It Is Written

Where and how scripture shows up- literally, on what surfaces, in what media- is something that interests me as much as the question of how it is being used in ways we recognize more readily as ‘textual.’ These are some textual/architectural/public uses of scripture I’ve come across; their application of the scriptural voice is at once similar to and different from more ‘conventional’ employments of scripture, whether in sermon, commentary, theology, liturgy, etc. These sorts of public, ‘architectural’ inscriptions operate on different levels, speaking on different registers, depending on their surroundings while also penetrating their surroundings and forming them (much as sacred scriptures both shape the reader/exegete even as she shapes them). Where these texts appear works hand in hand with the texts’ significance within the wider tradition, as this sampling hopefully shows. As usual, I am very much thinking out loud here, and have only given this topic the briefest of thought, though it deserves a lot more.


Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans, Summer 2008: The scene: big swathes of empty green, where there used to be a neighborhood. There are hardly even bones here now, or if there are they lie beneath the switchgrass and caney reeds and brush. The air is thick, heavy, silent, except for a thudding hammer from one of the few centers of human habitation left here. The text is also crying out, even if its voice looks a little muffled, the vicious heat and humidity of the Deep South no friend to plywood and ink. No matter. The emotional power of the original passage is amplified here in this space of dry (or wet and humid perhaps) bones; it fits the place and fits the place to it.

Sihrij Madrasa, Fes, Spring 2009: This is a somewhat neglected Marinid madrasa (these madrasas being rather more like dorm complexes for the educational activities that took place in the neighboring mosques); but the calligraphy is still bright and compelling. It of course fits the space: besides the continual pre-eminence of the Qur’anic text in Islamic societies, the institutional setting makes the choice of Qur’anic text (operating both as edificational/educational material and edifying decoration) all the more apt. As the students- whose study would consist primarily of Qur’an and hadith- come in and out of the space of the madrasa, the selected texts of the Qur’an (which unfortunately cannot here identify- if anyone in Fes who might happen to read this would like to go by and transcribe, that would be truly wonderful) would become part of the architecture of the student’s daily life, daily perception, daily thought, action. Written on the wall, written on the heart…

Lower Ninth again. The text resilient, always speaking, in the midst of storm, decay. The flowers of the field may fade…

Moulay Idriss Shrine, Fes: This is one is rather different from the madrasa. The calligraphy is somewhat sparser, and the setting is not an enclosed, institutional- particular- space, but is on an external wall. Albeit still within the sacred precinct of the shrine, this now worse-for-the-wear (yet still holding on, like the battered scripture text of the Lower Ninth) slice of scripture shows itself to the passing crowds. It helps mark out the sacred space around and especially within it, and create it, and reflect it. Even to those passing by who are unable to literally read the text, it is readable as a particular thing, a sacralizing thing.  It is recognizable as being part of the sacred, even to those who do not know its literal, strictly textual meaning. It still works. This is, I think, one of the important parts of public scripture, of scripture made stone or wood or whatever and placed on display, grafted into signs and walls and amulets and so on. It blurs the line between literate and non-literate reception and what comes in between- all have some reception of this text, some access to its power, to its meanings, and themselves help construct the meaning.

5 thoughts on “It Is Written

  1. Colby

    One aspect of scriptural interpretation that I feel is often neglected is the selection of scripture that a religious community chooses to have memorized or immortalized through architecture. Arguably, this isn’t interpretation, but I am inclined to think it is. Think of the dome of the rock, it has immortalized only certain quranic themes. It does not include any of the more positive statements about Christianity. I am also reminded of the scripture that is passively memorized by evangelical Christians. (I use the term “passively memorized” to refer to those scriptures memorized through repetition.) This set of scripture is usually focused on God’s relationship with man. Rarely are theologically dense passages passively memorized by evangelicals. However, it seems that the theologically rich passages is what Catholics and Orthodox Christians tend to know best.
    I think it would be very telling if someone was to go around and ask a question like, “Tell me everything the Bible says about X.” I bet you could tell what was someone’s theological position–or lack there of– just by their response.

    Anyway, those are the thoughts that spring from my mind, while reading your words.

    1. That’s very true- and probably pretty significant in thinking about how different communities are themselves thinking about and using scripture. You could almost think of it as a sort of an automatic ‘meta-scripture,’ the privileged frame from within the text that the reader brings with her all the time. Hence, for a contemporary evangelical, a passage like John 3:16 serves as an internal, unconscious even frame for other passages. The problem for me would be figuring out what scriptures a twelfth century Qur’an exegete has foremost- maybe architectural uses could help?

      Thanks for bringing it up- some more good avenues to think about!

  2. Fr. Ted’s post- and by extension, Florovsky- reminds me of St. Augustine’s treatment of Scripture in On Christian Doctrine. The Bible is known through the church, and matters within the church, and can only be understood in the church. The community realizes scripture, in various ways (and the scripture also shapes the community, it’s important to add). The text does not exist ‘outside’ the community of readers/listeners/doers.

    This is, I think, pretty much how scripture functions in all ‘scriptural communities,’ even those that do not have an explicit commitment or understanding of Tradition as does Orthodoxy. The ‘formation’ and use of scripture ends up being pretty similar across the board, from fundamentalist Southern Protestants to traditionalist Qur’an exegetes in the twelfth century. You need a community for the text to exist in, to make sense in, to be lived out. You will have a tradition whether you admit to it or not, because you have to have one for the text to make sense. Traditional Islam, interestingly, despite having by far the highest estimation of their scriptures, tends to be much more aware of tradition and the role of community-based exegesis than most Protestant traditions tend to be. Yet Protestants have traditions- they just don’t tend to admit it, even though it’s not ultimately a good or bad thing- it’s a necessary thing. The question is what sort of tradition, and how. But that’s a big question…

  3. Greg

    2 probably unconnected observations:

    1) one of my favorite thoughts from Aug, De Doct. is that a person who possesses (or better yet is possessed by) the virtues of faith, hope and love does not require the scriptures, except insofar as they must instruct others (of course, it can be a joy for them to further meditate on them)

    Tradition continually functions through that very armature of the virtues (and, in Catholic circles, someone who revitalized understanding of Tradition in this direction: Maurice Blondel)

    2) 2 other interesting locations to ruminate about:
    a) on bodies — not much need be said by me about that — you run with it, young feller
    b)on money. Here, I don’t mean offical “In God we Trust” sorts of locutions, but rather what I have seen called “Evangelical dollar bills” — doubtless you’ve seen them, dollar bills on which, in the white borders, scriptural passages are written.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s