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Materializing the Bible. by James S. Bielo (Miami University)

Posted in Gardens, Religious, Devotional & Spiritual

Materializing the Bible

By: James S. Bielo (Miami University)

pic-1-464The main attraction is a replica of the Garden Tomb, which many Protestant traditions claim to be Jesus’ true burial site (rather than the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is favored by Eastern Orthodox and Catholic traditions). Perhaps visitors imagine Cincinnati as Jerusalem, a city on the doorstep of an open tomb.

 

It is revealing that an organizing category for SPACES is “Grottos, Religious, Spiritual, Devotional, Mystical Environments.” Artistry and creative production are durable parts of religious life, in officially sanctioned and off-grid spaces. Given this, it is no surprise that SPACES bolsters a work I began in July 2015 that similarly gathers a diverse collection of places.

 

Materializing the Bible is a digital scholarship project that curates Bible-based attractions around the world. The site builds the argument that seemingly different attractions are all expressions of a distinctive genre of place. That genre is defined by transforming the written words of the Christian Bible into physical, experiential environments. With the research help of a student at Miami University, we created the project to be an interactive gateway for exploring the global spread of Bible-based attractions. See  http://www.materializingthebible.com/.

 

Currently, the site is a portal to 194 attractions, organized by six sub-genres: re-creations of biblical stories; creation museums; biblical gardens; transmission museums; art collections; and, archaeology museums. Many attractions exemplify the SPACES conception of an art environment, such as the Desert Christ Park in Yucca Valley, California. Others mix the feel of an art environment with replications of a biblical past that strive toward historical authenticity, such as the House of Mary Shrine in Yankton, South Dakota.

 

As an anthropologist, I am most interested in what potentials these attractions promise for religious lives. In particular, how do they satisfy desires to experience and understand faith in ways that are materially oriented and sensuously engaged?

 

In March 2016, I visited the Garden of Hopein Covington, Kentucky. Completed in 1958 by an evangelical pastor, this small attraction sits on the backside of a working-class neighborhood. If you are not seeking it, you will not stumble on it. Situated atop a hill, the sound of I-75’s rushing traffic directly below saturates the soundscape as you realize an unencumbered view of Cincinnati’s skyline.

pic-3-v8dSPACES emboldens me to think more about how attractions function as art environments, opening new analytical avenues. For example, when biblical replicas and references that jump across time periods or cultural locations are arranged together, it is insufficient to merely proclaim anachronism. Such arrangements can express a distinct artistic vision, which may very well index a distinct theological vision. I look forward to continuing this exploration.pic-2-wfkNext to a footpath near the replica, there is a weathered and partially destroyed sign marking the planting of biblical flora. This borrows from the sub-genre of Biblical Gardens, where entire attractions are filled only with plants, trees, and shrubs named by scripture. The sign references 2 Chronicles 2:8, which has no prophetic link to the New Testament. But here, the presence of biblical flora is not about hermeneutics, it’s about aesthetics. The textual connection is less important than the immersive effect of the combined material elements.



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