Bible or Cellphone?
When my granddaughter turned twelve recently, her parents gave her a cell phone, confident that she would use it wisely. She has already proven to be a competent and responsible consumer. My parents gave me a Bible on my twelfth birthday, no doubt with similar expectations. I’m still grappling with it.
It’s a bit shabby now. There are splits down its spine. Around the edges a fine cross-hatching of canvas shows through the dimpled, black leather cloth. The gold edging on the pages has rubbed away leaving patches of tawny brown on a pinkish under glow. My name, across the lower corner of the cover, has faded to a shadow. I fancied my name in gold letters, in the days when it gleamed brightly. But my parents were on to that, smartly. Modesty was a fine thing in a woman. ‘Be good, sweet maid,’ my mother was fond of quoting, ‘And let those who will, be bold.’ So I strove instead to be not only my mother’s, but also one of God’s good daughters.
Better quality embossing on the top corner has preserved the words ‘Holy Bible’, untarnished for well over fifty years. God knows I’ve tried hard enough to keep my corner pure and unblemished. But the odds were stacked against me. Across the years I’ve chalked up a few venial sins, as my Irish cousins would say – nothing that would deprive my soul of divine grace, of course, just enough to ensure my human frailty.
Inside the cover, on the black fly leaf, an inscription in my mother’s handwriting reads, ‘From Mum and Dad, 10/7/52.’ No ‘with love’, no kisses, and no indulgence. It is very properly Protestant. It’s not that my parents didn’t love me – quite the contrary. In our family the love went deep like an underground seam of gold. Good quality stuff that never fades. And my Bible, like my granddaughter’s cell phone, was an indulgent gift to keep me safe and show they cared.
It was also meant to shape me in the ways in which I should grow. Along with modesty, honesty and goodness were important family values. But sometimes my father’s lapses into mild blasphemy would upset the balance of morality in our household. I was reminded of this recently when singing one of Colin Gibson’s gleeful hymns, Jumping Jesus. The title could have come straight from my father’s mouth, except that he pronounced it with a hint of the blarney, ‘Jumpin’ Jaysus’, he’d exclaim, in astonishment or amusement. And my mother would frown. However, despite my father’s penchant for irreverent humour he was a seriously responsible parent, and, on the eve of my adolescence, what better wisdom to give me than the Word of God?
Each tissue-fine page is divided into two columns of small print with numbered verses, lots of ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ and generous sprinklings of italics. With my biro I’ve keyed into the helpful numbers and underlined some inspirational ‘txt msgs.’ Between the columns there’s a narrow panel of cross-references, like a key pad, with more cryptic text messages to connect you with other parts of the Bible. I never thought much about their practical use in my adolescence. Perhaps my parents weren’t sure about how it worked either – both tradition and technology can take a bit of getting your head around. In any case they left me to discover some things for myself. As a dutiful daughter, I simply did my daily readings and vacillated between striving to be good in the manner recommended by St Paul and battling with my conscience like Job.
Not all the wisdom and history in my Bible is in the canonical text, though. As well as the underlining there are lots of notes in the margins. And beneath the dedication to King James, there’s the acronym, F.A.I.T.H. Forsaking All I Trust Him. God, I meant, not King James. But, did I really write that, believe it, or even try to do it? It’s difficult now, to own that I did. Eventually my naive faith took a drubbing, though. These days I ask questions.
The idea of defining God with gendered language or traditional Biblical images seems to me, woefully inadequate; and the notion of forsaking all else in order to trust such a God, so subservient that it defies common sense. Bishop Richard Randerson’s claim for ‘agnosticism’ – that evidence of God’s existence as defined in traditional Christian doctrine cannot be proved one way or the other – provides me with a more meaningful connection to a living faith in this secular age.
It’s a tough call then, to be given responsibility for the use of a cell phone or a Bible. My granddaughter and I both know that walking about with one’s head down, reading or sending text messages, can lead one to bump into all manner of things and even risk getting hurt. It’s best to watch where you’re going, and to switch off if it’s likely to hinder other helpful conversations or learning. But, of course, neither technology nor tradition is any use at all if it’s out of range.