Friday, January 13, 2012

Burning the Bible

Over the last two weeks, in the midst of absorbing about 50 hours of nonstop doctoral coursework in seminary, I popped into the bookstore.  Using a gift card given to me by some of the saints of my former congregation, I bought myself a spanky new bible.  It was a Harper Collins Study Bible, functionally identical to the bible I've been using since 1996, when I first went to seminary.

This is far and away my preferred text for study purposes.  Yeah, the NRSV is a bit relentless on the gender-neutral language thing, to the point of not really accurately reflecting the meaning of the original text on occasion.  But the translation is otherwise sound, and better yet, it has exceptionally good footnotes.  Seriously.  The footnotes alone are worth the price of admission.

In many "study" bibles, the footnotes tell you what you are supposed to believe about the text.  They do the interpreting for you.  Given that the whole point of the Reformation was that we were to be set free to explore the texts on our own, this is a nontrivial thing.  Rule of thumb about scriptural study tools:  You should wield them, not the other way around.   In the Harper Collins, they give you historical context, details about variances in translation, and provide clear linkages to other relevant passages.

This left me in a bit of a conundrum.  My old Bible was dead in the water.  Repeated applications of clear packing tape, made necessary through daily use over a decade and a half, had finally failed.  The inner binding had come apart, to the point at which I could no longer use it in worship or study.   Books would just fall out of it, which isn't great in a class and even worse when you're up leading a service.  It was spent, a ruin of a book.

So it was time to...what?  Just leave it lying around?  No.  I despise clutter, perhaps because I'm so prone to it.  If a thing is broken and past its use, I'm not going to cling to it like a hoarder.  That kind of grasping thing-orientation is one of the more persistent demons of our culture.  

Throw it in the trash?  I couldn't see doing that.  Here was a book that had been by my side through seminary.  It had rested in my hands during literally hundreds of important conversations and sacred moments.    Dumping it in with the coffee grounds just didn't feel right.   

Neither, quite frankly, could I bring myself to recycle it.  Stuffing it into the pile of old newspapers and stacks of Best Buy and K-Mart advertising just didn't feel right either.   

So, in a moment of willful ritual carbon positivity, I decided to burn it.   

I made a little stack of wood in our fireplace, nestled the bible on top of it, open to Isaiah, and lit the pyre.   It took a bit to catch, but when it did, those thousands of pages burned long, hot and bright.   For about forty minutes, I sat by the flames, intermittently turning the pages with a poker, opening the book so that fire could dance in and devour the text.

Words would appear, here and there.  I saw Micah consumed, and a chapter on Hezekiah the king.   My face and chest burned, as the room grew hot with the heat of it.  

As the burning tongues licked text after text to ashen nothing, I remembered the feel of the book in my hand, the many times I'd sat with it preparing a sermon, or trying to open the gracious traditions of our faith to those who knew only enough about it to get themselves into trouble.

I reflected on the importance of those words, as bearers of concepts that have the power to change the direction of a human life.  I reflected on how far the Bible is from being a book of magic, as much as we want it to be.  

It's just ink and paper, text on media, no more infused with sacred power than the air we breathe or the light that plays across a room.   The message it conveys draws truth from a place beyond the pages and the language we print upon them.  Burning it does not destroy anything of what matters about it.  It's good to have a sacred text like that, I think.

And then the flames faded, and all that remained was ash and a faint sense of reverence.