What Beauty Lurks in the Hearts of Men? Thoughts on Premium Bibles and the Men Who Love Them
My father still remembers listening to old episodes of The Shadow, a popular radio program about a mysterious crime fighter with the unique ability to cloud human minds and render himself invisible. When the mood strikes him, my dad will imitate the gruff voice and ominous laugh of the hero and regale us with the famous opening lines of the “Detective Story” radio hour: “What evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!”
Lately, I have been asking myself different, but related questions. What beauty lurks in the hearts of men? Where are the cultural and spiritual spaces where the masculine desire for the beautiful can make itself fully known? These questions emerged as I began reflecting upon my own infatuation with the noticeably male-oriented world of premium bibles. My journey into Biblical aesthetics began years ago with a visit to J. Mark Bertrand’s sumptuous Bible Design Blog, and I’ve never looked back. All across the internet, I’ve discovered communities of men who are passionate about premium bibles. They photograph them, review them, trade for them, rebind them, collect them, and give them away as “blessings” to their brothers in Christ. These men span a range of ages, denominations, socio-economic backgrounds and professions. They are largely Evangelical Protestant, though there are a few shining Roman Catholic and Mainline Protestant examples as well. Many of them run blogs and YouTube channels which are exclusively devoted to bible design and bible reviews.
I am quite familiar, of course, with the criticisms levelled at this little corner of the cosmos. Shouldn’t the Bible be the last book we judge by its cover? Aren’t premium bibles—with their high-end paper, specialty leathers, art gilting and upscale price tags—yet one more obvious example of the consumerist captivity of the Church?
I take the point, but I want us to push further. It’s true that rapaciously collecting designer bibles can become a luxurious habit, but isn’t this the danger that haunts the passion of every collector and hobbyist? Our hearts are prone to wander, and idols are easy to make. Yet, the human capacity for joy is real. Judas Iscariot was wrong to complain that the costly nard could have been put to more practical use. God has made space for the extravagant and the exquisite. And so, when I look upon the world of premium bibles, I see more than vapid self-indulgence. I see something delightful, laudable and all too rare: I see men reveling in beauty.
I stumbled upon this desire for beauty at a young age and in a rather humorous fashion. As a child, my cul-de-sac was mostly populated by little girls. I played their games, and more often than not, I played with their My Little Ponies. Before long I was asking my parents for ponies of my own, but I didn’t want the “boy” ponies—the drab Clydesdales with cutie marks made out of hammers and basketballs. I wanted flutter ponies. These were majestic aerial ponies, ones with diaphanous wings that shimmered and sparkled in the sunlight and whose bodies were glittery and multi-colored. I’m not sure these ponies met the Thomistic categories of integrity, right-proportionality and brilliancy, but to my newly awakened four-year-old mind flutter ponies were nevertheless tiny plastic embodiments of radiant splendor. I wanted them because I thought they were beautiful.
And why not? Beauty, after all, is a transcendental—one of those mysteriously prior metaphysical conditions that orient being itself. Not only does God rejoice in the beauty of His creation and call it good, but the presence of this same beauty within creation is an essential disclosure of the Divine glory to finite minds. “He has made everything beautiful in its time,” says the Teacher. “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows his handiwork,” echoes the Psalmist. “Look at the lilies of the field,” says Jesus, “not even Solomon was arrayed in their splendor.”
I suspect, of course, that such theological points would have been lost on my parents. My persistence alone won the day, and I was given my flutter ponies (though my mother did throw in an obligatory gray and blue Clydesdale for good measure). As I grew older, I began to understand that boys and men are rarely permitted the same access to beauty that girls and women are allowed to enjoy. The call of beauty upon my heart was consistently channeled in other, less alluring, directions, such as team sports, cars, scouting, science projects, and of course, lawn care.
For many Evangelical Protestant men, I suspect church does little to counteract this tendency. Protestant culture often maximizes the true and the good, but it tends to be less articulate about the beautiful. Not only does Protestant worship in America often lack connections to traditional Christian liturgy and sacred music, but Protestant churches, chapels and sanctuaries are often intentionally barren of vestments, stained glass, icons, statuary and other traditional forms of religious art. In some communities, even showing an interest in such things is spiritually suspect and divisive.
But the Bible is another matter. Living to “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest” the Holy Scriptures is the height of Protestant devotion, and a well-loved Bible filled with prayers and notes exudes sincerity and integrity in the life of faith. Such piety opens up new and compelling space for beauty. Repairing and restoring old bibles to glory can become an act of reverence. Searching out new bibles crafted carefully and with the best of materials can express a love for the Word. Under the aegis of Scripture, men have permission to delight in smyth-sewn bindings, the texture of hand-dyed leathers, the length of a yapp and the color of ribbons. This is more than empty frivolity. This is a chance for men, especially Evangelical Protestant men, to channel their innate desire for beauty into the very center of their spiritual lives.
So rather than decry premium bibles as yet another consumerist triumph, I have reason to hope. I detect in premium bibles a beautiful resistance to the instrumentalizing logic of capitalism itself. For decades, Bible publishers have treated Holy Scripture as a disposable item like any other: something to be manufactured quickly and cheaply with an eye to niche markets and short-term use. It is not so with premium bibles. In this world devotees of the Word uphold a more incarnational vision of the physical Bible as both work of art and precious heirloom. And they are right to do so. The Bible is a book to be cherished, protected, and passed down to future generations. The Bible is a book that should show forth the glory of God. When we look to the Scriptures in faith, we discover a story of salvation in which beauty, just as much as truth and goodness, has a role to play, for all three apprehensions are revelatory moments within the salvation of a human soul. In a fallen world, we may often be unaware of the beauty that hides within us, but God is not.
The One who made the heart knows.
Brian L. Rebholtz is the Rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Auburn, CA. (saintlukesauburn.org) He’s fascinated by Bible design, preaching, metaphysics and the spiritual life of human beings. He is married to Catherine, a small animal veterinarian, and lives in a home filled with books, animals and children.