The Pleasure of the Text

My Bible

Jean-Luc Marion, at the outset of God without Being:

One must admit that theology, of all writing, certainly causes the greatest pleasure.

During the year of my becoming a Catholic, that frought and crazy and inevitable year, I bought a New Oxford Annotated Bible from my college bookstore. Its over two thousand pages flop between paper covers, now themselves covered with scotch tape and images, cards, and memories that have found a way there over time. Other bibles have come my way since, in translations other than Oxford’s sanitized New Revised Standard Version, and in other shapes and sizes.

But this one, alone, I write in. After six years now, sitting by my bed with a ballpoint pen inside, underlines and reactions and questions mark my paths through the holy thing. From when I wrote more poems, poems found the empty pages. Marginal questions written one year get answered by marginal answers written another. The scripture is edging closer to something else, an indistinct space where the word of God meets commentary upon commentary, and nothing emerges undisturbed.

To quote another Frenchman using the same word, the title of Roland Barthes’s book comes to mind: The Pleasure of the Text.

Making these scattered marks has been many things: incomprehension, exultation, curiosity, discovery, longing—and wishful thinking. But what settles to the top is pleasure, as one might remember a secret friendship, even if it were often painful, that took place mainly in the eerie moments that come before falling asleep. Together, we have created doctrine, we have thought theology.

Who, though, has license to mark up the words of God? Certain heresies might disqualify me. Yet this very Oxford edition, often assigned in Bible-as-literature courses, has met the pens of countless nonbelievers and blasphemers, heretics and idolaters, just like any other literature so assigned.

Months pass when I ignore the text and it ignores me. The old notes become artifacts of a former self, of a long-gone mood. Yet they remain on these pages of this book I’ve made my Bible, in indelible ink, whether I affirm them now or not. I can’t help but read them and be pulled through the layers upon layers of old questions and convictions—scripture sacrificed at the altar of its earnest reader.

Nathan Schneider is an editor of Killing the Buddha and writes about religion, reason, and violence for a variety of publications. He is also a founding editor of Waging Nonviolence. His first two books, published by University of California Press in 2013, are God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet and Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse. Visit his website at The Row Boat.