Digby Anderson explains why the growing ‘accessibility’ of the bible is not necessarily a good thing if it undermines our understanding of its holiness

There are some books, once quite popular, that no one seems to want today. They remain obstinately on the shelves of secondhand bookshops. There are the minor works of Captain Frederick Marryat, Archibald Cronin and especially Anatole France.

Despite the secularist honour of being on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, he is always there only outdone in unpopularity and stubborn immobility by the bible. And on Kindle you can buy ten of his books for £1.29, while you can have all sixty-six books of the bible, English Standard Version (with cross references), for nothing.

There are bound to be people who think this is a good thing. The dearest dream of the Protestant reformers was that the bible should be available to all in the vernacular. Here it is and at this price, never more available. There are bibles all over the place clogging up the backs of churches and church halls, in hotel drawers, festering in attics and junk shops, ensuring, whether people want them or not, that the god of modern society, accessibility, is totally satisfied.

Against instincts

My instincts tell me this is not a good thing and I have been trying to work out why. On the beach, in the summer I watched a team of alarmingly wholesome evangelicals with modest shorts and smiling white teeth offering free tugs of war to children. They are but some of many offering choruses, talks, even, perhaps prayers. This upsets the instincts even more than the easy availability of bibles.

It is worse if there are guitars, recorders, banners and boards with big, coloured letters. The only thing more upsetting than sharing the good news, witnessing to the Saviour and the like is the enthusiastic call to do this especially when it is from supposed catholics in catholic media,

determined to infantilize the church to pander to the self-indulgent appetites of adolescents. The intellectual guts finally wretch when they blithely and repeatedly chatter about ‘Jesus’.

I am, briefly, slightly ashamed on my instincts’ behalf. I know these people have some pretty powerful texts to support their unpleasant behaviour. There are the Dominical commands to preach the Gospel. One biblical command even justifies free access to the bible. The Breviary proper for Terce on feasts of the Apostles reads,

‘Go, preach the Good News of the kingdom: you received without cost; give without charge.’

Holy knowledge

However, I too can come up with texts and even a whole tradition. After the Transfiguration when Our Lord discloses his divinity to, and only to, Peter, John and James, he orders them, ‘Tell the vision to no man until the Son of man be risen from the dead.’ Other texts order selected apostles or witnesses to miracles and other deeds to keep knowledge secret, restrict it or delay its propagation. Certain knowledge and full knowledge is only for the chosen or initiated. This tradition permeates OT wisdom literature, Revelation and the Johannine epistles and Gospel. Some knowledge is for an elite. It is not democratic let alone egalitarian. It is, in a very apt word, holy, that is, apart. Initiates are gradually admitted to levels of the truth, the holy.

The early Church understood this with its separation of catechumens and the faithful. The church architecture of East and West separated some acts and words from the congregation by the rood screen and iconostasis. Holy things, chalices and tabernacles were veiled from popular sight and, as the Ritual orders, from the touch of lay people.

The greatest mystery at the altar was shrouded by the back of the celebrant facing ad orientem. The liturgy whispered its holiest words in secret and a non-vernacular language, Latin, Greek, Old Slavonic protected all its acts, until the recent depredations of the Vatican II Cromwellians.

Treated as precious

The knowledge of holy things and holy acts must be kept from direct gaze because it is about God. Thus too with the name, Jesus, which the Church has always understood to be itself holy. It even had two feasts given it. It is not a word to be used lightly. Its recitation is an act of worship – as for instance in the Jesus Psalter and Prayer. And at the name of Jesus, every head and shoulders, if not every knee bowed. This is why, until recently, when he was mentioned non-liturgically, it was conveniently as ‘Our Lord’.

The same for the Holy Bible (we can now restore its capital and adjective). It too was holy. It is not a book like Marryat’s or France’s novels. You read those. The Holy Bible and especially the Gospels are to be bowed to, censed and kissed because they are holy.

You cannot retain an understanding of the Holy Bible as holy if it is thrown about, free for all and any to maltreat and misinterpret. The journey that started with the Protestant Reformers and the denial of an elite church whose special ministers are charged with its enaction and interpretation ends with a volume in the second-hand shop that no one wants and a free download.

Who indeed would want such a volume? Perhaps, though, if it and the Lord it reveals were treated as holy, as precious, then people, even young people, might want them more. ND