“Defacing” the Bible? Art and Religion

As a teacher of seminarians, I have enough trouble getting some of them even to annotate the margins of their Bibles with Hebrew parsing notes. So I was glad to see that The Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow

…has invited art lovers to write their thoughts down in an open Bible on display as part of its Made in God’s Image exhibition.

The placard next to the Bible instructs visitors thusly:

“If you feel you have been excluded from the Bible, please write your way back into it”.

The linked article takes a decidedly negative view of the display. It is titled, “Gallery Invites Visitors to Deface the Bible”: this presupposes that any writing in a Bible is inappropriate. Further, the article cites only comments that it considers offensive or provocative.

Let’s look at the article’s first examples of so-called “abuse and obscenity”:

“This is all sexist pish, so disregard it all,” one message read.


“I am Bi, Female & Proud. I want no god who is disappointed in this”.

See that the writer of the article chose the feminist and LGBT comments as the flagship examples of “abuse and obscenity.” These are strongly worded, to be sure, but for my part, I do not find them abusive or obscene (and as a straight male, I am not at all convinced that I am in a position to judge the appropriateness of these expressions of complaint). Some other visitors were more obviously mocking or obscene in their comments.

What is your view, O reader? Tell me in a comment: In what ways do you find the exhibit exciting or problematic, both in its conception and in how visitors have responded? Would you feel differently if it were some other sacred text instead of the Bible? (The Quran? A Torah scroll? The Constitution or Declaration of Independence, or Bill of Rights?) What do you think of public art exhibits that challenge sectarian sensibilities in this way?

6 Responses

  1. I like the idea conceptually, although in practice it’s going to turn out all stupid an’ what, because most people have such a fracked-up notion of what “Bible” is. Although the idea of the book of Revelation with “OMG WTF” all over the margins makes me laugh.

    I would be INCREDIBLY offended if this were done with a Torah scroll. A Torah scroll is a sacred object that you are not even supposed to touch with your hands. I would not be offended if this were done with a Tanakh (a Hebrew Bible published in book form). Some holy books are holy objects, some holy books are only receptacles for holy words and ideas. The Christian (at least Protestant) Bible and the Tanakh are the latter; a Torah scroll is the former. Don’t know how Catholics feel, or what status the physical object of the Koran has.

    Brooke, I was raised as a fundamentalist Christian, and we annotated our Bibles like mad. It was considered a point of pride to have a well-marked up Bible. At my father’s memorial service, his Bible was laid out on a table so people could flip through it and see what passages he had highlighted, look up their own favorite verses and read his notes on them, and so on. It was very meaningful.

    • Robin, thanks for making the distinction between text and object (Tanak and Torah scroll), a distinction I failed to make in my invitation for comments. I do see the Bible-annotating-as-devotion thing (look at all the Bibles sold with highlighter sets and such). Sometime I’d like to find a way to gently inquire more closely into the piety of those students who clearly resist the idea of writing even into their study Bibles. As to objects, I was immediately reminded of the controversy around P.Z. Myers’ “cracker gate”:
      I find it easier to be detached about this than I would the defilement of a Torah scroll, simply because anti-Judaism produces actual victims in our society on a scale that anti-Christianity/Catholicism does not.

  2. Crackergate didn’t make anyone look good, but I share your feelings that “Scrollgate” would be worse–not only b/c of differential effects of anti-Semitism/anti-Christianism, but also because, do you know how fucking hard it is to make a Torah scroll, and how long it takes? Way harder than making a cracker. So it’s not just that you’re desacralizing the object, you’re also pissing on a lot of people’s months of work.

    I’d be curious what people said if you asked them about why they can’t write in a Bible. Specifically, I’d be curious about their religious backgrounds; I’m guessing that it would break down according to that.

    (Man, you’re really coming at this like an artist/theologian, and me like a social scientist, eh? Welcome to every conversation I have with Lance …)

    Despite the acceptability of writing in Bibles, and the general casualness with which they are treated in evangelical circles, I recall quite vividly being at a youth devotional in which someone asked to borrow my Bible. I gave it to him, he looked up what he wanted, someone else said, “Hey, can I see that?” and the person who had my Bible TOSSED IT ACROSS THE ROOM to the other guy. I gasped involuntarily. Still not sure if others saw that as a faux pas, or thought I was the overreacting one.

  3. I cannot see the argument in the Torah being referred as sacred text but the Bible is not…curious that you feel that way. Do I think that people have lives/loves/opinions different than mine? Of course! Do I think that I am “right” and non-believers in Jesus Christ are “wrong”? Not necessarily…however — and this is coming from a Roman Catholic — while I may not believe that every word in sacred scripture is meant to be taken literally, I do believe that someone bigger than us measly humans inspired what was to be written, what was to be examined and ultimately what was to be included in our Christian history.

    As a Roman Catholic, our version of sacred scripture contains books in the Old Testament that Protestants view as possible “additions” to the Bible…I guess I am a firm believer in the notion that “knowledge is power” and if I can learn even more about my biblical ancestors then I am the better for it.

    One last thought, though…while I have no objection to tasteful, thoughtful comments, things like “OMG! WTF!” written in what Christians’ believe seems to be a complete lack of consideration. The Christian faith — most remarkably Catholic Christianity — is the last form of acceptable bias, prejudice and discrimination in this country. I challenge anyone to substitute the Bible for a Torah…it wouldn’t happen.

    • BethAnn–I’m sorry for my comments about “Revelation.” It’s a book I struggled with for years (as a Christian) and finally gave up on, and that’s all my comments were meant to reflect. (Well, that and the fact that given most people’s level of biblical education, that’s about the only reaction you’d get.) But I can see how they would be thoughtless to someone who has no a priori reason to trust my basic good will.

      I thought it was clear from my comment that I wasn’t talking about the Torah as *text*, but as *object*. There’s a huge difference b/t a Torah scroll, which is an object that is to be treated with reverence, and a Tanakh, which is the the Hebrew Bible printed in book form. I’d have no problem with this exhibit done with a Tanakh, but a scroll is different.

      I’m not saying my scriptures are holy and yours aren’t, I’m saying one particular way of encoding my scriptures results in a sacred object, and that object is one I don’t want people messing with.

  4. The bible is one of the nastiest pieces of fiction ever written. There is not enough room in the margins to put right all the wrongs it contains.

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