Wednesday, September 12, 2012

7 Questions (Part 1): Jason Engel from Saint John's Bible

Jason Engel, who is a regular commentator on this blog, just happens to be associated with the recently completed Saint John's Bible project produced by Donald Jackson (and team) and Minnesota’s Saint John’s Benedictine Abbey and University.  I asked Jason if he would be interested in sharing his experiences with this project, which he readily agreed to.  Because his answers are quite thorough, I will be posting this edition of "7 Questions" in two parts.  If you have any questions that you would like to ask Jason, he would be happy to answer them in the comments to this post and the following one.

1) I wanted to start off with a question about your involvement with Sacred Scripture. How has Scripture played an important role in your spiritual life? Has it always been that way?
I need to answer the second part of that question first to set the stage:  No, Scripture was not part of my life for a very long time.  I was raised Catholic, and my family attended a Catholic church that was large enough to provide a full parochial school (I went to the public school).  My parents enrolled me in Sunday school and catechism all through childhood. But I was the kid with all the questions that challenged everything.  Without going into details, let's just say the response from teachers, volunteer parents, and my peers was negative.  I stopped going shortly before Confirmation, and developed a grudge against the members of that church that turned into a rejection of Christianity.  That burned in me for 25 years.

So, it was a surprise to everyone when - still early in my "aggressively agnostic" phase - I chose to attend Saint John's University, a Benedictine liberal arts college for men in central Minnesota that is part of the monastic community of Saint John's Abbey (I should also plug our sister school for women, the College of Saint Benedict, just four miles away; CSB and SJU effectively act as one school, check out ).  I had just returned from a year in New Zealand as an exchange student with high dreams of one day being an ambassador working for peace.  SJU was the only school in Minnesota at that time to offer a major in Peace Studies, so it seemed like the right place to start.  I left four years later with my Peace Studies degree and a profound respect for the priests and brothers of the monastery, but my heart still hadn't softened towards Christianity in general.  Coincidentally, I graduated the same year that Donald Jackson pitched his wild idea of creating a hand-written Bible to a couple of monks at Saint John's.

Fast-forward to 2011.  I still resented Christianity.  My wife and kids and I had been members of a secular humanist Unitarian Universalist congregation for a while, and I was sent to a week-long leadership school hosted by a regional UU organization.  I still don't know what clicked in me during that week (several people who attended reported an unexpected "spiritual awakening") but that quarter-century of antagonism toward religion simply evaporated.  A few weeks later, my wife's best friend ended up in the hospital.  She recovered and was released, but still being a bit shaken she asked us to join her at Saturday night church service, "just in case".  I never would have gone if not for the experiences at the leadership school.  Again, something clicked for both of us, and we ended up going back the next week, and the next.  We found ourselves reading and discussing psalms, and participating more and more in this church.  My wife decided to take the plunge, literally, and get baptized.  I did not, I found I couldn't really overcome 25 years of distrust and pain.

And that's when God showed up and talked to me.  I'll just leave it at that.  Coincidentally, about that time I learned the Saint John's Bible had recently been completed.

Now, my wife and I devote a couple hours a day to prayer and a very slow but deliberate study of scripture.  It's allowed us to see God working in our lives every day, even during the years when we were far from him.  We've turned mid-week worship services into our date nights, and weekend services into two-day events for our whole family.  We share that time of study and reflection with our sons (with mixed results, the youngest is right there with us while the oldest can't figure out what happened to us).  I've found reading the Bible to be both profoundly inspiring but also deeply unsettling at times.  It's been a delicate balancing act, because we don't want to fall into the fiery born-again stereotype that too often alienates friends and family, yet we do want everyone we know to see what a positive difference God and scripture is working in our lives.  It sounds a little corny, but the print edition of the Saint John's Bible that we use as our "family Bible" plays a significant role in how I explore scripture.  The Abbey calls it "Visio Divina" which, like lectio divina, is a very intentional, patient, and prayerful consideration of both the text and related illuminations (I once spent four days in Mark 5 and 6 and the accompanying illumination of the multiplication of loaves and fishes).

