Culture At Large

Obama’s Bibles

Bethany Keeley-Jonker

President Barack Obama is using three different Bibles to take his 2013 oath of office.

In tomorrow’s public ceremony they will use the Lincoln Bible, as he did before, as well as Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Bible - a nice tribute to the fact that Monday is also MLK Day. In today’s Oval Office ceremony (which my reading tells me is the “official” one), he will use the Robinson Family Bible, which belongs to Michelle Obama’s family. Mrs. Obama’s grandmother was the original owner of the Bible and the first African-American woman manager of Moody Bible Institute’s bookstore.

What I like about these selections is the way they point to public and private figures who influence or inspire President Obama, and whose faith probably all shape the way he approaches his faith and his work. It also got me thinking about how a particular copy of the Bible comes to mean something to us. In many of these cases, the Bibles have some handwritten notes from the original owner in them, or their very physical nature reminds us of their first owners.

I appreciate the way dog-eared Bibles, with scrawling script, remind us of the great cloud of witnesses that came before us in Christianity.

Maybe an abundance of notes isn’t necessary to think about how someone you loved might have read the Bible. That’s something that interested me about this excerpt from a longer work that was published in Slate. Author Walter Kirn was inspired to read the Bible anew after he found a large King James Study Bible with his mother’s notes, which he did not know she owned until after her death. I was surprised in the excerpt to see nothing about his mother’s notes, but to see his reading informed, in part, by her life, her experiences and her perspective as he remembered them.

That story made me wonder how the president reads the Bible when he thinks about another president in a time of tense disagreement in our country. I wonder how he reads it when he thinks of a minister-activist and a bookstore manager living at the same time in Chicago. I also think about how the voices of my own family, mentors and public people whom I admire. Those voices shape the way I read the Bible, even when it’s my own copy, or even when it is a digital copy.

I’m grateful for those people because they allow me to see God and God’s word in new ways, just as reading Kirn’s reflections from his mother’s Bible gave me a new perspective. I’m grateful for the ways our nation’s leaders choose to represent the people who profoundly influence them with a book that means a lot to me as well. I also appreciate the way old, dog-eared Bibles, with scrawling script, remind us of the great cloud of witnesses that came before us in Christianity. Even if my notes are more typing than marginalia these days, I hope that my life and dedication to God might also inspire others to approach God’s word anew.

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, The Bible