At some institutions, decision-makers think long and hard about where The Saint John’s Bible fits. What audiences want to see it? How do they want to use it? How do you even tell them where it is?
Baylor University in Waco, Texas, has been letting the community decide.
“Our goal has always been that this is not a library-owned object,” Beth Farwell, Director of Central Libraries Special Collections, says. “It’s officially Baylor’s, but we want it to be out there for everybody.”
When Farwell says “everybody,” she means everybody: some 4,000 people in the Waco community have seen The Saint John’s Bible, from students and faculty on campus to attendees of Taco Tuesday night at a nearby Presbyterian church. That level of outreach could seem intimidating to some, but Farwell and the Central Libraries Special Collections team have appreciated the increased visibility.
“What I’ve learned the most is to not shut the doors on any opportunity,” Farwell says – not even Taco Tuesday. “Rare book people typically wouldn’t have done that, but that was an opportunity we weren’t afraid of.”
‘This is Different than What We Grew Up With’
Baylor students and faculty in many disciplines have experienced the same. Art Appreciation, Seminary, English, Christian Scriptures, Medieval History and Medical Humanities are a few courses Farwell mentions that have used the Heritage Edition. Professor of Christian Scriptures Stephen B. Reid, Ph.D., has brought his class before The Saint John’s Bible more than once and finds that it intersects vividly with his area of expertise.
“It reminds us of the way in which the Bible is both word and art,” Reid says. “My survey classes always go over to the library and take a look at The Saint John’s Bible to just examine the role of illuminated manuscripts, not only in the past, but even in the 21st century – and how the arc of the illuminated manuscript interprets the text of the manuscript. And so it helps them to start to ask those sorts of questions.” Last semester, Reid’s students wrote about The Saint John’s Bible as a model of how the Bible is viewed in contemporary culture.
“What they’re seeing gets them to ask deeper questions,” Reid says. “‘Hmm, this is different than what we grew up with.’”
One such epiphany came when Farwell described meticulous printing techniques of the Heritage Edition, which are created to give the impression of translucence seen in the natural vellum of the original Saint John’s Bible. “Students always start to think, ‘Oh, what does that mean?’” Reid says. “That, you know, one side is seen through the other side? What does this mean in terms of meaning and text? That is the sort of connection, as it were, that both sides of the page are important. They understand that with The Saint John’s Bible, there would have been an option for a completely opaque page. But, in order to stay true to the form factor, that translucency was important. And then they start to say, ‘Well, maybe that’s important theologically, not just pragmatically.’”
Sha Towers, Associate Dean for Research & Engagement at Baylor, describes a similar realization that dawned on a student during a presentation on the scribal errors in The Saint John’s Bible and how these errors highlight the inherent humanity of religious art.
“[The art surrounding the errors] is distinct and beautiful to look at,” Towers recalls saying. “But what I love is that it’s only there because there was a screwup and then it was turned into something beautiful, something creative.
“The student looked up and kind of raised his hands across all the volumes of the Heritage Edition and said, ‘Isn’t that what this whole book is about?’”
Synthesizing Experiences to Illuminate a Christian Mission
The Heritage Edition inspires different interpretations in every viewer, but at Baylor University, it’s the tip of the spear piercing the bubble between the University’s prized library and the Waco community. The value of that attention has been proven in more ways than one.
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In particular, Farwell says Baylor’s “town and gown” relationship has been improved and enriched by the availability of the Heritage Edition. “We try when possible not to hold things on Baylor’s campus, but to go into the community,” she says. “That just builds more relationships with the city… It brings back so much wealth to us because we have so many more people that know what’s happening here at Baylor.”
Having The Saint John’s Bible at Baylor also serves the university’s internal audiences unlike other initiatives – from the educational enrichment of students and faculty to spiritual life on campus to Baylor’s prominence in the academic world. “When we’re trying to ramp up as a research institution like everybody else is trying to do, this actually fits our research agenda,” Farwell says. “But it also brings us back to the core of our Christian mission.”
It does that through those one-on-one encounters like the one Towers remembers. “Not only was the student interested in this beautiful artifact,” Towers says, “and not only receptive to what he’s experiencing in chapel, but he was able to synthesize those experiences and find deeper meaning. He extrapolated this one kind of microscopic moment in this one volume to the larger message of the gospel.”
The Experimental Interluminality of The Saint John’s Bible
Student work in comparative scriptural studies
The Committee on Illumination and Text chose the passages to be illuminated in The Saint John’s Bible with exacting specificity. Whitney Smith, a University Scholar student at Baylor University, says that intent piqued her interest in comparative scriptural studies – so during the Fall 2019 semester, Whitney wrote a paper on the Experimental Interluminality of The Saint John’s Bible, pulling in theological concepts to create a new analytical lens through which to see the art of The Saint John’s Bible.
Whitney’s paper leverages a practice of comparing scriptural texts with an analysis of scriptural semiotics to see how the art and illuminations of The Saint John’s Bible reference each other and the text of the Bible to create “new meanings” within each. The concept of “interluminality” is a reference to intertextuality, the relationship between literary texts, applied to the art and illumination found in The Saint John’s Bible. “The illuminations don’t mean just one thing,” Whitney says, referencing the interplay of Thomas Ingmire’s Ten Commandments and I Am Sayings. “New significance may even be generated in the practice of experimental ‘interluminality.’” Together these illuminations reveal that “the law given by the LORD disintegrates as it falls to earth and into human hands,” she writes. “It is caught up in the being of Jesus, finding rest and fulfillment in YHWY at the bottom of the second illumination.”