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.)

Saturday, June 29, 2024

The Ten Commandments and Christian Nationalism

My first essay about iconic texts was prompted by Judge Roy Moore's installation of a monumental Ten Commandments in the Alabama State Court House in 2001 (original in 2004 here; revised and expanded in 2019 here). I argued that the controversies over Decalogue monuments in courthouses involved competition between religious and national iconic texts--the Ten Commandments versus the U.S. Constitution--for iconic supremacy in the USA.

Twenty years later, more Republican politicians are championing display of the Ten Commandments, this time in schools. The Louisiana legislature passed a bill requiring their display in every public classroom in the state. A similar bill is pending in Texas. Meanwhile, Oklahoma's Superintendent of Schools has directed every public school to teach the Ten Commandments and other parts of the Bible.

In many ways, the goal remains the same, namely to show that "the nation was founded specifically to be a Christian nation" (NY Times 6/27/24). Placing the Ten Commandments and bibles in classrooms legitimizes Christian nationalist claims by ritualizing the scripture's material form, its iconic dimension, through its display. Ritualizing a text's iconic dimension produces a sense of legitimation (for this argument, see here or here; updated here). 

Schools are also the focus of another right-wing crusade: the effort to ban certain books from public and school libraries. The targeted books advocate diverse racial, ethnic, and gender identities. Conflicts over book banning reveal conservative's fear of the power of such books to inspire their readers to imagine themselves and their community's differently (see here). Fear of this kind of textual inspiration probably grows from experiencing scripture's inspiring effects by ritualizing its expressive dimension. Battles over book bans are therefore conflicts over the canons of American literature and history. The Christian nationalist canon is also advanced by mandates requiring the display of the Ten Commandments in schools. 

Both efforts face strong political and legal opposition, at least at the national level. Another threat lies in the religious divisions obscured by the Ten Commandments displays. The monuments and plaques do not reproduce any biblical text exactly. Their contents abbreviate and standardize the biblical ten commandments to accommodate the different counts and interpretations of Protestants, Catholics, and Jews (see the clear analysis by Marc Zvi Brettler and Jed Wyrick). This fact shows, again, that the goal is not semantic interpretation but rather the legitimizing function of iconic display: America will be branded as Christian by the Ten Commandment's visible presence. The irony is that this exact text does not appear in anybody's Bible.

Monday, June 17, 2024

Four Books on Iconic/Material Books


Brad Anderson has highlighted the twenty-first-century academic trend of studying material texts and iconic books. In Reading Religion, he points out four books that illustrate the illuminating results of paying attention to a book's form, appearance, material, symbolism, and ritual use. 

Anderson points readers to two collections that laid the basis for this movement: Iconic Books and Texts (2013) and Kristina Myrvold's The Death of Sacred Texts (2010).

Then he points to two monographs that apply a material books perspective to different traditions: David Stern's The Jewish Bible: A Material History (2017) and Natalia Suit's Qur’anic Matters: Material Meditations and Religious Practice in Egypt (2020). 

Let me add that current research along these lines gets showcased in the programming of The Society for Comparative Research on Iconic and Performative Texts (SCRIPT).

Tuesday, June 4, 2024

Elvis's Bible auctioned for $120 million


A bible that belonged to Elvis Presley sold at auction for $120 million, according to CBN. It contains "a large number of marked pages and passages" that the rock star highlighted personally. 

Elvis's bible is an excellent example of a "relic text," a material book valued for its unique history and form. Its printed text is the same as countless other bibles, but its association with Elvis makes it very valuable. Why? Because, as I wrote in How and Why Books Matter (2019), "relic texts legitimize a story .... People use them to identify with and place themselves in that story. ... Since ritualizing a text's iconic dimension bestows legitimacy, people will go to great lengths and spend large sums of money to own and display a relic text."

Friday, March 29, 2024

Trump's Bible endorsement


Donald Trump's manipulation of the Bible is again making news with his endorsement of "The God Bless the USA Bible." He claims that religion and Christianity are under assault from liberals and glosses his famous slogan, "make America great again,'' with "Let's make America pray again." Of course, many critics (e.g. Rev. Al Sharpton) have pointed out that Trump's personal history shows little concern for religion or traditional values.

While president, Trump manipulated a bible to try to rally Evangelical Christians behind him (see Trump's Bible Pose and Responding to Trump's Bible Pose). The "God Bless America" Bible actually seems more in character for Trump, who has a long history of raising money by licensing his name to sell all kinds of merchandise, including gold-colored sneakers

Not that bible editions catering to Christian nationalism are a novelty: a major Bible publisher, Thomas Nelson which is owned by Harper Collins, has been selling The American Patriot's Bible since 2009. But this recent news does emphasize, again, the current subservience of American evangelicalism to Trump. 

