I’m no celebrity – not even close – but I have been asked to autograph someone’s bible before.
On a few occasions.
In certain church circles it’s actually a thing to get people to sign your bible.
I recoiled the first time it happened. It seemed like desecration to add my pathetic signature to the pages of the Holy Bible. And when I demurred, the person looked genuinely hurt. They couldn’t seem to understand why I wouldn’t do it. I guess they figured it was a weird cultural thing that Australians have with not autographing the Good Book.
But actually, Australians have their own version of Good Book signing in the so-called Fleet Bible, which was brought to Sydney Cove on the first fleet of colonizers to arrive on our shores in 1788. Rather strangely, it has been signed by every monarch to visit Australia in the past century, including Charles and Diana, Will and Kate, Queen Elizabeth and her uncle, the short-lived Edward VIII, who abdicated to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson.
I just don’t get it. I really don’t.
Why is it considered appropriate to have celebrities scrawl their names on an ancient holy book?
I mean, isn’t it kinda, um, desecration?
This question was reignited last week when President Donald Trump signed a bunch of bibles at an Alabama church service for survivors of a recent tornado outbreak.
There was a lot of outrage on social media about the presumptuousness of the president signing a bible. But as I said, even I’ve been asked to do it. It’s not that weird in places like Alabama. And no doubt, the tornado survivors took some comfort from it.
Of course, for every social media reaction there’s an equal and oppositely reactive reaction, so Fox News’ Pete Hegseth has announced he has a new ambition—for Trump to sign his own Bible.
“Like me, do you have a new life goal? My new life goal is President Trump signs a Bible that I own,” he said. “I’m going to work on that… I’m just saying, what in the world is wrong with this? Faith is so important, its central to so many people’s lives. You go through a tragedy, the president of the United States is there, he signs it—good for you.”
But it’s not only reactive Fox commentators who haven’t got a problem with it. Dr Hershael York from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, is cool with it too.
“Though we don’t have a national faith, there is faith in our nation, and so it’s not at all surprising that people would have politicians sign their Bibles,” he said. “Those Bibles are meaningful to them and apparently these politicians are, too.”
Ed Stetzer, head of the Billy Graham School of Evangelism at Wheaton College, tweeted, “The Bible autograph news is a made up controversy. In some places, particularly the south, people ask you to sign their bible. I’ve signed several. Most have other signatures already on the same page. Media friends, jut b/c @POTUS does a thing does not make it disrespectful.”
Yeah, so having a president sign a bible in a time of national tragedy isn’t the worst thing in the world. I mean, imagine the greater outrage if he’d refused a survivor’s request.
But back to bible-signing in general, Hershael York said that he, personally, would not ask a politician to sign a bible, but that he has been asked to sign bibles after he preaches. It feels awkward, he said, but he doesn’t refuse.
“If it’s meaningful to them to have signatures in their Bible, I’m willing to do that,” he said.
Others don’t agree.
Rev. Dr. Kevin Cassiday-Maloney, pastor at the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Fargo, North Dakota, commenting on the Trump bible-signing, said, “It just felt like hubris It almost felt like a desecration of the holy book to put his signature on the front writ large, literally.”
That word can mean different things.
If by desecration you mean disrespectful, contemptuous, or destructive, then, I think it’s clear Mr Trump was being none of those things when he signed those bibles.
But if that term is used to refer to the act of depriving something of its sacred character, then I think there are some grounds for suggesting that occurs when a bible is autographed.
Take the Fleet Bible, for instance. It sits in a glass case in St Philips Anglican Church, Sydney. It’s no longer a bible. It’s a museum piece. People don’t read it to hear the Word of the Lord. They gawk at it to see Princess Diana’s signature. Surely, it has in some measure been deprived of its sacred character.
Likewise, the Trump-signed bibles, still in their plastic wrapping. They will never be unsheathed. Their pages will never be cracked open. They may even be sold on eBay (are you listening, Pete Hegseth?). They have become a piece of presidential memorabilia not the sacred writings many people believe them to be.
I’m sure people will respond by telling me that God’s word is not limited to paper and ink. There’s nothing sacred about the Zondervan editions Mr Trump signed. Fair point. But the way we treat objects that represent higher and more sacred ideas reflects in some way on those ideas.
I remember being in a church when a youth pastor read from the bible and then dropped the book gently onto the floor to free his hands while he preached. A woman near to me gasped audibly. I asked her about it later and she told me she was a Muslim convert to Christianity and in her old world the sacred book, the Quran, could never be placed on the floor where people’s feet walked. It was sacrilege.
“I’m still getting used to how Christians treat the bible,” she smiled.
I’m not proposing we worship the paper-and-ink bible as a sacred object. Most of us read our bibles on phones and tablets these days and it’s hard to imagine considering an iPhone as a sacred object. And I’m not that worried about Trump signing bibles.
But I am worried that many Christians don’t even think through what the sacred character of the bible is, and how to hold it dearly and protectively in a world where it seems nothing is sacred and everything serves a culture of celebrity worship.