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Painting the Bible

Some years ago I returned to my former training college, Spurgeon’s as guest preacher at the end of a narrative preaching course.  After I had preached, we repaired to a lecture room for taht peculiar form of vivisection which we call sermon critique. Along the way a Romanian student, who was having to choose his words carefully in a foreign tongue, said the following:

You haven’t preached the story you have painted it.

Every time I have struggled to construct a biblical narrative, or puzzled over the selection of the right word, those words have come back to me.

Yesterday, though, I came across a Biblical painter of another kind entirely. His story is told in the Bible Society’s magazine Word in Action, and he lives Gurage people in Ethiopia. His name is Melak Genet Brehe Grebre Kidan (on the right in the picture below), and he is 78 years old. Over the years he has painted 55 churches in the rich illustrative style you see in the picture below. Amongst a largely illiterate people he sees this as a divine mission:

God has asked us to make sure the health of the church continues and the Bible lives on in the church pictorially


My question is this – in a society where most of the people in church are literate- what are we doing (with words or pictures) to make sure the Bible lives on in the church pictorially?

A lesson in flannelgraph

Yesterday in church somebody kindly approached me with a carrier bag of books they had salvaged from their mother’s house before she moves. There were one or two amongst them which will be useful – not least a dictionary of etymology. However, it is probably the gem below which caught my eye the most. Published in 1959, it presents outlines for 12 flannelgraph talks on everything from strong drink to Christmas celebration. Forget your powerpoint, delete your prezi – its all in here! Not only that, but each talk uses only three shape – a cross, a circle, and a heart, so no complex cutting out of letters is required.

You might have thought that the medium was the most old-fashioned thing here. However, you would be wrong, as this snippet from the ‘script’ on temperance might suggest:

Not quite sure where to start with my discomfort on that! Suffice it to say that the message would be unpalatable even delivered in the most modern medium.

I was just flicking through the pages of this 1950’s gem when news popped through about the astonishing success of the YouVersion Bible App. If you click on the link, you will see it has now been installed over 30 million times worldwide. The message is twenty-one centuries old and more – but people are still clammering for it delivered in the most accessible way. A good message can be obscured by a poor medium, but a poor message will seem unattractive no matter how it is presented.

Not sure I will be using my flannelgraph book on a regular basis. That said, if anyone wants to invent a flannelgraph/ fuzzy felt app…I’ll join the queue!

Disturbing art

When I read a recent report about Krish Kandiah’s Biblefresh visit to Burkina Faso, there was one thing which struck me more than anything else. In this desperately poor country, the President of the African Evangelical Alliance nonetheless said that the people in his churches would ‘rather have a Bible than shoes’. In a land of Biblical plenty, that really got me thinking, and so the small art project below was born.

An old Bible, donated for charity, has now been cut up and has transformed the old shoe above. The finished product, pictured below, stands as an uncomfortable reminder of our Biblical plenty and the Biblical famine elsewhere around the world. Never having done this before, a number of things strike me.

  • To dismantle a Bible like this, even one discarded, which once belonged to an old saint, felt so wrong. However, the fact that others have no Bible when we have them to throw out is worse still.
  • The Bible’s title now sits like a fashion label on the outside of the shoe.
  • Inside, where the maker’s label should be, is a map of of Burkina Faso
  • Despite washing them, my fingers still feel sticky as I type on the keyboard now – as if sullied by this act.
  • The shoe – once so battered, now seems to have a new lease of life
  • The Bible, falling apart – now has a new lease of life too.
  • There is only one shoe, or half a pair – the work of addressing global Biblical inequity is not yet done.
  • What are your reflections?

September 30th

Twenty years ago today, the International Federation of Translators (whose acronym in English comes out, amusingly) as FIT) suggested that the Feast of St Jerome should be marked as International Translation Day. Of course in some ways the work of a good translator, a bit like that of a good plumber or electrician, is hidden. When a translation is good it slips effortlessly in through the back door of our own heart language, and we read the final text without a second thought. Like the plumbing and wiring above – we only notice it when it goes wrong.

In this Biblefresh year many have been thinking especially about the work of Bible translation. Bishop Miles Smith wrote in the preface of the original King James Version that “translation it is that openeth the window to let in the light’. That is just the way it should be.

