Iconic books are texts revered as objects of power rather than just as words of instruction, information, or insight. In religious and secular rituals around the globe, people carry, show, wave, touch and kiss books and other texts, as well as read them. This blog chronicles such events and activities. (For more about iconic books, see the links to the Iconic Books Project at left.)

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Trump's Bible Pose

Yesterday, troops and police used force and tear gas to clear a path through protestor for Donald Trump to walk from the White House to a nearby Episcopalian church, which had suffered some damage from the protests. There, he posed for photographers while holding up a Bible. He did not give a statement or speech there, and hardly spoke at all.

This photo op immediately prompted angry denunciations, not only from journalists who recognized the strong-man imagery, but also from police commanders who complained about this misuse of their personnel, and from the Episcopalian bishop who complained about this misuse of religious symbols. And well she should.

Trump’s performance was an attempt to gain legitimacy by associating himself with the Bible and with the Church. His picture in front of a church building damaged by a small fire cast Trump in the pose of a “defender of the Church,” a traditional self-characterization of Christian kings and generals to justify their bloody violence.

Trump’s pose holding up a Bible was something more. By manipulating a Bible, he legitimized himself by association. Manipulating a physical book of scripture associates a person with its message and with the religious tradition that it represents. Holding a Bible is a way to portray oneself as Christian, as pious, and as religiously orthodox. This pose is readily recognizable because of its use in Christian art for thousands of years. It does not need verbal commentary to communicate.

Politicians traditionally manipulate bibles or other scriptures at their inaugurations. Yesterday, Trump reasserted God’s support for his presidency with a few simple pictures. To his opponents, like me, these pictures look simplistic, clumsy, and artificial. But they may well be politically effective.

Scholars have often complained that manipulating physical scriptures is a misuse of them. Their complaints usually fall on deaf ears. While people readily ask experts to interpret the meaning of a biblical verse, they don’t need them to understand the symbolism of a book of scripture. They touch and hold their iconic books to feel comforted, protected, and legitimated. Trump’s pose with a Bible was calculated to communicate viscerally to everyone who holds their own bibles close. That is a lot of people.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Miniature Books

Miniature Books: The Format and Function of Tiny Religious Texts, edited by Kristina Myrvold and Dorina Miller Parmenter, has now been published by Equinox. 
Miniature Books

Miniature books, handwritten or printed books in the smallest format, have fascinated religious people, printers, publishers, collectors, and others through the centuries because of their unique physical features, and continue to captivate people today. The small lettering and the delicate pages, binding, and covers highlight the material form of texts and invite sensory engagement and appreciation. This volume addresses miniature books with a special focus on religious books in Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist traditions. The book presents various empirical contexts for how the smallest books have been produced, distributed, and used in different times and cultures and also provides theoretical re ections and comments that discuss the divergent formats and functions of books.

Religious Miniature Books: Introduction and Overview
– Kristina Myrvold, Dorina Miller Parmenter
1. Ritualizing the Size of Books – James W. Watts
2. On the Functions of Miniaturizing Books in Jewish Religion
– Marianne Schleicher
3. Words in a Nutshell: Miniaturizing Texts in Early Modern England
– Lucy Razzall
4. Small Things of Greatest Consequence: Miniature Bibles in America
– Dorina Miller Parmenter
5. Diminutive Divination and the Implications of Scale: A Miniature Quranic Falnama
of the Safavid Period – Heather Coffey
6. Mite Qurans for Indian Markets: David Bryce in the Late Nineteenth and Early
Twentieth Century – Kristina Myrvold
7. Miniature Qurans in the First World War: Religious Comforts for Indian Muslim
Soldiers – Kristina Myrvold, Andreas Johansson
8. Size Matters! Miniature Mushafs and the Landscape of Affordances
– Jonas Svensson
9. Gitamahatmya! Paratexts in Miniature Bhagavad Gitas with Special Reference to
Pictures and Gender – Jon Skarpeid
10. Sutras Working in Buddha’s Belly and Buddhists’ Pockets: Miniature Sutras in
Korean Buddhism – Yohan Yoo, Woncheol Yun

