is that through The Books of the Bible, many will be able to encounter the artistic creations (literary compositions) it contains in a form much closer to their original one, and so have a more enjoyable and meaningful encounter with God’s word than they otherwise would have had.

Interior page from The Books of the Bible

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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