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For thousands of years, writing has been the means by which human beings, all around the world, have recorded what is important to them, but it is not the only way of communicating information. Long before humans began to construct alphabets and writing systems, ancient peoples found ways to record their experience by scratching or painting images onto the walls of caves. Art is one of our oldest forms of communication and when writing came along, it did not replace it, it simply opened up a new form of communication. Art allows us to express ourselves in a more abstract way than the written word, and for many people it provides a form of expression that is more personal and less constrained than putting ideas into words. Just because you find it difficult to put your ideas into words, it doesn’t mean that you’re stupid. Sometimes, the words get in the way of what we are trying to say. Words can feel like a railroad track, which hurtles you off in a set direction. The Bible is the word of God, passed onto us through prophets and scribes and when we are confronted by the majesty of God’s word, it can leave us feeling tongue-tied. That’s where Bible journaling comes in. Bible journaling is a process by which you can respond to the word of God through art. You don’t have to be a gifted artist to benefit from this technique, God is not assessing your skills, but if you find keeping a prayer journal a struggle, if writing down your thoughts does not come easily to you, then maybe Bible journaling is a technique which can help you draw, forgive the pun, closer to God.
The tradition of Bible Journaling
For centuries, the majority of Christians couldn’t read, their access to the Bible was through the words of a preacher and in the churches of Europe, the stained glass windows, which depicted scenes from the Bible and upon which the unlettered congregation could meditate. The earliest Christian images that we have date back to around the 3rd century, they almost certainly existed before that but they’ve been either lost or destroyed. The oldest illuminated Book of The Gospels, to have survived is The Book of Durrow, hand written and illustrated by monks some when between 650 and 700. Illuminated manuscripts were produced throughout Europe for around a thousand years, even after the publication of the first printed Bible, known as the Gutenberg Bible in 1455. The first English translation of the Bible was William Tyndale’s New Testament, published in 1525, but as we’ve said before, only a minority of educated people could read at this time. Many of history’s most famous artists have turned to the Bible for inspiration. Perhaps the most famous illustrated Bible was that produced by Gustave Doré in 1866, which contained 241 engravings and had a profound influence on a generation of Christians. Even an artist as unconventional as Salvador Dali produced an illustrated version of the Bible. For centuries, a Bible may well have been the only book in a household and the act of drawing directly onto its pages would have seemed sacrilegious, although we do have the exquisite example of a hand embroidered Bible cover, created by a 12 year old girl in Philadelphia in 1753. Now we live in an age when Bibles can be produced comparatively inexpensively and we are able to have different Bibles that we use for different purposes.
How to journal the Bible – Where to start
How many Bibles do you have in your home? A Bible that sits on a shelf and is never opened is not going to bring you closer to God. Maybe you have an old Bible that has been in your family for generations and you only take it down occasionally, that’s fine, it’s old and you don’t want to damage it through daily use, it’s certainly not the Bible that you’re going to use to journal in. A Bible is the sacred word of God and you may well feel a little uneasy about writing or drawing directly onto its pages, but worship and prayer can take many forms and having a Bible in which you record your spiritual journey is a rich and rewarding way to build your faith. There are no hard and fast rules about how to journal the Bible: it’s about the quality of your conversation with God, not about the quality of your artwork. You may want to start with some small scale illustrations in the margin or you may feel inspired to respond to the word of the Lord with a full page picture or design. Visual images, however simple, can help us to express what we cannot seem to put into words. You may want to add words to clarify what you want to say, as I said, there aren’t any rules; no one is going to grade your work.Perhaps you’re engaged on a course of Bible study, if so, journaling may be a process by which you can reflect on the verses that you’ve been looking at. Language, particularly the majestic language of the King James Bible, can sometimes wash over us; we’re swept away by the sound but we’re not really tuning into God’s word. Trying to distill your response to a verse into a visual image can be route to opening up your conversation with God. Maybe a verse will just pop into your mind, that’s God talking to you, listen. Maybe a sermon has touched your heart and sent you back to a passage in the Bible. Maybe an inspirational song or prayer has triggered a sequence of thought.
So, can you use just any Bible?
As I said before, drawing on an old family Bible is not something you should be doing: a family Bible belongs to generations past and generations future; your journaling Bible is a place for your personal and private conversation with God. You can of course use any Bible that comes to hand, maybe you have a copy of the Bible which you were given as a child and which feels particularly personal to you, an old friend as it were. The thin paper that Bibles are printed on can present a challenge. You can use a gesso preparation or watercolor base to stop strong inks from bleeding through, but you should always test out the media that you intend to use on an inconspicuous area first. Putting a sheet of paper under the page you’re working on is always a good way to soak up any excess moisture and prevent damage. There are of course Bibles, commercially available, which are specifically designed for journaling; they feature enlarged margins or even full blank pages between each printed page. There are even Bibles which feature drawings for you to color in, but I think you have to ask yourself as to whether this activity is helping you have a conversation with God or whether it’s simply an engaging pastime.