Monday, July 22, 2019

CFP and Conference: The Image of the Book

RSA (Renaissance Society of America), 2-4 April 2020, Philadelphia

CFP: The Image of the Book: 1300–1600

      .... This session seeks to assemble speakers who will address the depiction of books in painting, sculpture, print, and other art forms from one or more of these angles, with an eye towards understanding images as mediated signs as opposed to transparent representations of “real” objects and practices.
       The session will be held in conjunction with the Books as Symbols in Renaissance Art (BASIRA) Project, currently being developed to enable a high-quality, searchable scholarly database of such representations.
Full Call for Papers at  https://basiraproject.wordpress.com/2019/07/12/join-us-call-for-papers/

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

What I have learned from 18 years of the Iconic Books Project—now collected together in one place:

Religious and secular communities ritualize some books in one, two, or three dimensions. They ritualize the dimension of semantic interpretation through teaching, preaching, and scholarly commentary. This dimension receives almost all the attention of academic scholars. Communities also ritualize a text’s expressive dimension through public reading, recitation, and song, and also by reproducing its contents in art, theatre and film. This dimension is receiving increasing scholarly attention, especially in religious studies and anthropology. A third textual dimension, the iconic dimension, gets ritualized by manipulating the physical text, decorating it, and displaying it. This dimension has received almost no academic attention, yet features prominently in the most common news stories about books, whether about e-books, academic libraries, rare manuscript discoveries, or scripture desecrations. By calling attention to the iconic dimension of books, James Watts argues that we can better understand how physical books mediate social value and power within and between religious communities, nations, academic disciplines, and societies both ancient and modern.

How and Why Books Matter will appeal to a wide range of readers interested in books, reading, literacy, scriptures, e-books, publishing, and the future of the book. It also addresses scholarship in religion, cultural studies, literacy studies, biblical studies, book history, anthropology, literary studies, and intellectual history.

Table of Contents: 
Introduction: The Iconic Books Project  1-5
Chapter 1 How Books Matter: The Three Dimensions of Scriptures  7-29
Chapter 2 Iconic Books and Texts  31-54
Chapter 3 Relic Texts  55-69
Chapter 4 Iconic Digital Texts: How Rituals Materialize Virtual Texts  71-81
Chapter 5 Desecrated Scriptures and the News Media  83-98
Chapter 6 Ancient Iconic Texts  99-115
Chapter 7 Rival Iconic Texts: Ten Commandments Monuments and the U.S. Constitution  117-134
Chapter 8 Book Aniconism: The Codex, Translation and Beliefs about Immaterial Texts  135-159
Chapter 9 Mass Literacy and Scholarly Expertise  161-166
Chapter 10 Why Books Matter: Preservation and Disposal  167-188

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Conference: Digital Sacred Texts in Dublin, May 2020

A call for papers has been issued for the conference, Digital Sacred Texts: Materiality, Performance, Theory:

The “digital turn” continues to have far-reaching implications, including for the use of sacred texts: from individuals to religious communities to academia, people are increasingly engaging with scriptures in digital formats. For many, this shift from print to digital culture is understood primarily in terms of content: texts are seen as moving from one receptacle (books) to another (electronic formats). There are, however, other important aspects of this transition to consider, including issues of materiality, iconicity, and performance. Texts do not become immaterial when moved to digital formats, but instead are encountered in new material forms. What is gained or lost when a text is used in digital formats, as compared to print culture? How is personal, ritual, or scholarly engagement with sacred texts impacted by the digital turn? Important questions related to the material, performative, and iconic dimensions of sacred texts continue to emerge, even in the digital world.

