Is Writing in the Margins of a Sacred Text a Scandal or a Sacred Practice?

Writing in the margins caused quite a scandal in Scotland.

At the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow two artists in residence, Anthony Schrag and David Malone, invited gallery goers to scribble in the scriptures. The invitation was made in particular to anyone who felt excluded from the Bible and resulted in marginalia unprintable here. The Times of London criticized the exhibit as desecration.

The difference between writing into the Bible at the museum and writing into the margins of your own Bible is important. Margin writing is devotion, not exhibition. Margin writing is consecration, not desecration.

Andrea Minichiello Williams responded to the exhibit by saying, "The Bible stands for everything this art does not: creation, beauty, hope and regeneration."

For us, the question is this: Is marginalia desecration or a sacred conversation? Is writing in the margins an act of graffiti, or an offering of gratitude?

William, a survivor of the Rwandan genocide, shares that struggle:

When I was little we did not have many Bibles in our country for many reasons. During my young age Bibles were printed out of the country and distributed on a little number. One Bible was used by a big group. That means we didn't have individual Bibles as kids. Everyone had a great respect on the Bible, so taking note in the margin was going to be a problem. Instead of writing in the Bible they encouraged people to memorize verses.

For William, margin-writing goes against everything he has been taught about the Bible. The Bible is precious, for a whole community and not just for an individual person.

I'm thinking about Bibles this week because Thanksgiving week has come to be known as 'National Bible Week.' Writing in the margins of our Bibles is a practice I'd like to encourage this week as people remember the power of this sacred text in their lives.

But for some, nudging ourselves into the margins, to mark up a sacred text, can feel disrespectful.

But there is another way to think of scribbling: the scribbles are, perhaps, an act of deep internalization. Perhaps it is exactly these scribbles that lead to creation, beauty, hope and even resurrection. Maybe these scribbles are less lawless desecration, and much more an act of consecration.

Marking the biblical text is something like beginning a love letter. As Mortimer Adler says, quite bluntly he notes, I contend, quite bluntly, that marking up a book is not an act of mutilation but of love. Marking up a book is not an act of mutilation. Marking a book is an act of love.

Mortimer Adler says there are three kinds of book owners.

The first has the fancy books -- pages neat and binding unbent. These books sit untouched. Adler argues these can't even be 'books' if they have not been read, they are simply "woodpulp and ink."

The second type of book owner has all the fancy books, most unread, but within that collection there are a few that have been read through. But most, sit shiny and new. Unused. Unloved. Unread.

The third type of book owner has scribbled in the margins, marked on the front and back covers, turned many a dog-eared page and a few of the books in the collection might even be considered downright worn out. This is the person who owns books. This is the person who is willing to fall in love.

I think we can say specifically for the Bible what Adler says about books in general. The cultivation of a conversation in the margins of scripture is one step towards falling in love with, or deepening one's love for, with God.

Perhaps, polemically, we could flirt with the idea that an unmarked book, an unmarked Bible, is an unloved book.

What kind of book owner are you? How do you engage your sacred texts? Are you a margin-protector or a margin-writer? I'd love to know more, and why...