Thursday, September 20, 2007
I just today became aware of an amazing Bible project called the Saint John's Bible, a project that began in 1998. Using the NRSV as its text (with Apocrypha), its goal is to visually translate the Scriptures into a present Word that is beautiful to the eyes as well as the ears. Each calligrapher or artisan painstakingly sets to his craft on the canvas of some 1,150 stretched calfskin vellum pages. "The entire process flies in the face of modernity's worship of speed and efficiency," writes Jennifer Trafton of Christianity Today. "This is no longer the Middle Ages. We have the printing press. We have computers. What does the handwritten word have that the mass-printed word doesn't? The Saint John's team hopes more Americans will ask that question."
I really appreciate the seemingly profligate expenditure of time and money to create this Bible a la the medieval scribal traditions of Roman Catholic monasteries. It's an extravagant waste. Perhaps we in the Evangelical world so value getting God's Word into everyone's hands and getting it worked into every detail of our lives that we've lost some of its reverence. In many Catholic and Orthodox worship services, canticles of praise accompany the entrance of God's Word into the sanctuary. Even Jewish and Islamic calligraphers pore over making their scriptures beautiful. Ought not we do the same?
With our super-crammed schedules--or at least schedules that are poorly prioritized and organized--we modern Americans are so quick to demand everything right now. The ubiquity of television dinners and fast food, high-speed Internet access, and cell phones with mobile e-mail make us think that a life lived faster and more simply is a life better lived. Patience is so passe. This is probably why poetry, a literary form exalted in other regions of the world, is all but dead and left in the gutter in the U.S. It's not practical. It takes a long time to read and appreciate. And who thinks in words like that? Surely poets need to get a life and a real job.
Even in my daily life I find hurry and instant gratification to be at the fore of my goals. I daily fuss and ponder over whether or not my students are growing and if I'm cut out to be a teacher. I am incredibly frustrated with the lack of reading and thinking skills displayed by many of my tenth- and eleventh-grade students. As if sixteen years of lack of parental involvement can be overcome in the three weeks I've taught so far! I find myself placing demands on myself and my students that are simply unrealistic. We've got another eight-plus months together; we've got a lot of time. I need a lot of time.
Our life is but a breath, it's true, if we choose to neglect the living God and squander our time. It will be wasted in fruitless vanity. But for those of us who want to live a Godward life, we find the word "patience" splattered all over the pages of the Bible (or perhaps finely inscribed upon the pages of the Saint John's Bible). Co-opting Nietzsche's words, the ever-colorful Eugene Peterson calls our life "a long obedience in the same direction." And God himself says the same. He calls us in one place "oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he may display his beauty" (Isaiah 61:3). Oaks are ancient trees, only maturing over many decades into the stalwarts we swung from and climbed upon in the days of our youth. In like fashion, we are elsewhere called God's "workmanship" (Greek poiema, from which we get the word poem), lives marked out for love and crafted for worship since before the ages began and only now called into being (Ephesians 2:10; cf. 1:4; 2 Timothy 1:9). The Ancient of Days is himself just fine with patient waiting. Perhaps poetry isn't so dumb after all.