God's intervention in my life is the reason I have a relationship with him today, the Saint John's Bible is the reason I read scripture today.  It is a warm, welcoming invitation to sacred text.  It is not a doorway (with a door) or a gateway (with a gate) but a wide-open path that draws me in.  It does not soften difficult passages, but somehow the visual beauty of the script says "Keep reading, it's worth the struggle."  I have pages marked out for prayer, others for daily reflection and devotion (my personal method each day is a chapter from Proverbs, five Psalms, and at least one chapter from one of the Gospels), and spend the rest of the time available in a few more chapters as I work my way through the whole Bible from Genesis to Revelation (Hint #1 for those who think the print edition is too large for daily use: Go to your local hobby/crafts store and pick up a tabletop display easel; I found one for $20 that perfectly holds a volume upright for reading while sitting at my desk).  I even bring them with me almost every time we go to church (Hint #2: a 17" neoprene laptop sleeve is a great way to carry around a couple volumes).  I am constantly teaching my children that HOW something is said is as important as WHAT is said.  The Saint John's Bible is an amazing HOW.  If you haven't guessed yet, I can get quite passionate when talking about it, and I'm extremely grateful to the Abbey & University for allowing me to share my enthusiasm with others.

You might notice the irony: the Benedictine Catholic community that gave me an education even when I was not a friend of the Church has also given me the title of "Ambassador of the Saint John's Bible" and the task of sharing with the world the peace, grace, love, and joy found in such a beautiful representation of God's Word.  I like how God does stuff.

2) How long have you been involved with Saint John's Bible project? What are your main responsibilities?
Officially - since the start of August.  Stop laughing.  I'm the new kid on the team, but a couple of the other Ambassadors have been involved since before the conversation to do it was even serious.  As an alum, I've been aware of the Saint John's Bible for years, though I didn't grasp the enormity of it until about a year ago.  Unofficially, my first opportunity to do something with the Heritage Program started in January as an enthusiastic fan.  I found the SJB Facebook page ( ), and they had just posted some photos online from a public event in Sacramento, so I left a comment.  The person who maintained the page replied, a conversation started, and (here's another "coincidence") we discovered that we had attended CSBSJU together.  My friend told me an Ambassador would be in Chicago for a week for a few presentations, and gave me the opportunity to host my own public viewing.  All I had to do was find a church to host it.  After a couple months (and I'm pretty sure God put some things in motion to help out) two churches eventually agreed to separate events, one of which had about 1000 visitors.

My main responsibility with the Saint John's Bible Heritage Program today is to promote it to certain organizations and individuals in particular and the public in general with the intent of selling the limited sets of the Heritage Edition, or to arrange print exhibitions or presentations.  Technically, that means "Sales" but reality is a little different.  Almost all the work involves trying to convince someone to let me in the door with a volume from the Heritage Edition, present it, describe how and why it was made, and then give folks a chance to touch it, turn pages, explore.  The hardest part is that first meeting.  Most people either don't know what the Saint John's Bible is, or they've heard of it but don't really get the scale of it.  One Bible scholar flatly declined, but offered to meet unofficially over coffee so we could talk about it (I think he was looking for an excuse to step out of the office for an hour).  He figured it was "just another Bible" and he already had dozens in his office.  When he saw the humble "coffee table" edition that you could buy at a store, his jaw dropped; I have a picture of him a few weeks later standing before the Heritage Edition of Pentateuch completely awestruck.  That's what drives me - seeing such awe and wonder and reverence for this beautiful presentation of God's Word.  I love witnessing that first moment, and I love the conversations it sparks.  It draws in non-believers attracted to the intricate hand-written script who might find themselves reading a Bible for the first time.  It evokes awe and joy and thoughtful reflection from the faithful who might find a beautiful illumination right next to their favorite passage.  The Saint John's Bible ignites the spiritual imagination of just about everyone who sees it.

Then it sells itself, or it doesn't.  My 30-second sales pitch is, "If you think you want this, I can help you make that happen.  If not, thank you very much for allowing me the honor of sharing this with you.  May God bless you and all you do."  That's great, because I'm not a sales guy at all.  I still have my day job to pay the bills.  Working for Saint John's is a privilege and a joy and how I think God has asked me to serve him.  It's not my source of income, but it is my passion.

