A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend “pastors’ school” at Duke Divinity School. The theme of the gathering was the arts in the life of the church. It was a great conference, with wonderful lectures by Jeremie Begbie, a reading by Marilynne Robinson (author of one of my all-time favorite books, Gilead), and even a workshop where I got to play — and pray — with clay. So much fun.
But I think the highlight was the St. John’s Bible. In 1998, St. John’s Abbey and University in Minnesota commissioned a totally hand-written and illuminated copy of the Bible. If you’ve ever seen medieval Bible manuscripts, think along those lines — but firmly situated in the 21st century. The original volumes (all 7 of them) don’t tour, but there are 10 “heritage editions,” which are gorgeous, full-sized (2′ x 3′) reproductions, and 4 volumes of one of these editions were at Duke.
I was prepared to “look but not touch,” and so was thrilled when we were invited to page through the volumes ourselves. What I saw was stunning. The obvious love and devotion that had gone into each hand-formed letter… The incredible creativity, talent, and faith reflected in each of the illuminations… The ability of the images to bring to life layers of meaning in the texts that I’d never considered before…
But I think what was most powerful to me about the St. John’s Bible was that it showed me the beauty of God’s Word in a way I’d never experienced before. The actual, physical beauty of the literal words and the illuminations helped me to grasp the awesome beauty of the meaning of those words and images. It’s one thing to read about the promise of a Messiah in Isaiah 7:14; it’s another thing entirely to see the hope and the joy of the promise in an image like this:
Again, Ezekiel’s story of the valley of dry bones is amazing enough when read, but the power and the beauty of God’s promise to bring life where there is only dry death just astounded me when I saw it represented like this:
I’d encourage you to take some time exploring the St. John’s Bible on its website. And if you ever have the opportunity to see it in person, jump at the chance.
As for me, I’m profoundly grateful that God has given people the gifts and the vision to be able to share his Word in this beautiful, unique way — and that those people have been faithful in using those gifts. It is a true gift.