I was in Ness again recently, and visited the spot in the old cemetery where the community buried 400 worn-out Bibles in 2006. They had been donated to the local charity shop but were unsalable because of their condition. Yet, people could not quite bring themselves to place the books in a bin. And so, just as the Hebrews used to do with their tattered, sacred scrolls, the Nisich held a funeral for the Bibles.
It seems to me like rank superstition. The Bible – by which I mean the tangible, paper object – is not in itself Holy. God’s word is holy, but the physical form which contains it is nothing more than a shell. And crucially, the Bible gives us no instruction on its own disposal.
Our unenlightened ancestors also treated the Bible in this talismanic way, using it as an amulet to protect them from fairies, witches and visions of death. Not the Word, you understand, but the book itself – carrying it in their pocket, or placing it under a pillow to ward off evil.
At the beginning of my day in Ness, our guide explained to the 45 Americans with whom I was sharing a spiritual pilgrimage, that my denomination did not believe in sacred places. He somewhat took me aback by adding, ‘because everywhere is sacred to them’.
I remember sipping my tea and wondering if I’d fundamentally misunderstood the Free Church, or if this was something adopted at the most recent General Assembly and not fully understood by anyone who doesn’t regularly use words like ‘anent’ or ‘crave’, or indeed realise that stamping one’s feet might still signify agreement in polite society.
Or, did this lovely, gentle Quaker simply not have the heart to tell our guests that I was an unreconstructed Calvinist of the type that burns fiddles and catechises innocent passers-by? Was it just nicer to say everywhere is sacred to us, rather than explain that we don’t have any of the . . . well, the soft window-dressing that people expect of the ‘Celtic’ church?
Sometimes, it’s kinder to chuck the violin on the bonfire than let someone keep trying to torture music out of it. But island restraint dictates that I didn’t contradict this description of my theology. It is not so much that I disapprove: just that I do not understand the need for places to be deemed holy. They are the work of a Divine hand, yes, but any holiness originates with Him and may be imputed to people. Just not places.
It would have been more honest of me to share this with them. Instead, my innate politeness (yes) forced me to nod and smile benignly as folk shared their perceptions of the spirituality of place. Perhaps it doesn’t matter though. After all, when some of my fellow Wee Frees say after a service, ‘there was a lovely spirit in the church tonight’, I tend to think that it accompanies them wherever they go, that they have – unwittingly – brought it with them. Might the same not be true of others, who mistake it as belonging to the place in which they find themselves?
I had hoped they would be able to come to church with me in Stornoway the following Sunday, but they were all leaving the island that day. It might have helped them to see the pared-back character of our building, which I think reflects the pared-back character of our people.
What would they have made, I wonder, of the simplicity of our worship style? To preserve this picture I would, of course, have had to steer them well clear of any tambourine action that might or might not be happening in the church creche. But anyone who keeps to the church will see something quite lovely in its truthfulness.
The Bible is foundational to our worship. It seems to me that when you fix your eyes on Jesus, through the Word, there is absolutely no need for any other ornament. Read, sung, exegeted: it is all that we require.
You could say that the Bible is, as an object, quite similar to the Christian. In and of itself, it has no spiritual value; but used by God, and transformed by the Spirit, its effect is boundless. This book has crossed continents; it has transformed lives; gone into prisons and war zones; entered hospitals and schools; spoken to the bereaved, the lonely, the frightened, and brought them comfort.
In physical terms, the Bible is just a book. By the same token, we are just bodies. It is our lot to eventually be buried in the ground, just like those tattered Bibles in Ness. But there are two very important differences.
At the latter day, all the human graves will open, and give up their dead, while the Bibles will remain buried forever.
And the other difference?
God will require the presence of His people in Heaven; but there will be no further need of His book. By then, the Bible can also rest in peace, for its work will be over and done.