The School of Theology, Philosophy, and Music at Dublin City University, in collaboration with the Society for Comparative Research on Iconic and Performative Texts (SCRIPT), is pleased to announce a conference exploring “Digital Sacred Texts”, to be held in Dublin, Ireland, on 26-27 May 2020. This conference will focus on sacred texts (broadly understood) and digital culture, giving particular attention to issues of materiality, performance, and theory. Paper proposals are welcome in areas related, but not limited to, the following:

  • semantic, performative, and iconic dimensions of Scriptures in digital formats
  • the transition from print to digital, including technological, social, and religious factors
  • reflection on the materiality of sacred texts in light of digital and electronic formats
  • the use of digital scriptures in personal, liturgical, ritual, academic, and public contexts
  • sacred texts, the internet, and digital devices
  • machine translation and sacred texts
  • critical editions in light of the digital turn
  • reception history and digital culture
  • digital humanities and sacred texts
  • digitization and the accessibility of texts
  • scriptural literacy and digital culture
  • sacred texts and digital pedagogy

Paper proposals should be submitted as an abstract of no more than 300 words. These should be submitted (in Word or PDF format) via email to brad.anderson@dcu.ie, by 10 October 2019. PhD students/postgraduates should include an up-to-date CV (max 4 pages). Registration details coming soon.This conference will focus on sacred texts (broadly understood) and digital culture, giving particular attention to issues of materiality, performance, and theory.

For the conference website, click here. You may also correspond directly with Prof. Brad Anderson at brad.anderson@dcu.ie.

Monday, December 10, 2018

A First Look at a Slave Bible

NPR is reporting on an exhibit at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC, that features a Bible used in the Caribbean, during the height of the slave trade.

This abridged version goes by the title, Parts of the Holy Bible, selected for the use of the Negro Slaves, in the British West-India Islands, and was published in 1807.

The NPR report quotes Associate Curator Anthony Schmidt. "About 90 percent of the Old Testament is missing [and] 50 percent of the New Testament is missing," Schmidt says. "Put in another way, there are 1,189 chapters in a standard protestant Bible. This Bible contains only 232."

In describing this unique artifact, the Museum on the Bible says

The Slave Bible, as it would become known, is a missionary book. It was originally published in London in 1807 on behalf of the Society for the Conversion of Negro Slaves, an organization dedicated to improving the lives of enslaved Africans toiling in Britain’s lucrative Caribbean colonies. They used the Slave Bible to teach enslaved Africans how to read while at the same time introducing them to the Christian faith. Unlike other missionary Bibles, however, the Slave Bible contained only “select parts” of the biblical text. Its publishers deliberately removed portions of the biblical text, such as the exodus story, that could inspire hope for liberation. Instead, the publishers emphasized portions that justified and fortified the system of slavery that was so vital to the British Empire.
The exhibit will run through April 2019. I will be taking a trip to DC between now and then, and I will try to take a look, and report back in more detail here.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Sensing Sacred Texts

The 2017 special edition in Postscripts has now been published as an independent volume, Sensing Sacred Texts, ed. J. W. Watts; Sheffield: Equinox, 2018:

All the human senses become engaged in ritualizing sacred texts. These essays focus especially on ritualizing the iconic dimension of texts through the senses of sight, touch, kiss, and taste, both directly and in the imagination.

Ritualized display of books engages the sense of sight very differently than does reading. Touching gets associated with reading scriptures, but touching also enables using the scripture as an amulet. Eating and consuming texts is a ubiquitous analogy for internalizing the contents of texts by reading and memorization.

The idea of textual consumption reflects a widespread tendency to equate humans and written texts by their interiority and exteriority: books and people both have material bodies, yet both seem to contain immaterial ideas. Books thus physically incarnate cultural and religious values, doctrines, beliefs, and ideas.

These essays bring theories of comparative scriptures and affect theory to bear on the topic as well as rich ethnographic descriptions of scriptural practices with Jewish, Sikh, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist and modern art and historical accounts of changing practices with sacred texts in ancient and medieval China and Korea, and in ancient Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cultures.

Kennicott on the new Bible Museum in Washington, DC

Philip Kennicott, the Washington Post's Art and Architecture critic, reviewed the new Bible Museum in Washington, DC, and concludes:
The Bible Museum has come to town, in all its technical splendor, bearing with it something that most historians and museum professionals may have thought was long discredited: the “master narrative” idea of history, that there is one sweeping human story that needs to be told, a story that is still unfolding and carrying us along with it. It tells this seductive story well, in many places with factual accuracy, and always with an eye to clarity and entertainment. It is an exciting idea, and an enormously powerful tool for making sense of the world. Unless, of course, you don’t believe it.

