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There’s more to Bible reading than… The printed page

At last it’s time for the final post in this series! In part 1 I questioned whether we should see ‘personal Bible reading’ (Quiet Time) as our default mode of accessing the Bible. In part 2, seeing as Christianity is a way of life, I asked what it would look like if we actively treated the Bible as a community experience. In part 3 I looked at the formatting of our Bibles and made the case for verse-free Bible reading.

We’ve covered a lot of ground in these posts, and I hope you’ve found some fruitful ideas along the way! That’s been my goal throughout: to increase our engagement with the Bible and undermine some things that might hamper that. For example, I’m convinced that a reader’s Bible is one thing which could genuinely transform our Bible reading on a mass scale, so I was thrilled to see so much interest in The Books of the Bible when I gave a preview.

But it’s interesting to think that the first Christians were often not Bible readers. Their primary experience of Scripture was through oral performance. Today we have a wealth of mediums for accessing the Bible, and I don’t think we should limit this by any means. But we sometimes seem to think that, since the word has been written down, the written medium trumps all others. So, let’s conclude this series with a short audiovisual tour, asking: how can we engage with the Bible beyond the printed page?

Performance: the Backyard Bard

Some of you will be familiar with audio Bibles — probably more than me! I’m not sure I’ve ever found one that really gels (the speakers’ accents get weird). I’d love to hear your suggestions in the comments.

But the kind of performance I want to canvas here is the live kind. Melbourne-based The Backyard Bard is a team of storytellers who bring the Bible to life. Check out this 20 minute performance from December 2012, as Simon Camilleri dramatises a huge slab of Jesus’ teaching, word for word:

The Backyard Bard also provides training sessions to local churches, and that’s where this really hits home. We’re not all Bible storytellers, but I’m sure that all of our churches have more room for this. Do our public Bible readings and readers come with a sense of performance, aesthetics, and embodiment? When the Bible is read aloud, do we come expecting a divine encounter, not just a prelude to a sermon? It’s something I’ve thought about on a couple of occasions, and it’d be great to keep discussing it together.

Abstract symbolism: Anneke Kaai

Let’s keep talking aesthetics by moving into the visual realm. Seeing a New Song (find the book here) presents 45 of Anneke Kaai’s paintings from two different series. Her work is one of the strongest examples I’ve seen of Protestant Christianity recovering an aesthetic sense.

1-seeing-a-new-song

Each of these paintings is connected with one of the Psalms, and the accompanying verses are included throughout. Some paintings are directly inspired by a stanza, some draw on her pastoral background (her husband is a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church).

2-psalm-4

The style is abstract symbolism: all the visuals have symbolic content, although not always with easily recognisable objects. She paints on plastic, which gives an especially luminescent quality to the colours, and that’s been captured very well in these reproductions.

3-double-spread

Imagery like this obviously cannot replace the Bible text, but it can certainly complement it. It’s particularly apt for the Psalms, bringing vivid and sometimes visceral expression to the emotions on view as the psalmist wrestles with God and their world. There’s so much darkness and light, hope and heaviness, frustration and joy seething away here!

But there’s more to say than that, because God’s word is not confined to the printed page; there is an ultimate reality beyond the Bible. Artworks like these give us a very tangible sense of this — a tangibility which we Protestants have not always been attuned to.

I commend this to you as part of a three-dimensional Bible repertoire! You can view some of Anneke Kaai’s works at her website. I’ve referred to the paintings previously in 5 tips for creative theological study.

Illustrating the words: Christopher Koelle

Still in the visual realm, let’s move to something different again: The History of Redemption, a picture book illustrated by Christopher Koelle. It’s a stunning presentation, including nearly 50 full-page illustrations.

8-history-of-redemption

In contrast to Anneke Kaai, these are representational artworks. While they’re laden with symbolism, they are generally ‘plainspoken’ depictions of concepts, events, characters, and words. And that leads me to a second contrast: this isn’t actually about the visuals. Here’s how the publishers explain it:

The History of Redemption illustrates the story of our salvation as told by God in his Word. Scripture provides the text for this awe-inspiring narrative that takes the reader on a journey through creation, fall, and redemption ultimately accomplished through the work of Jesus Christ.

In other words, this project is about learning God’s salvation plan through memorising a series of Bible verses. Here’s an example from the book:

9-subjected-to-futility

Koelle’s illustrations are an exciting blend of influences and intertextuality. (Check out his dark remix of Klimt’s ‘The Kiss’!) However, the format of the book suggests that these are strictly illustrations of the words on the page. As beautiful as the illustrations are, the point of The History of Redemption is (and I don’t mean to be cynical) head knowledge.

10-suffered-a-little-while

It’s a great project and I commend it to you, along with the book itself. At the same time, I see this as an example of us continuing to struggle with the arts as Protestant Christians. The History of Redemption is designed to send us right back to the printed page, reflecting our tendency to see the written medium as ultimate, and our wariness about other forms of expression.

Like so much on this blog, this series of posts has been about tensions, so let me leave you with that one! Here’s to future exploration together.

Categories: Bible Written by Arthur

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Arthur Davis

Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.

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