3) For those who are not familiar with the Saint John's Bible, could you give a brief overview of the project?  How has the SJB been received during your travels?
Donald Jackson is a master calligrapher who has worked for the British Parliament and the Queen of England for decades.  At the age of thirteen, he had already set a life goal for himself of one day creating a hand-written Bible (what were your goals when you were thirteen?).  In the early '80s, he helped establish an annual convention for calligraphers, which was frequently held in the gymnasium at Saint John's University. Over the years, he established strong relationships with several monks from the Abbey, and in 1995 he pitched his idea of a hand-written Bible to Eric Hollas, OSB, who was the director of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at the time, over dinner in Chicago (there's an interesting story about a $2 bill that played a role at that dinner).  The Abbey in conjunction with the University spent nearly three years exploring the idea.  They finally commissioned Mr. Jackson in 1998 to create what would become the first hand-written, hand-illuminated Bible of monumental size since the invention of the printing press.

A team of about twenty scribes, artists, and assistants in Wales worked for thirteen years under Mr. Jackson's artistic direction, guided by a Committee on Illumination and Text in Minnesota composed of theologians, historians, and artists.  Their goal was to create a modern illuminated Bible, not merely a re-make of an existing ancient manuscript.  The pages are made of calfskin vellum.  The ink for text was hand-made using natural ingredients like egg whites and 130-year-old Chinese ink sticks fabricated from soot collected from candle smoke.  The scribes used quills made of goose or turkey feathers.  24K gold, platinum, and other rare metals are used for the illuminated portions of the Bible.  Completed pages have been displayed over the years at exhibitions around the world to share it with and inspire as many people as possible.  Now that the text and illuminations are complete, the pages remain unbound in order to continue sharing them.  They will eventually be bound in covers made of oak boards and then remain permanently at Saint John's Abbey.

Several documents on the Saint John's Bible website go into far more poetic detail about it's history and creative process.  I highly recommend reading it.

The Saint John's Bible has received critical praise since the first volume, Gospels & Acts, was presented to the public in 2001.  In my own personal experience sharing it, officially and unofficially since January, I have almost always encountered awe and amazement in people when they view it.  People show up curious and walk away inspired, cheerful, and talking with each other about their favorite features.  Indeed, it's that cheerfulness that keeps surprising me.  Of course, you can't please everyone.  Some of the other Ambassadors have shared stories with me of people who would not look at it because it uses the NRSV text, or because some illuminations incorporate elements from other faith traditions.  I once had to carefully communicate with a person who insisted that Catholics were not Christians so therefore this was not a real Bible.  Those rare negative moments stand out only because the vast majority of the response is overwhelmingly positive.


Llanbedr said...

'I like how God does stuff'. Couldn't have put it better myself. Thanks for this, Jason and Tim. Being a Benedictine in Wales this has a particular relevance for me. I'm currently writing a PhD thesis revolving around Hugh of St Victor's Didascalicon and the seismic shift in the act of reading during the twelfth century. The loss of the communal dimension of lectio (to the culture of 'private' reader), and the place of both ear and eye in the process have played a large part in the flattening of ontology generally. This 'symphonic' Bible is a very positive step in the right direction.

Jason Engel said...

For me, one of the best things about the sheer size of the Saint John's Bible is the way in which two or more people can be side-by-side reading and studying the pages before them together. Even if for just a brief moment, reading scripture and discussing related illuminations becomes a communal act in a unique way.

CJA Mayo said...

How many volumes is a heritage edition, what are the measurements of it in the vertical and horizontal, and where can I get a set?

(The text is NRSV, correct? Better can be had - very easily - but not a nicer-looking Bible.)

Oh, and I did fall in to the fiery born-again stereotype - but I had no family and friends to alienate.

CJA Mayo said...

(What were your goals when you were thirteen?)

To be a priest of God Most High, I remember that distinctly (even the place where it happened, and my earlier memories that aren't of a technical nature tend to be [b][i]very[/b][/i] indistinct), but six or eight years of apostasy, agnosticism, and atheism intervened.

--Chrysostom (I think this is a different account than normal)