Column #048. First published in the St. Cloud Times July 26, 2011
On a recent Sunday the Star Tribune asked people involved with its Opinion Pages to respond to this opening: “And the good news is ...”
The writers noted that even while in the best of times bad news sells papers, these days there is an oversupply — as one put it, “a relentless diet of tragedy, mayhem and vicious politics.” But they did manage to find reasons for hope, whether in community service or high school graduations or the “Arab spring” or the “unretiring” efforts of an earlier generation of Minnesota leaders (Walter Mondale, Arne Carlson, Al Quie, Dave Durenberger, George Latimer) to restore sanity to our state.
If the Times asked me to respond to the same opening, here’s what I would say.
The good news is that 13 years after quill was first put to vellum, The Saint John’s Bible is nearly complete. This act of creation and imagination and persistence demonstrates our possibilities, in contrast to the mean-spirited contention and diminishment offered by much of our public life.
Back in the late 1990s I was skeptical, as many were, about the value of a handwritten, illuminated Bible, figuring there was good reason why no one had commissioned such an undertaking for 500 years.
I was won over, however, when one of the St. John’s monks, as practical, no-nonsense a guy as anybody I know, told me his own hesitation dissolved when he realized that it would get people interested in Scripture — and I realized this would be a good thing, given the diet of tragedy and mayhem that is our standard fare.
The Saint John’s Bible — especially through the brilliant illuminations that are as much a reflection of today as those of earlier manuscripts were of their own times — has brought Scripture to new life in ways that could hardly be anticipated when, in 1998, St. John’s Abbey and St. John’s University signed a contract with Donald Jackson, senior illuminator to Her Majesty’s Crown Office.
I cite the Bible project in response to “And the good news is” not only because of its beauty, indeed its magnificence.
The late Dietrich Reinhart, OSB, president of the university, said when the idea was first presented to him, “I need this like I need a hole in the head,” and then immediately afterward he said, “but wouldn’t it be grand!”
It also resonates with another stupendous act of imagination and creativity, the Abbey Church, which was completed half a century ago. My teacher, and great friend of St. John’s, the late Jaroslav Pelikan, wrote that “tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”
Benedictines are true keepers of tradition because they are committed to doing as their ancestors did, not what they did.
They need a new church? Who says it needs to look like “a church”? Why not ask a path-breaking architect to reimagine what might count as a church?
As Marcel Breuer said, “In architecture you buy something that doesn’t yet exist.” What the monks bought is arguably the most significant church building of the 20th century, and it’s right in our midst, reminding us that our time is as capable as any of transposing beauty and truth, through inventiveness and courage, into a new key.
The Saint John’s Bible might seem like doing what ancestors did, not as they did, but as the White Queen says to Alice in “Through the Looking Glass,” “It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backward.”
The Saint John’s Bible is a remembering forward for the 21st century. Words whose flavor has been diluted in oceans of printer’s ink suddenly taste again. The really good news is something the Benedictines know: Things worth doing take time, must be done together and will have to overcome resistance and discouragement; what seems traditional to us was not the product of traditionalism, but the result of boldness and innovation and investment.
Both the Abbey Church and The Saint John’s Bible are models of what “the good news” could mean for the rest of us — should we so choose.