On this International Translation Day, though, let’s remember some of the rather less successful Bible translations, courtesy of the United Bible Societies:

The Vinegar Bible 1717

The parable of the vinegar (instead of vineyard) in the headline about Luke 20

The Printers Bible 1702

Printers (instead of Princes) have persecuted me.
Psalm 119.161

The Place-Makers Bible 1562

Blessed are the place-makers (instead of the peace-makers). Matthew 5.9

The Bug Bible 1551

Thou shalt not be afraid for the bugges (bogies) by night (instead of terror). Psalm 91.5

The Treacle Bible 1568

Is there no treacle (instead of balm) in Gilead? Jeremiah 7.22

The Unrighteous Bible

Know ye not that the unrighteous shall inherit (instead of not inherit) the kingdom or God. 1 Corinthians 6.9

The Wicked Bible 1631

Do commit adultery (instead of do not). Exodus 20.14. The printer was fined £300 for omitting the word not. All copies were ordered to be destroyed by Charles 1.

The Murderers Bible 1801

There are murderers (instead of murmerers). Jude 16
Let the children first be killed (instead of filled).

God bless ’em, every one.

Thoughts on World Book Night

Some of you will know that I spent Wednesday lunchtime several miles outside my comfort zone at a meal for the homeless billed as ‘the great banquet’. This event is put on every single week for those who spend their life on the margins of society. There is hot food and drink, a small worship service and reflection for those who want it, and practical help such as hair-cutting and form-filling.  Not surprisingly, people were loading their plates up full, and taking portable food for later. Who could blame them?

As I read descriptions in the news today of the world’s first World Book Night, with 1 million paperbacks being given away to the homeless, my mind drifts back to my lunch companions. Will they be queuing for these books, I wonder – or hunting out a hot drink somewhere instead? Some would doubtless welcome the mental and spiritual stimulus of a good book as much as they would a hot meal, but not all.

Christians often celebrate ‘their’ book, the Bible, as food for the soul – and rightly so.  In it there is food for soul and mind in every genre from short letters to long poems. How would we feel about giving this food away to the homeless, I wonder?  William Booth is credited with saying “When you give a gospel tract to a hungry man,wrap it in a sandwich’, but more often we are inclined to choose between the two.

Its probably too late to ‘sign up’ as a distributor for World Book Night tonight, but this has to be the best year ever to give away the best book ever, surely? Furthermore, if we are going to give it away we should probably accompany it with the sort of kindness and genuine human engagement likely to make people read it – since doing so has made us act this way.

World Book Day 2011

Up and down the country right now, children will be settling down in their classrooms dressed as characters from their favourite books for World Book Day. The more game amongst their teachers will be doing the same thing. If you happened to pass an Alice in Wonderland, a Captain Hook or a Professor Dumbledore on your way to work this morning – don’t be alarmed. You weren’t imagining it nor do you need to visit your optician.

As Christians we have something of a reputation for being “bookish” people. Indeed the Qur’an refers to Christians and Jews as ‘people of the book’. This should be especially true in this Biblefresh year.  I wonder whether it is, though?  Do the values of the Bible percolate through our very beings?  Do we dance to its rhythm and march in step with its beat?  That is where projects like the Big Read, mentioned earlier, are so important.

When I was first a Christian it seemed that people were forever telling me that ‘you are the only Bible some people will ever read’. If that is indeed the case, then I had better hope it is a good translation.  It needs to authentically represent the source text in the culture where I live. In that sense, every day is ‘book day’ for a Christian.

So, will you be donning a Biblical costume for work today?  Or will you opt for a more subtle reference to the world’s most influential book?

Gearing up

Coming up next week will be an exciting announcement about a new partnership between @chatbible and @bigbible. Together they will be contributing to the most media-rich, interactive and borderless homegroup bible study that most of us have ever seen.

In the meantime, here is an introduction from Rev Dr Tom Wright, just to whet your appetite…

Bible surgery

As part of our Biblefresh initiative here at Teddington Baptist Church, we centred the evening worship around a ‘Bible surgery’ yesterday evening. People arrived at church clutching their favourite, familiar, Bibles to find the chairs gathered around the communion table so that we could actually chat to each other.  After some introductory worship, people were encouraged to talk about the Bible they had brought with them – why they liked it, what made them choose it, and maybe even point out some of the things they keep in it.  After that we shared some of our difficulties with reading God’s remarkable book. A selection is listed below:

  • I can’t find the time
  • Its too familiar
  • Very uncomfortable with the description of battles in the Old Testament
  • How do the historical books apply today?
  • Why doesn’t the Bible fill in the gaps and tell us the rest of the details about the lives of some of its main characters? For instance, we know nothing about Paul’s family life
  • The Old Testament is very repetitive
  • I want to be like some of the characters in the Bible but I can’t
  • The dangers of applying the Bible ‘professionally’ and not personally

After this we reviewed some of the resources available for this Biblefresh year, including lyfe studies, 12 words, BigBible and others, right down to the low-tech end of a diary and pencil! We then proceeded to a brief study of Isaiah 55 v. 6 – 11 and spent time praying for each other before sharing communion.  At the close of the service, people assembled their bibles for a ‘group photo’:


Bibles at the Bible Surgery

The approach was a valuable one, and would bear repetition in other churches, I’m sure. One or two things to bear in mind though:

  • Make sure people are invited in advance to bring their Bible with them.
  • The Bible should be the old familiar one they habitually use – not necessarily the one which would usually be seen in public
  • Keep the initial discussion light as you ‘compare’ bibles
  • As the discussion about problems and challenges unfolds – don’t rush to ‘solve’ them in the first instance – just let people talk
  • As far as possible keep the discussion ‘horizontal’, so that any advice is shared ‘through’ you, rather than’from you’.

