When you grow up in the South, you are required to have a relationship with the Bible. You may tote it, you may thump it, you may quote it, you may hate it, or you may run from it. But it’s like fluoride in the water….it’s just there, the Bible in the South.
For me, I got my first Bible that I remember being purchased for me by my grandparents at Sears in West End, which kind of fits. West End was where my pediatrician officed, Dr. Redd. It’s where I went to my first music store, Jacksons, renting my first saxophone. And West End was where I first tasted the heavenly manna of Krispy Kreme Donuts. Sears was like Mecca for West End, the center of all that is. You would get clothes for school, Cub Scout uniforms, hardware, and stuff I had no business knowing about at that age. But, turns out you could also score a Bible.
My first Bible was, the Children’s Bible. It had a picture on the cover of Jesus sitting, gathering all the children unto him. I guess that was to make the point that he was accessible to all, even dumb kids like me, limited in my pondering ability. It was a King James Version, and it had color illustrations throughout the text.
This Children’s Bible proved to be my first experience of editing the Bible to fit the way I saw life, or wanted to see life. The pictures were of Adam and Eve, getting the hell out of Dodge. There was Moses on Sinai, holding the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments. I remember him not looking happy. Noah and the Ark with the rainbow, giving a little good news-bad news drama. And there was David taking on Goliath, which proved to be predictive for me and my identity.
But the picture that caught my eye, that bothered me, was of Jesus with a whip of ropes, running the sellers out of the Temple. He looked angry and determined, and the sellers had a definite look of fear as they ran, clearing the space. Now, this simply did not fit my Southern way of niceness and politeness, especially in church, so I simply decided to excise this sketchy picture of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ out of my Bible. I tore it out and put it in the desk drawer, hiding his anger safely away. This was the first of many edits I would make growing up, trying to make Jesus more palatable to my Southern taste and sensibility. It would not be the last. I learned that Christian trick early on. If it doesn’t fit, take it out. Not as poetic as “if it don’t fit, you must acquit” but it worked just the same.
My second Bible was a black leather one, moving up into the big leagues. It was a Revised Standard Version, Red Letter Edition, meaning the words that Jesus spoke were special, marked for emphasis. I mean, even a kid gets that differentiation, and I guess I still sort of give honor to that instinct.
Of course, we carried our Bible to church and Sunday School because I was in the Southern Baptist Church, where you got points for bringing your Bible, studying your lesson, being on time, going to church, and of course, bringing that offering. There was an actual scorecard on the offering envelope. I was a “100 percenter” and would add “visitations” just to get extra credit. Southern Baptists will know what I’m talking about.
I carried that Bible with me until I arrived in the Youth department where our minds moved to other concerns. The Bible got left behind, and my focus was on trying to trip up these poor mortals that had volunteered to teach us. As a budding scientist, I took it as my duty to bring every question of historicity, evolution, and philosophy to the class session. With my mom as a biology teacher, I peculiarly enjoyed pressing the sexual issues that were in the stories and texts. I remember deciding to ask Mr. Griswold about the practice of circumcision, pretending ignorance. That probe sent him into stuttering apoplexy for the remainder of the class session. You can see how I was a singular joy. My Bible told me that even my Lord was precocious at twelve, so shouldn’t I follow his lead?
My next Bible was called The Living Bible which was said to be more accessible, easier to comprehend than the ponderous King James. It was green and did read more flowingly. That was because it was a paraphrase, meaning someone took the Hebrew and Greek and put it into present-day language, sans thous and ye verilys. For that reason, serious students of the Bible often referred to the Living Bible as the Green Abortion….always said in love and Christian charity, you understand. They were looking for the actual words of Jesus, as if that was even possible. But the Big Green did deliver the feel of the story which was not bad at the time.
When I was hitting late high school, my dear friend Danny cautioned me about the secular world that might lead me astray, particularly at the godless Emory that I planned to attend. So Danny encouraged me to gird my loins, and my mind. He gave me a book, Evidence That Demands a Verdict, by Josh McDowell that came right out of Campus Crusade with the Four Spiritual Laws. This was getting serious, with my soul dangling over the very fires of Hell. This demanded not only a verdict but a Bible text that was true to the original text, and hopefully as close to the lips of Jesus as I could get. The Bible of choice among my fundamentalist friends was the New American Standard which took pains to make a literal translation with no funny stuff going on. It was blue, I remember thinking, true blue.
Now, that was the Bible I used through college until I wound up crazily at the Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky with all the preacher boys training to be pastors. You can look back on a past blog entry to read as to how I made my circuitous route to Southern, trying on a medical career by working in a psychiatric hospital while taking classes at the Baptist seminary. One of my classes was New Testament as well as taking New Testament Greek, requiring the acquisition of a burgundy, plastic covered Greek text, issued by the American Bible Society. This was the “real deal”, which I was jazzed to translate for my own self. But in addition to that, I needed a scholarly version for Dr. Peter Rhea Jones’ class in New Testament.
The text of choice was an Oxford Edition of the Revised Standard Version. This is a big book with varying color covers offered each year. My year, the book was black. Not any black, but a dark, deep, almost Neon Black, that seemed to scream “I AM NEW!”. The person carrying this Black Bible is probably a heathen, a pagan, an interloper. It was easy to spot me coming with my shiny black Bible at a hundred yards.
You see, the preacher boys had been at this game for a while. Their Bibles were broken in with hours of Bible study, highlighter lined in three or four colors, The sides of their Bibles looked worn by serious prayer and devotion while mine betrayed me at every turn. It even seemed to creak as I opened it, with sound effects to emphasize that I had not come from a Baptist Bible school. I did not have an imposter “feel”. I was one! And even my very own Bible would not play along and keep my secret.
So on my first night of seminary, before classes started, I took that brand spanking new Oxford Bible out of its glossy dust jacket and begin to rub it on my desk in my single room in Sampey Hall. Jim Rightmeyer who lived next door must have wondered what I was doing, with the sounds emanating from my room as I was frantically breaking in my Bible. taking off the sheen of its virgin cover. Jim and I later shared late nights after studies, watching Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, drinking smuggled Strohs beers that were strictly verbotten in this holy space. But on that first night, Jim must have wondered.
I did not last long, only one semester, before transferring back to Emory , not sure where I would enroll. But I was hooked on the Greek New Testament, and Dr. Jones opened up the world of serious New Testament scholarship from an ecclesial perspective. And I met Professor Glenn Hinson who introduced me to his discipline of early Church history. It was a good time of learning. But as my high school motto, penned by Robert Frost, urge, I had miles to go before I sleep.
That was just another leg of rhe journey. That black Oxford Bible, became worn and ragged by legitimate means. It was the one I used throughout my career, even into the Episcopal Church. The black cover sort of ended up going well with my black priest shirt, although that would fade with wear as well..That old black Bible still touches my memory, centers my present, and helps me to lean into the future.