A Bible that’s falling to pieces shows a life that isn’t. This observation is a memory from the twilit, sleep-deprived, Holy-Spirit-heavy atmosphere of a youth group weekend away in the year 2000. I hope that other churchgoers can relate to the feeling that there was something cool about dog-eared pages, marginalia and duct tape (or this post’s readership will be small indeed). Once again: A Bible that’s falling to pieces shows a life that isn’t.
If Sherlock Holmes could examine my Bible, I think he would deduce the following: firstly, from the sellotape, that I have carried it around in my bag a lot; secondly, from the beige stains, that I have often spilt tea in its immediate vicinity; thirdly, from the dirt stuck under the sellotape, and assuming this latter-day Sherlock Holmes had made an extensive study of Eastern European soil varieties, perhaps even contributing a small monograph to the literature on the subject, that my Bible has been repeatedly dropped on the ground somewhere on the Kirzhach river in Vladimir Oblast in Russia. (I was organising an obstacle race, I was short of time, equipment and imagination, and the race involved each child running along with a book on his or her head.)
Yesterday, feeling that dirt might after all be less cool than duct tape, I went bookshopping for a new Bible. The nearest independent bookshop presented an inspiring choice between (a) a Bible in a translation I didn’t want and (b) a Good Book produced by A.C. Grayling apparently under the impression that one can create one’s own Bible without seeming possibly maybe at least initially just a tiny bit arrogant. In Waterstone’s, I had a choice of translations, a choice of sizes, and a choice between shocking-pink paperback, pastel blue hardback, sludge-coloured nubuck with a zip, yellow and green stripes, white with silver teddy bears, and some pink-and-brown flowers advertised as ‘a gorgeous gift for those who like to carry a Bible with them everywhere’. I left without a new Bible. Nothing on the sandy banks of the Kirzhach river could be as unpleasant as opening those white-and-silver teddy bear covers to, say, a list of the families of the tribe of Zebulun. What exactly, one wonders, snobbishly I suppose, does anything in the Bible have to do with silver teddy bears? If the word of God is precious and priceless beyond human ability to grasp, why am I suddenly being invited to spend an extra £5 on ornamental covers and a pink page-marker? What are the target audience of the teddy bears supposed to do when they’re no longer wandering around with their Bibles, journals, pillows and highlighter pens at a youth group weekend away, and they’d quite like to know what they’re supposed to make of that list of the families of the tribe of Zebulun – not to mention all the rest of it?
It seems to me that the Bible publishers are offering me, most likely without meaning to, that same old deceitful idea about the Successful Christian, who must have a shiny new Bible if she doesn’t have a well-worn and heavily annotated Bible, and ideally, perhaps, has both, along with a regular quiet time, boundless enthusiasm for church-related activities, a string of answered prayers following in her wake, and always something to say about What The Lord’s Been Teaching Me. A kind of relaxed, charismatic Miss Rebecca Hubbard, whose life couldn’t fall to pieces if it tried.
I’m exaggerating of course. I’m also exaggerating when I say that the poetry section in bookshops, though it’s never very sizeable, always grows and looms and looks scornfully, like something out of Alice in Wonderland, reminding you that for someone who claims to be into poetry you really haven’t read much of it, and that it is its own shiny world of smooth covers and expensive slim volumes, in which you’re unlikely to make much headway. The whole situation is very annoying: it would be fun to write something cutting about how bookshops are idolatrous temples to the gods of literature, but I can’t, because really, half the problem with bookshops is that they make you realize you’ve been worshipping an idealized version of yourself.
In this desperate situation, there would seem to be nothing for it but to go and offer some financial support to the tea shop on the first floor; also, to make sure that one gets back to work by 3.45. Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path: whether the walking is quite exciting and successful or rather hesitant and mundane, into the bookshop and out again. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”