It should be noted that the new museum is only the largest and most elaborate example of a very old tendency to reinforce faith in the Bible by displaying artifacts, models, dioramas, and reenactments.

The Museum of the Bible opened to the public on November 17, 2017.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Ireland and the Reception of the Bible

I just received my copy of Brad Anderson's and Jonathan Kearney's edited collection, Ireland and the Reception of the Bible: social and cultural perspectives (London: T&T Clark, 2018). Ireland and the Reception of the Bible

I'm looking forward to reading its 21 chapters:

Introduction: Situating Ireland and Socio-Cultural Reception of the Bible -- (Bradford A. Anderson, Dublin City University, Ireland and Jonathan Kearney, Dublin City University, Ireland)
Part One: Ireland and the Transmission of the Bible
1. The Multifaceted Transmission of the Bible in Ireland, A.D. 550-1200 CE -- (Martin McNamara, Milltown Institute, Ireland)
2. The Bible and 'the People' in Ireland, c.1100-c.1650 -- (Salvador Ryan, St Patrick's College, Maynooth, Ireland)
3. Translating the Bible into Irish, 1565-1850 -- (Fearghus Ó Fearghail, Mater Dei Institute of Education, Ireland)
4. 'The Little Ones Called for Bread and there was None that Would Break it for Them': Some Notes on the Use of the Bible in the Sermons of Bishop James Gallagher -- (Ciaran Mac Murchaidh, Dublin City University, Ireland)
5. Irish Catholic Bible Readers before the Famine -- (Brendan McConvery, St Patrick's College Maynooth, Ireland)
6. The Catholic Lectionary: Its Creation, Reception and Challenge -- (Kieran O'Mahony, Diocese of Dublin, Ireland)

Part Two: The Bible and Identity in Ireland
7. 'This Booke hath bred all the quarrel': The Bible in the 1641 Depositions -- (Bradford A. Anderson, Dublin City University, Ireland)
8. The Last of the Milesians: In Search of Ireland's Biblical Past, 1760-1900 -- (Brian Murray, King's College London, UK)
9. Between Ulster and the Kingdom of God: Uses of the Bible by Evangelicals in the Northern Ireland Troubles -- (Joshua Searle, Spurgeon's College, UK)
10. Dancing Like David and Overcoming Enemies: Scripture and Culture in Christ Apostolic Church Dublin -- (Rebecca Uberoi, independent scholar)
11. God's Preference for the Poor: The Bible and Social Justice in Ireland -- (Patrick Mitchel, Irish Bible Institute, Ireland)
12. How Sacred Text Becomes Religious Artefact: A Cultural Geography of the Book of Kells -- (Eoin O'Mahony, University College Dublin, Ireland)

Part Three: Ireland and Beyond: Reciprocal Influences
13. Toland, Spinoza, and the Naturalization of Scripture -- (Ian Leask, Dublin City University, Ireland)
14. Irish Travellers to the Dead Sea: The Interplay and Impact of Empirical Investigation and Biblical Exegesis -- (Thomas O'Loughlin, University of Nottingham, UK)
15. The Chester Beatty Biblical Collection: A Treasury of Early Christian Manuscripts in an Irish Library -- (David Hutchinson Edgar, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland)
16. 'Casting Bread Upon the Water': A Voyage of Discovery -- (Carmel McCarthy, University College Dublin, Ireland)

Part Four: Cultural and Artistic Appropriation: Imagery, Music, and Literature
17. The Book of Kells and the Visual Identity of Ireland -- (Amanda Dillon, independent scholar)
18. Imaging the Bible in Stained Glass: Five Stained Glass Windows by Michael Healy in St. Brendan's Cathedral, Loughrea -- (Myra Hayes, Mary Immaculate College Limerick, Ireland)
19. The Bible in Music during Dublin's Golden Age -- (Siobhán Dowling Long, University College Cork, Ireland)
20. Scripture, Music, and the Shaping of Irish Cultural Identities -- (Róisín Blunnie, Dublin City University, Ireland)
21. James Joyce and the Study of the Bible -- (Geert Lernout, University of Antwerp, Belgium)