Many Christians suffer from a chronic ‘hardening of the ‘oughteries’, where their life is a collection of spiritual ‘oughts’ rather than joyful possibilities. Sadly, for many reading the Bible is on that particular list. Anything we can do to lift the guilt and suggest practical advice on a way forward is to the good.

…or book of the living?

As a child I was fascinated by the rites and rituals of ancient Egypt.  At one time I could have ‘picked out’ any one of a catalogue of gods from their pictures and told you about their particular roles.  Like many little boys, I relished the details of the whole mummifying process, and my eyes shone  when I went to visit the Tutankhamen exhibition at the British Museum with all its breathtaking treasure.  Today ancient Egypt has come to London again, with a spectacular exhibition at the British Museum entitled: Journey through the afterlife: ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead. John Taylor, curator of the exhibition, writes “The Book of the Dead isn’t a finite text – it’s not like the Bible, it’s not a collection of doctrine or a statement of faith or anything like that – it’s a practical guide to the next world, with spells that would help you on your journey.”

As a ‘practical guide to the next world’, there is a kind of painful irony to all this.  Whilst the few undisturbed ancient remains lie sleeping under desert sands, not far away the streets of modern Egypt are in ferment.  A practical guide for the next world would seem like something of an indulgence when the current one is in such a state.  The ancient civilisation which brought us chariots of gold and masks of lapis lazuli has turned into a modern one where police officers fire live rounds on angry protesters, and fighter jets swoop low over the city making the windows rattle.  For many in Egypt, a year which started with the unimaginable violence of worshippers murdered at church has only got worse.

So, if the Bible is not a ‘practical guide to the next world’ like the Book of the Dead – what is it?  Is it maybe a ‘practical guide’ to this world instead?  Certainly the creative and imaginative ways that radio, television, printed media and churches are marking its 400th anniversary for Biblefresh year would make you think so.  We must beware, though, of treating the Bible like a recipe book.  If Christians in Egypt could have turned to the relevant verse and found a ready solution for their nation’s ills they would have done it by now, I’m sure.  It has to be studied, contemplated, explained and absorbed – none of which is a quick process.

Maybe one thing which makes it a book of the living, rather than a book of the dead, is that God provides people to interpret it.  In Isaiah 30 there is a verse which is either deeply heartening or extremely intimidating for preachers, depending on your state of confidence:

Although the Lord gives you the bread of adversity

and the water of affliction

your teachers will be hidden no more (v.6)

The Bible is undoubtedly intended to act as a ‘guide for this world’ but preachers, the Spirit who inspires them, and the people who listen to them with discernment are all part of the deal.

Image: British Museum



The Bible & I

I wrote last week that in a charity auction I had been made the adoptive parent to the Bible for one year. Ever since them I have been reflecting on this awesome responsibility.  As those who handle the Bible ‘professionally’, there are many different ways in which we understand our relationship with this God-breathed book.

Keeper – to talk about myself as the Bible’s keeper rather implies that I am in charge of it. I can maybe persuade it to do my bidding or coax it into a corner of my choosing.  The times when we do those things as preachers, even inadvertently, are ones we would rather forget. On the other hand, a keeper is devoted to his or her charge and will spend many hours tending it.

Guardian – to see myself as the Bible’s guardian might suggest that it is little and vulnerable and needs me to protect it.  After all, every minor needs a parent or guardian to look out for their interests.  Clearly the Bible doesn’t need me to protect it, since it preceded me by centuries and will probably succeed me by centuries too. That said, an attitude of responsibility (so long as it is not proprietorial) can be a good thing.

Herald – I like this one. A herald is there to draw attention to someone or something far more important than himself.  Often stationed high up in a gallery out of sight at state occasions, the clarion call of the herald announces the grand arrival of the king or queen.  To ‘announce’ the bible in this way is a great privilege.

Servant – this is a catch-all term, but maybe it is all the better for that. When all’s said and done I am a servant of the Word of God.  Whenever I allow it to speak I serve it well, and whenever I muffle its sound with my own I serve it poorly.

Take a look at the poll below. If you could choose only one word to describe your relationship as a preacher to the Bible – what would it be?

Richard Littledale

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