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Hallo again to all.

The Quran uses the term 'People of the Book' to refer to Jews and Christians*. Not being fluent in Arabic, we needed to ask experts about it, and were told that the connotation is that those 'People of the Book' are too rooted in the authority of their books to be receptive to the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. It is not uncommon for Jews and evangelical Christian denominations to refer to themselves as People of the Book.

A decade or so ago, we visited a diocese that calls itself Anglican but acts like it is Baptist. We saw no altar in its cathedral, though there was a table off to one side that our guide said could be moved to the centre of the room and used as an altar if one was ever needed. There was nearby a glass display case within which was a bound copy of the Bible and a bit of dust, and a note saying that the case contained everything needed for salvation. The glass case prevented us from opening that Bible to see what edition or translation it might be, but we would not have been surprised to learn that its text and translation was several centuries old.

What we today call 'The Bible' is a bundling of numerous sacred texts written over the centuries. Different denominations recognized different mixtures of text as canonical. Expert historians have told us that for the first few centuries of Christianity, transcribers of the Bible (remember that there were no printing presses) made changes to the texts as they transcribed them**, and that it wasn't until the sixteenth century that editions had names and people tried to keep them from changing.

Recently in church we were singing a hymn from the hymnal in the pew, and were utterly distracted by noticing that the font size in one line of the third verse was 15% smaller than the size used elsewhere. The font was Baskerville (how did we know that?). Within seconds our thoughts were hijacked into reflections on the mechanism of making and printing the book we were holding, so much so that we lost our place in the hymn and needed to listen carefully to the people around us to reconnect. Yes, you're supposed to use the information in the book, not analyse its typesetting, but we've noticed that many people who get excited about liturgy and liturgical details also know more than is good for them about typesetting and printing and fonts.

Books, not just religious and liturgical books, have deep meaning in our culture. The best-selling computer game of the 1990s, Myst, centres around a book with mystical powers. We've seen countless motion pictures in which the plot involves a search for a book with special capabilities. In the world of Harry Potter, much is made of the Book of Spells. Halloween decorations often include witches holding books as a symbol of their power. And, of course, we all know people whose shelves hold hundreds or thousands of books but who have never read any of them. For them, the value is in possessing the book and not in reading it; the value to them of the book is unrelated to its content. A first edition, first printing book of Wuthering Heights somehow has more value than a Kindle e-book with exactly the same words.

We wonder, though, whether in a few decades we will be 'People of the iPad' or 'People of the screen'. The word 'book' is used everywhere to describe something that might never have seen ink on paper. We have a love/hate relationship with Facebook†, though its ancestral namesakes at US Ivy League colleges were actual printed books.

The invention of the printing press caused a 500-year stasis in the evolution of religious thought. Any discovery or innovation that is not compatible with a certain printed edition of the Bible can be blindly rejected as 'non-Biblical'. Perhaps in a few decades as churchgoers begin to eschew printed paper books for top-quality electronic books, the freedom enjoyed by first-millennium monks to revise the texts they were copying might return. God still speaks to us every day if we are able to hear and listen, but even God isn't going to revise the contents of the bound book in the glass case in that Anglo-Baptist cathedral.

See you next week. While you wait, don't forget that God is still teaching and it's our job to learn and document.

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All of us at Anglicans Online

18 August 2019

*And sometimes others, such as Zoroastrians or Sabians.
**Some of these changes were intentional and some were inadvertent.
†Or perhaps a hate/hate relationship with Facebook.

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