Angela Zito: The Bible as a book, printed, physically available for Christian devotion, remains a powerful and contested artifact in this digital age. Just winding up its US tour, a traveling exhibition of the Bible in China—entitled “Thy Word is Truth: the Bible Ministry Exhibition of the Protestant Church in China”—might have slipped my notice. Today, however, I saw a posting in the online newsletter of the US China Catholic Bureau of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops news service about a planned counter exhibit of a small portion of a hand-copied “prison bible” smuggled out of the Chinese labor reform camp system ten years ago, and recently donated to the George W. Bush Institute in Dallas.
The folks who donated the chapter of Revelation as item for the Bush Center’s “Freedom Collection” say they are countering the propaganda of the official, Chinese state-sponsored tour of “Thy Word is Truth.” They maintain that the big show gives a false impression of freedom of religion in China. “Thy Word is Truth” comes to the US through the China Christian Council and the Christian Three-Self Patriotic Movement, the umbrella organization into which all Protestant denominations were folded after the successful Communist revolutionary victory in 1949. “Thy Word is Truth” sounds large: 45 informational panels, over 350 items. It seems to me to reflect truthfully the fervor and scale of Christianity in China, but deletes the details of how any groups not wishing to register with the state bureaus in charge of religious affairs are considered illegal.
In other words, the same holy book–the Bible in “Thy Word is Truth” and the hand-copied “prison bible” of the counter exhibit–is wielded to bring home quite contradictory political messages from Chinese people who agree deeply in their religious fervor about the truth of the Bible’s own theological truths. And the internet amplifies the battle. Sounds very familiar.
* a strange addendum that perfectly illustrates some ironies about Church/State separation between the US and China: The Berkeley Detention Center, in Moncks Corner, SC, refuses prisoners access to any books from the outside except the Bible.