St. John’s Bible a masterpiece for the 21st century

  • April 23, 2009
{mosimage}TORONTO - Five-hundred years ago it seemed the Gutenberg revolution had shut down the scriptoriums for good. Since the advent of printing presses there was no more need for Benedictine monks to labour over parchment with quills and inks.
Today there are 500-million copies of the Bible sold every year. In English alone there are dozens of translations. The Bible is available for free on the Internet, but  there are also high-priced, leather-bound editions with copious notes, maps and timelines.
What would be the point of producing a hand-written Bible on parchment in seven volumes — at a cost of nearly $6 million?
 “We wanted to use this to proclaim God’s word anew,” explains  Benedictine Father Michael Patella.
Patella’s monastery in Collegeville Minn. — an enormous abbey of 153 monks — commissioned the St. John’s Bible from master calligrapher Donald Jackson . But the monks didn’t spend 10 years guiding and directing the project because they wanted to go back in time. Rather, they did it because they wanted to go forward, said Patella.
Which is why the page which illustrates creation in Genesis includes the double helix of a strand of DNA. The twin towers exploding in New York is one detail included in the illustration of Jesus’ parables in the Gospel of St. Luke.
{sa 0814690548}It may be the first hand-written Bible in 500 years, but it’s a Bible for the 21st century. It is in the modern and literate English of the New Revised Standard Version and its illustrations are informed by up-to-date biblical scholarship.
The St. John’s Bible is posed as a direct challenge to aggressive, uncivil and blinkered fundamentalism that claims its authority from a literalist reading of the Bible, said Patella, a biblical scholar and rector of St. John’s Seminary.
“Fundamentalism is really rationalism gone awry,” Patella told The Catholic Register the day after a facsimile copy of the St. John’s Bible went on display at the Kelly Library at the University of St. Michael’s College in Toronto. 
The volume of Wisdom books of the Bible was to remain on display until April 30.
“A fundamentalist approach refuses to enter into mystery,” he said. “A fundamentalist wants everything in black and white — and God never speaks in black and white. Never. How can you speak about the crucifixion in black and white?... It’s trying to put God in a box and control Him.”
But the St. John’s Bible isn’t just the Bible contra fundamentalism. It’s also the Bible contra the digital age, said Patella.
Sitting in front of computer screens, clicking through disembodied bits of information is preventing a generation from understanding the Bible as a narrative of God’s love of creation — including and most particularly God’s love of the human. Instead, educated readers have learned only how to situate passages in ancient Near Eastern history. They fail to perceive that the book is talking to them about their lives.
To overcome that, the monks decided to confront the world with a new Bible that is also a large-scale work of art.
“We intuitively know that when the deepest theological texts meet the greatest artistic expression great things happen,” Patella said in a public lecture on the St. John’s Bible at the University of St. Michael’s College April 16.
Patella does not find it surprising that the St. John’s Bible is parallelled by another anti-fundamentalist presentation of the Bible that uses powerful, sometimes shocking images of photojournalism to illuminate the text. 
The Bible Illuminated from Swedish publisher Forlaget Illuminated includes images of gang life, movie stars and AIDS-devastated Africa.
“We are illuminating the Bible so that it makes sense,” said the project’s progenitor Dag Soderberg on the Bible Illuminated web site. “The text is really our history, our heritage.”
So far, The Bible Illuminated has brought out just a New Testament for $35 in the format of a glossy magazine. 
The Old Testament is expected later this year.
“I see them (The St. John’s Bible and The Bible Illuminated) as perhaps working in tandem, potentially,” said Patella.
In a massive effort to raise the biblical IQ of the English-speaking world the monks of St. John’s Abbey are spinning off an entire educational program in connection with their illuminated Bible. 
While the single, handwritten copy remains in Minnesota — when not travelling to the world’s museums and art institutes — the monks have also produced 300 high quality facsimile copies plus a published edition available from Liturgical Press at just under $80 for each of its seven volumes.
Editions for classroom use with teachers’ guides are in the works.
Is it elitist to present the Bible in the language of fine art and high scholarship?
“I don’t think elitism is all that bad,” said Patella. 
“The great cathedrals were built by master craftsmen. These were not hacks. They did this in service to the whole church, and they opened it to the whole church,” he said.

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