Ever since childhood I was always taught to treat the Bible with a certain amount of respect. This included never setting it on the bare floor, but always on top of something; never tossing or throwing it around irreverently; generally avoiding stacking non-religious things on top of it; and not writing in it. The Bible was God’s Word, and thus deserved a level of treatment above that shown to an average book.
When I was younger I never thought twice about not writing in my Bibles, as I was never prone to write in any of my books anyway and—typical of Catholics—no one I knew really tended to carry around a Bible regularly, much less mark in it. When I spent my first two years of high school at a “non-denominational” Christian school, I met people who used the Bible much more often than Catholics, but also treated it with more familiarity. Though their knowledge of the Bible was truly inspirational, often their attitude towards it was a little more casual than I felt comfortable with. This only reinforced the reverent habits of younger years, and as friends in Bible class highlighted and dog-eared pages of their Protestant translations, I found myself jotting notes on sticky notes or in journals outside my Catholic translation instead, not able to bring myself to mark the sacred text.
Then I began to realize the benefit in owning various translations of the Bible, Protestant and Catholic, so that I could compare and thus better understand where other Christians were coming from based off of the footnotes in their translations, or the errors in word choices that led to misleading interpretations. I also began to feel comfortable marking the Protestant translations, because after all I wasn’t studying them for religious reasons—only for scholarly ones—thus I did not consider the ESV, for instance, as worthy of as much respect as the Catholic RSV. Though I was able to justify jotting down apologetic notes in the Protestant translations, I still felt like writing in the real Word of God would be disrespectful.
When I started taking Bible classes at my Catholic college, it wasn’t unusual to have a professor suggest underlining or marking a passage which was particularly important for the class lesson. As I learned more about the Scriptures, I found myself becoming more attached to them, wanting to carry the Bible around more regularly. As I studied them and started, thanks to our campus chaplain, practicing Lectio Divina, I often wished I had marked the passages that were meaningful or particularly insightful when my attempts to find them after-the-fact often ended in despairingly giving up the search. But when it came to actually putting the pen on the page, I still felt like—in some way—by marking in the margins of the Bible I was not treating it with the reverence it deserved. After all, who was I to mark alongside the inspired Word of the Creator of the Universe? Yet as I quickly became “that person” whose favorite books could be determined by the amount of notes in the margins, I began to wonder if maybe, just maybe, marking biblical passages so that I could find and benefit from them again—just like I marked poignant lines in works by Chesterton or Tolkien—made more sense than I previously realized.
Many Catholics online have written about how marking in their Bibles is not a sign of disrespect, but rather a testimony to how often they turn to God’s Word. One of my favorite bloggers writes about the way the Word of God has been a constant presence in her life, as is evidenced by the state of her favorite Bible, now falling apart with use and brimming over with bookmarks and marginal notes. The Catholic Answers forum members chimed in, all encouraging a young person with concerns like mine to embrace the idea of marking up the pages, because it will help her connect better with the text. Life Teen’s website encourages writing in the Bible in their post about how to start reading it. I can see their points, but I can’t help but remain stuck on the question of reverence.
What do y’all think? Is marking up Bibles a sign of particular devotion, or can it encourage an all-too-familiar attitude towards the Sacred Word of God? Would you go so far as to make your Bible’s works of art in the spirit of religious fervor, or is there a line that can be crossed where marking it up hinders respect for God rather than encouraging it? Does the translation make a difference? Does having a “good Bible” that is treated with reverence and remains untouched by human additions to go along with the marked one preserve the reverence while also allowing for the devotional method? What do you think?