Written words on a page. Old leather bindings. The crinkle of paper turning. Reading sacred texts.
Several experiences and observations in recent days bring this topic to mind. For one thing, I started teaching recently with a different style, using a slideshow. The first few weeks I put the words of the text we were studying up on the screen as we talked about them. I saw that this caused people not to bother to get out their sacred texts. Instead there was a virtual, temporary sacred text splashed in transitory photons.
I wasn’t pleased.
I speak in a lot of churches, mostly small to medium in size. I have observed the trend as less and less people carry a Bible to church. The words will be on the screen. Why bring the book?
My first experience in a synagogue (remember, I didn’t grow up Jewish, but came into this as an adult) floored me. I am a book person. I was awed to find that the synagogue provided not one, but two books for each worshipper. One was an extremely fancy, though worn from use, volume filled with the traditional prayers, a Siddur. And anyone who has seen an Artscroll Siddur has seen just about the pinnacle of modern book-making. The decorated, embossed cover with the gold lettering calls out the concept of sanctity. The second book offered by the synagogue to each worshipper was larger and equally inspiring. It was blue and embossed and decorated as well — a volume with the five Torah books divided into readings along with complementary portions from the prophets, a Chumash (KHOO-mosh). In this case, it was also by Artscroll — the Stone Edition Chumash.
By contrast the pew Bibles and hymnals offered in the seats of most churches I had been inside were paltry.
And in the first synagogue I visited, there were study desks usable from every seat in the place. These people not only provided the most exquisite texts for our study and meditation, but also desks on which to better use them.
Another recent experience was a conversation with a fellow Messianic Jewish leader, one who has more years of experience. I had doubted the need for a Bible reading program as part of a training program. I argued that these students were taking Bible and theology classes and would surely know the Bible inside and out.
Not so, he told me. We are living in the postmodern age where even people interested in leading in synagogues (I’m sure churches are the same) would be less apt to read all of the books of Kings or Ezra or Zechariah. What was taken for granted in my day — a thorough reading of the texts — cannot be taken for granted among the new generation. Fleeting images in LCD and DLP have replaced the sure, steady lines of sacred text. Overloaded with the current, the words of the moment, the words of the past are neglected.
I have always been a bit of a collector of Bibles and other sacred books. I have a fair collection of Siddurs and Passover Haggadahs. I own most of the Chumashim that are printed in English and my Talmud collection is growing.
I sit at my laptop for hours and hours each day. I too read the photons that pass for words.
But my image of a satisfying study can never come from words too quickly found and just as easily lost. The work of pulling out the relevant volume, turning to the page, finding the text, and lingering over it will never grow old for me. The image of two or more, with Bible or Chumash or Talmud volume in hand, discussing the sacred text, is paradisical to me.
The words of Qohelet take on an unanticipated meaning to me: “Of making many books there is no end,” (Eccles. 12:12). Amen. May it be so.