For a definitive analysis of the social and religious effects of bible marketing, see Timothy Beal's The Rise and Fall of the Bible (Mariner, 2012).

Saturday, January 21, 2023

Burning a Quran to Manipulate Europe


The BBC reported today that a protestor in Stockholm today publicly burned a Qur'an to protest Sweden's effort to join NATO. The protestor's goal was to reinforce Turkish opposition. That goal was immediately achieved when Turkey responded by angrily cancelling the visit of the Swedish defense minister to Ankara.

Desecrating a scripture or accusing opponents of desecrating a scripture is a common tactic for gaining  political or personal advantage by inflaming public opinion. It is effective because the iconic dimension of a scripture is most easily ritualized by its believers, but can also be ritualized malevolently by anyone who gains access to a copy. My 14-year-old survey of such incidents around the world unfortunately remains relevant for understanding news like this today. See "Desecrating Scripture" at https://surface.syr.edu/.

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Bookbinding as a Metaphor for Learning


Andrew Wilson advocates the art of bookbinding to teaching religious studies:

Sacred texts are continually being created and recreated, unbound and repackaged, unfurled and gathered up. Bookbinding manifests an applied, even somatic, example of these textual journeys. In a world of e-books and hypertext, one might consider bookbinding a quaint if not archaic practice, but that would overlook it as a very practical way of participating in the text. It involves doing something that actively shapes and changes the text. As the binder works the pages with their hands, the text literally takes on characteristics of changeability, pliability, and plasticity. (Andrew P. Wilson, "Teaching Religion by the Book: Bookbinding as a Metaphor for Learning," on the Blog of the Wabash Center, February 2, 2022)

He goes on to describe how engaging a student in creating books provides the means "to bind her learning journey, her experience, and her identity into a space that was richly layered and uniquely hers."

Dorina Miller Parmenter has long advocated book making and book binding in religious studies pedagogy: see the interview with her, The Religious Book as Object, on this blog.

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Owning vs Reading Books


Danika Ellis ("Books and Reading Are Two Different Hobbies," BookRiot, Jan 17, 2022) provides an insightful and rare description of how personal interactions with books differentiate between their semantic and iconic dimensions (my language, not hers):

My life is built on a foundation of books. But reading? Mm…I could take it or leave it. 

... Books, though? Books are my favorite hobby. They require nothing from me. I can stare contentedly at them and fantasize about an incredible library. I can design reading futures for myself without flipping a single page. I can participate in the bookish online community even if I’ve been in a reading slump for weeks (or months, or years). Books are always there for me, and being bookish continues to be one of my defining traits.

Sunday, January 16, 2022

The popularity of library images



 Kate Dwyer in the New York Times (Jan 15, 2022) identfies a popular picture of a book-stuffed private library as depicting the library of the late Johns Hopkins professor, Richard Macksey. But her article is mostly about the internet popularity of library images:

The library image sidesteps all those details to evoke something more universal, said Ingrid Fetell Lee, the author of the Aesthetics of Joy, a blog about the relationship between d├ęcor and delight. “We’re attracted to the image, and we come up with all sorts of stories about who it might be and what it might be because we love to tell stories,” she said. “But what’s really driving the attraction is much more visceral.”

Ms. Fetell Lee pointed to the photo’s sense of abundance. “There’s something about the sensorial abundance of seeing lots of something that gives us a little thrill,” she said. Also relevant: the “satisfying” sense of organized chaos, and the awe inspired by the high ceilings.

Pictures of books and libraries are popular across social platforms. A representative from Instagram said that some of the top-liked posts on the platform that include the words “library” or “libraries” feature large quantities of books, a “cozy” aesthetic or a warmer color scheme.

Monday, November 22, 2021

15th c. gold book pendant



The Smithsonian reports that a metal detector turned up a tiny gold pendant in the shape of an open book in a field near York, England. On its leaves are engraved images of Saints Leonard and Margaret, patron saints of childbirth. the pendant dates from the fifteenth century.

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Drawn to the Word: The Bible and Graphic Design, by Amanda Dillon



Drawn to the Word: The Bible and Graphic Design, by Amanda Dillon, has been published by SBL Press (2021), which describes it this way:

A unique study of lectionaries and graphic design as a site of biblical reception

How artists portrayed the Bible in large canvas paintings is frequently the subject of scholarly exploration, yet the presentation of biblical texts in contemporary graphic designs has been largely ignored. In this book Amanda Dillon engages multimodal analysis, a method of semiotic discourse, to explore how visual composition, texture, color, directionality, framing, angle, representations, and interactions produce potential meanings for biblical graphic designs.  Dillon focuses on the artworks of two American graphic designers—the woodcuts designed by Meinrad Craighead for the Roman Catholic Sunday Missal and Nicholas Markell’s illustrations for the worship books of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America—to present the merits of multimodal analysis for biblical reception history.