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Hallo again to all.

Earlier this year we wrote about the notion of a book as icon, book as symbol, book as talisman. Since then, we've experienced several seemingly unrelated phenomena that collectively motivate us to revisit this topic:

The Amazon Kindling, a low-tech e-Book
A stone altar in Ireland

• A visit to the Altarless Cathedral in Sydney, noting that the only icon it contains is a book, the Bible, the subtext being that the Bible is all that one needs for salvation. (We have for years wanted to dig up the person who originally said that and ask him for a lot of clarification.)

• An encounter with the amazing collection of high-mass vestments designed a century ago by Sir Ninian Comper for St Mark's Church in Philadelphia. You can see photographs of them here, see photographs of Comper's other work here, read a Telegraph column about him by Christopher Howse, and marvel at the book about his work that was published by the Ecclesiological Society a few years ago. Comper once wrote that 'A church building is just a roof over an altar', an aphorism used so very well at the end of this online tour of a parish in Essex.

• A chance to play with the Amazon Kindle and laugh at the parody of it, the Amazon Kindling. In use, the Kindle is rather a chameleon; it becomes whatever book you ask it to, and, unlike a computer screen, you can lie on the seashore and read it in full sun. If it and similar devices are commercially successful, it may in time change the cultural notion of what constitutes 'a book' from a physical object to a conceptual object.

Authors and playwrights — whose great skill is to hold up a cultural mirror to their audience — have always recognized the magic power of books. The magical properties of a 'Book of Spells' show up often in fanciful fiction and contemporary drama. Books of secrets, books of legend, books of special codes, books of deep magic. The images from literature of the power of the book are everywhere and have been for centuries. The Bible is no exception, but it shows up less frequently in literature, possibly because there is so much disagreement about what it actually says.

Books. Bibles (or the lack of them). Altars. And, well, spies, too: We recall an essay from the cold-war era about the best way to analyze surveillance photographs of enemy installations. Here's the recipe: If a spy manages to take a picture of an hostile military base, make sure that both the picture and the camera that took it are sent to headquarters. Then the experts in the laboratory will analyse the camera to see how it distorted the picture, then reverse that distortion to produce an image much more like the original than was the actual picture from the camera.

Like those cold-war spy photos, in any given Bible text we may discern more clearly what God may be revealing to us by working backwards from the language in a particular translation, reversing the cultural distortion, and trying to model the original — assuming we have something of an understanding of the culture in which that language was embedded. Of course that means we're modelling God's message in human thought (our own), which by definition has a cultural bias (our own), so we have no way of knowing whether our thoughts about the Word are actually commensurate with what God is trying to tell us. There are all manner of experts happy to explain what it is that 'the Bible means'; we exchange our thought and cultural biases for theirs.

But back to that three-dimensional book called the Bible: Churches, happily, tend to keep important physical objects for many centuries. The quirk is that sometimes the church's keepers change their mind about what is important, and hold a purge (the polite word is 'deaccession'). But we suspect there will always be paper Bibles, whose language is pickled in the culture of some far-distant society. It's not likely that someday you'll visit a cathedral to see, reverently displayed under glass, an electronic book programmed to hold the Authorised Version of the Bible; the Holy Kindle of Antioch.

Since our culture seems destined to morph the notion of 'book' right out from under us, over time the Bible may transmogrify from something that people hold and read to an artefact they own and admire. Perhaps in the future people will look at their paper Bibles and read verses from some electronic edition.

Your opinion / tradition / predilection may be that that a church exists as a roof over an altar or that its one essential furnishing is a Bible — or that it needn't have a roof at all. It seems so odd that the notion of an altar is more unchanging and more timeless than is the notion of a book, but books are being re-shaped by economic forces, and there is no marketplace in altars to create those forces. And we don't need analysts and experts to tell us what an altar means. That we understand.

See you next week.

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Last updated: 24 May 2009

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