Deep thanks for your “Words and Worlds” show and for highlighting the remarkable work of the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library. For a number of years I’ve had occasion to travel to Saint John’s, and have followed with particular interest the HMML. I am fascinated by the crucial work it does both in preserving the sacred texts of many cultures and civilizations and also in supporting the creation of a new manuscript for a new time in the form of The Saint John’s Bible.
I was struck by the comment left by the writer who thought the money would be better spent feeding the homeless and hungry. I’m not certain whether the writer was referring to money spent on The Saint John’s Bible or to the work of the HMML in general, or both together, but the comment illuminates a tension that has long pervaded the church regarding art and justice. I am concerned by how frequently we in the church talk about art and justice as two different things that we have to choose between, rather than as being part of the same impulse: our response to a God of grace and creativity who has placed us in a world that is both broken and beautiful.
The Christian tradition and the Bible itself both developed and survived in large measure because of people across the centuries who gave themselves to transmitting the sacred stories in a variety of creative forms, not just in texts but also in other media including drama, song, and liturgy. In particular, the stunning array of visual art created over the centuries not only helped proclaim the gospel to those who could not read it (as well as those who could) but also was understood to be a gift in return to God: a lavish offering, an act of praise in response to the God who has lavished love, grace, and care upon us.
The fact that we live in the 21st century, when hunger, homelessness, and a host of other injustices continue to inflict deep suffering around the world, does not diminish—and is not separate from—our need for beauty and the sustenance and hope it provides. I find myself thinking of the story in Mark 14.3-9, in which, as Jesus sits at table, a woman comes and anoints him with outrageously expensive oil. Mark tells us that some at the table were angry and said, “Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.” Jesus, however, receives her lavish act with grace and gratitude. “Let her alone,” he tells those who scold the woman; “why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish, but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”
In saying that we would always have the poor with us, Jesus wasn’t suggesting that we should neglect to work for an end to poverty. Rather, he recognized that lavish acts of generosity, grace, and beauty, such as the woman offered to him, must be part of our response to Christ, alongside our work for justice. Jesus knew that choosing justice at the expense of beauty is just another form of poverty.
I am an ordained minister as well as an artist and writer. I understand my call and my work as a minister to be about feeding people not only in body but also in soul. One kind of feeding cannot long do without the other. I could not work for justice in this world without the creative acts that others have offered across the centuries and in our present time, not only because I could not live without the sustaining hope and beauty they offer, but also because they remind me that God desires us to give lavishly, generously, wantonly from the depths of who we are, and who God has created us to be. Such extravagant acts can seem wasteful. By his response to the anointing woman, however, Jesus reminds us that such gestures of grace bring healing to the body of Christ, and to the whole world.
One of the many gifts of The Saint John’s Bible is that through its related exhibitions, books, prints, cards, and website, not to mention radio and TV shows that have featured it, people are coming into contact with the Bible who might not otherwise encounter it. The Saint John’s Bible also beckons those who think we are oh-so-familiar with the Bible to engage it in a different, deeper, and renewed way. The work of Donald Jackson and his team reminds us that the Bible is not obsolete but rather is a living, dynamic text that invites us to continue not merely to read it but to lavish our attention upon it: to grapple and wrestle with it, to question it, to discern how it still speaks to and challenges us in this time, and to illuminate it, even as it illumines us.
The monks of Saint John’s, and the host of others who participate in the work of the HMML, including the artists, calligraphers, and financial contributors who are making The Saint John’s Bible possible, are offering the world something that is precisely the opposite of selfish. In preserving the sacred texts of the past, in employing ancient methods to offer a sacred text that speaks to us in the present, in drenching us with this audaciously lavish gift, they are offering, in fine Benedictine (and Christian) tradition, a profound act of hospitality.
Amid the brokenness of the world, to which we are called to minister, these folks have given us a rare gift that reminds us that God desires beauty. They bear witness to the fact that recognizing and offering beauty is part of what heals the brokenness. They remind us that God is not yet done with the work of creating, and that God calls us to offer our creative gifts for the healing and feeding of the world.
And that is good news indeed.
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