Thursday, March 14, 2013

Burning Bibles

Paul Roorda, Silent Word, 2011, side view
burned Bible, egg yolk, beeswax, gold leaf
 As a teenager, I read with fascination and horror Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, a classic novel depicting a dystopian time in which dissent is so feared by a totalitarian government that all books are methodically burned lest they spread dangerous ideas. The image of burning books brings to mind fanatics of both the right and the left, their faces reflecting the flames of sacrificial pyres onto which they throw the physical embodiment of their ideological enemies. The symbolic meaning of burning books is so engrained in our culture that the mere thought brings shivers to any reader, and drives stark terror into the hearts of scholars. To burn a copy of a sacred text like the Bible can seem even worse, a deliberate affront to God.

Paul Roorda burns Bibles. However, he does so not as an act of defiance against religion, but rather as a way of honoring and preserving them, using a subtle alchemy to transmute them into art. On Tuesday, I (along with many other folks at Wesley) had the opportunity to hear Roorda speak about his work, which is currently on display in the Dadian Gallery. Roorda thinks deeply about matters of faith, manipulating not only Bibles but syringes, pill bottles, first aid manuals, and other found items to ask hard questions and expose both our hopes and our fears. One of the questions at the heart of his work is, what shall we do with Bibles that nobody wants or that have become so worn and tattered that they are unreadable?

Paul Roorda, Silent Word, 2011, top view
burned Bible, egg yolk, beeswax, gold leaf
There does not seem to be an agreed-upon answer to that in the Christian world. Some advise re-binding a worn-out volume so that it may be restored to use, or giving an unwanted copy to someone who might not be able to buy a new one, but neither of those may be practicable in many situations. Perhaps we might learn from other traditions, which have developed respectful ways to dispose of unusable holy texts and objects. For instance, in the Jewish tradition, a Torah scroll that is too damaged to use must be buried, just as if it were a person. In the Islamic tradition, an unusable Koran might likewise be buried, or placed in a flowing river or the ocean; or it might be burned, with appropriate dignity, so thoroughly that no words can be discerned.

Indeed, burning itself is an ambivalent action. On the one hand, many consider setting fire to a US flag an act of desecration. On the other, the US Flag Code, title 4, chapter 1, section 8(k) states: "The flag, when it is in such condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem for display, should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning." In many cultures the dead are ritually set afire on elaborate pyres, and increasingly in the US and other industrialized countries, cremation is considered preferable to burial.

All of these thoughts swirl through my mind as I contemplate “Silent Word” Roorda’s elegant black bowl made of the ashes of burned Bible pages combined with egg yolk and beeswax and lined with gold leaf. Less than eight inches in diameter, its shape echoes ancient shallow bowls made of stone or clay that similarly fit comfortably into two cupped hands.

I am also reminded of other objects that reek of smoke and age. The day before Roorda spoke about his creative process, I took a group of students to the Freer/Sackler Galleries, where the collections manager led us deep into the sub-basement storage areas. There, one by one, we were shown biblical manuscripts dating as far back as the 5th century. Many were only fragments; others were more complete, but showed the effects of age and wear. It is one thing to see such things reproduced photographically on the pages of modern books or digitally on a computer screen; another to see them carefully arrayed under Plexiglas in a museum display; and yet another to stand just inches away as a curator takes them out of their wrappings and lays them carefully on a special cushion.

13th century Syriac Bible
(photo courtesy Nick Works)
Towards the end of our visit, our guide brought out a rather undistinguished looking book. As he handled it, the smell of ancient smoke began to fill our nostrils. As I recall the story, sometime around 1250, a Christian doctor was living in what is now Syria, surrounded by three warring Moslem groups. All of the groups trusted the doctor to patch up their wounded, but any of them would have destroyed his Bible had they found it. So, when he wasn’t reading it, he hid it in the chimney. Now, over 700 years later, we could still smell the smoke from that chimney rising from the charred, discolored pages. It seems to me that this, too, is a silent word, saved not from, but by the fire. Like the Bible that is now Roorda’s evocative bowl, it is no longer read in the course of someone’s daily devotions, but rather treated as a relic, transfigured by the power of an idea.

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