Many of the patients I see in the hospital have difﬁculty reading. They often ask for bibles. Gideons give us bibles to hand out to patients, and patients may know this, or it may be a way for them to say they are Christian: “Can you give me a bible, chaplain?” A bible on your shelf is a marker, a sign of who you are. But do they ever read them? And if they do, if they open a bible at random and start reading, is that likely to be a good thing?
It’s made me think a lot about our bookish bible culture in church. Bibles as presents for the children, bibles in the pews, and “Here’s the reference for the reading this morning. Can you come to the front in ten minutes and read it out?” Is this how it should be?
Bibles used to be expensive. When the King of Northumbria asked the monks at Jarrow to make him six copies of the bible in about 700AD, the ﬁrst thing he had to do was give the monks enough land to raise 2,000 head of cattle. Seriously expensive. And, of course, few people could read. And even if you could, it might not be as easy as we expect.
Here’s the beginning of Mark’s gospel as it would have appeared if it had been in English, and if you had been able to get hold of one of the very rare copies:
No punctuation, no gaps between the words, and the occasional abbreviation. If someone handed you that at the start of the service, you’d have a job doing a ﬂuent reading!
So I suppose they didn’t use it as we do. You wouldn’t read i.t out in church. You might puzzle over it and work it out by yourself and then retell it in church, but you wouldn’t simply read it out. It would be virtually impossible. You would have to decode it more than read it out.
Perhaps we modern people use the bible in an odd way. We just read it out, or read it to ourselves and expect it to make sense, like the newspaper. But it needs more work. It needs to be interpreted, decoded, performed, and brought to life. We will probably need the help of others to make sense of it. It’s not an easy book.
I still give bibles out, but I also tell bible stories a lot more. And I think that in church we should pay more attention to the telling and living of the bible. The text within the covers is just the code. It only starts to communicate when we give it voice and character.