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March 9, 2019
The Trumps visit a memorial for Alabama tornado victims.
“President Donald Trump traveled to Alabama Friday to survey areas devastated by deadly tornadoes earlier in the week,” reports ABC News. “The president and first lady Melania Trump toured part of a devastated neighborhood and visited with families who had lost loved ones, visited a church that has been transformed into a disaster relief center - and stopped to sign Bibles given them by victims.”

Meanwhile, from CNN, “When firefighters arrived at Freedom Ministries Church in Grandview, West Virginia they were left stunned by what they saw. A devastating fire - so hot that firefighters had to back out at one point - was ravaging through the building....‘In your mind, everything should be burned, ashes. Not a single bible was burned and not a single cross was harmed!!....Though the odds were against us, God was not,’ the department wrote [on Facebook].” There were no injuries.
“[Jesus said,] 'You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life.'” - John 5:39-40
Like a lot of people, I was instantly outraged to think of President Trump autographing Bibles. This is a man whose public and personal life demonstrate practically none of the virtues commended by the Jewish or Christian scriptures. His administration engages with holy writ only to manipulate and misuse it. And this within days of him hugging the flag at CPAC! Yet this episode is also an opportunity to look at how we think about The Bible and about bibles. Is a Bible its content, or is it a physical item?
When books were copied painstakingly by hand, every letter was precious. Legend says that St. Francis of Assisi would pick up bits of paper from the ground because they might have holy words on them. That was a beautifully reverent act – in the 13th century, before Gutenberg and offset print shops and the Kindle. Now a book is a consumer item; thousands are pulped annually regardless of how meaningful people may have found them. If you meet a celebrity, don’t you pass them anything that’s to hand to get an autograph? – I write as someone who once asked a musician to Sharpie my iPod because nobody buys CDs anymore.
The small town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin was leveled by a forest fire in October 1871. Over 1,500 people died. The few who survived grasped their most precious possessions and threw themselves into the frigid Peshtigo River while the fire passed over their heads. The Peshtigo Fire Museum preserves a sobering collection of the charred or waterlogged items that made it out. A striking number of people fleeing a deadly firestorm seized their family Bibles.
Not surprising, really: the Bible was not only the Word of God in a region not known for its libraries, but often a genealogical record and a keepsake of important events like baptisms. In Peshtigo, the Bible was likely both the book of inspiration and a book of records. I bet nearly every Peshtigonian who emerged alive from the water and ash thanked God for their life – and wondered if that family Bible had acted as a talisman, the way the Grandview, WVA firefighters marvel in the CNN story above.
So I can’t blame the Alabamians who carried their Bibles from nature’s destruction and then thrust them at the President, Biblically compromised though he be. What I pray is that the Scripture thrust might be not only a print book handed to Trump’s massive ego, but a living word piercing his soul.

One mass-market novel that for years sat alongside the Bible on my shelf is Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis? In first-century Rome, Emperor Nero launches persecution of Christians. Where they might condemn and curse him, the book instead asks What if Caesar himself became a Christian? To have life, we must search the scriptures, no matter format - but most of all, with open heart, come to Jesus.
The federal government is working in the recently devastated Alabama communities, but there's more good that can be done. Donate here to the Red Cross and other organizations on the ground there.
God who we meet in text and history, guide us to treasure your Word with simple due reverence. May we resist making idols out of human celebrities and also out of physical objects. Keep our eyes focused on charity and love, without which our words are noisy gongs or clanging cymbals. We hold before You those affected by the Alabama tornadoes and those serving them. In Your holy name we pray - Amen.
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