The Bible as Icon

By Caroline Langston 8-15-2013
Old tattered Bible spine, Janaka Dharmasena /
Old tattered Bible spine, Janaka Dharmasena /

For Vic Sizemore

With six children in a Southern Baptist family in the 1970s, we could easily have had a dozen Bibles in the house. There was the giant, gray Family Bible with the embossed cover that resided on the bottom shelf of the living room, which nobody ever read. And there was a scattering of those palm-sized New Testament and Psalms around the place, like silverfish in a drawer — always white or pale green, with ersatz gold leafing that would flake off under the prodding of a fingernail.

There was a Novum Testamentum from when my oldest sister took Latin in college, sandwiched on a shelf. I also always liked the ones from the Gideons (do the Gideons even still exist?) that had translations of John 3:16 in the back. My favorite: Sinhalese.

The vast majority, though, were what could be termed “presentation Bibles.” Invariably from Broadman Press (headquartered in Nashville, the Baptist Vatican), either slick shoe-polish black or steak-slab red “bonded leather” (Ooh, baby!), these had been awarded as part of Sunday school or Scripture memorization schemes, and always had about them the whiff of bribery, with the name of the person to whom the Bible was “dedicated” written in ostentatious cursive in the front. “The Words of Christ Are in Red,” it was noted, and in the back was a sheaf of biblical maps, the topography of the Exodus, and Paul’s missionary journeys rendered in Sweet Tart pink and blue.

I received my Red Letter Edition from the hand of the Rev. James F. Yates some time in second grade, on one of the Sundays I was actually compelled to show up for Sunday school. Brother Yates was a towering figure in the Southern Baptist Convention in the years before what was later termed the “1978 conservative takeover.” In the little speech that accompanied the gift, he charged us all to read our Bibles so much that they would end up looking wrecked.

That was a tall order in my family’s household. As I’ve said before, we weren’t those kind of Baptists. I could count on one hand — one finger, even — the Bibles that actually had a broken spine in our house: the one into which my mother stuffed the yellowed wedding announcements and “Along the RFD” columns from the Clarion-Ledger newspaper.

But I believed in Jesus. Overnight, as though descending into a cataclysm of words, I became someone who was charged with reading those words, the Word, every day.

Reading the Bible was what real Christians did; it was a key metonymy indicating that the reader truly did have a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” — unlike those nominal schlubs who thought that showing up at 11 a.m. on Sunday and “being a good person” (Oh, the nerve of that!) were enough to merit the Kingdom.

Reading the Bible, meanwhile, took place in “quiet times” that optimally occurred first thing in the morning. (It was often hotly debated whether it actually “counted” otherwise.) I smile at that term “quiet times” now; it has a condescending euphemistic sound of something that might be sold in the drugstore Family Planning aisle.

The talk about quiet time, for my friends at church and then in fellowship groups as I went through college and after, was how hard it was to actually have them. It was too easy to get distracted by Morning Zoo radio and then, when we were older, by NPR, or The New York Times. A day in which I plowed through another chapter of Ezekiel or practiced memorizing a Psalm or Proverb was a victory achieved.

I look back at the Bible I owned then, a New American Standard as big as a clock radio — or at least as big as clock radios used to be. (Are there even still clock radios? Or is everything phones now?) The leather covers are torn as though by an act of violence, and to look at it, I took seriously the Jewish sage Yochanan Ben Bag Bag’s oft-quoted dictum to “Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it.” (Though he was speaking strictly about the Hebrew Scriptures.) The thin pages are wrinkled from reading, and the margins are laced with blue ballpoint commentary I can now barely read. Verse upon verse is underlined.

I jest about the Bible culture I received along with the faith, the ways the Bible itself (and I mean the object) became an icon (and far too often, an idol) expressive of our belief and hopes — and ultimately our pride. I do not, though, believe any less in the value of daily Bible readings, read — yes — every morning.

Now I read the Bible on my phone instead; yes, via a simple online sign-up through the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North America, I have the daily readings of Epistle and Gospel delivered to the glowing blue virtual lozenge I hold in my hand.

The “real” Bible, meanwhile — the one with gold leaf and bonded leather — rests atop a table at my home altar, under an icon of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. I have taught my children to search out chapter and verse, and am working on having them memorize the order of the books, but the Bible is something chanted for them, breathed in and out of the liturgical year, and witnessed in brilliant egg tempera on frescoes, not a legal document leafed and inter-leafed for illustrations and exceptions.

Their understanding of the Bible both predates the West and postdates logo-centric culture.

And the crazy truth of it is, I read the Bible more now; its narratives and discontinuous continuities inspire me, serving as greater and more effective boundaries to my ethical imagination. The Bible is, for me, no longer a matter of concepts, but of the person whom they picture — I cannot imagine anything more evangelical, and Orthodox, and Catholic, all at once.

It is the unseen Image breathing at the center. It is the reality that I think disenchanted American youth seek when they set out, almost as by default, for the truth at the heart of eastern meditation.

It’s here too, I want to say. Here. Now. Here. Ever.e

A native of Yazoo City, Mississippi, Caroline Langston is a convert to the Eastern Orthodox Church. She is a widely published writer and essayist, a winner of the Pushcart Prize, and a commentator for NPR’s “All Things Considered.”This post originally appeared the Good Letters blog HERE.

Image: Old tattered Bible spine, Janaka Dharmasena /

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