VATICAN CITY – Dr. Lamar Vest, president of the American Bible Society, says that even a person who owns several Bibles can be living in "Bible poverty."
The average American has four to seven Bibles, according to Vest. But regardless of the number of Bibles they own, it's a matter of how often they read the Scripture that determines whether or not they are living in Bible poverty.
The Christian Post met with Vest while he was at the Vatican this week for the launch "Verbum Domini," a stunning collection of 150 biblical antiquities featuring some of the rarest Christian texts on public display for the first time. ABS, a sponsor of the exhibition, helped make introductions between the Green Collection, owned by the Christian family behind arts and crafts retailer Hobby Lobby, and the Vatican and help facilitate the creation of the "Verbum Domini."
Vest told The Christian Post why he is so enthusiastic about the exhibition and the wider work of bringing God's word to a new generation.
The American Bible Society used to measure its success by how many Bibles it sold but now it is looking at whether people are "engaging" with the Bible by reading and applying its teachings.
"We've been involved for many years now in translation, publication and distribution but now we've added to that: Bible engagement. By that we mean that it is not enough to own a Bible; how are you engaging yourself with it?" explained Vest. "As you mention, the average American has four to seven Bibles, depending on which quote you read, but only about 22 percent of Americans are in any way engaged on a regular basis. Our job in the exhibition and through the American Bible Society is to say: it is time to take the Bible off the shelves and put it into our hearts and lives."
Read CP's interview with Vest below:
CP: What do you think is so special about this exhibition?
Vest: The thing that is most exciting for me is that this exhibition shows to us that the Bible is a living book. It is not lost in antiquity but it keeps jumping from generation to generation with a life-changing message and I think the exciting thing for me now is that we are standing on the shoulder of a millennia of people who gathered these manuscripts.
Now it's our responsibility to see that these living words are communicated to a new generation. Our challenge now is to find out how to keep the word of God alive to a new generation.
CP: In that sense it's like passing on a legacy.
Vest: Yes, we are standing on the shoulders of prophets and apostles but the work is not complete; we still have our responsibility.
CP: We are living in a world of social media and digital technology but this exhibition is all about God's word in its traditional form – written in books. Do you hope that a new generation will discover the beauty of the written word?
Vest: Absolutely, but what we are actually doing with our digital ministries is trying to find a format in which we can communicate the same living word to a new generation.
CP: When this exhibition finishes at the Vatican, there are plans to find a permanent home for it but will you also tour the exhibition worldwide or archive it online so that even more people can access it?
Vest: Yes, there will be both. We are planning a permanent exhibition at the National Bible Museum in Washington, D.C., but a smaller exhibition will be a travelling exhibition. We expect to have it soon in New York City. It's recently been in Oklahoma City. The American Bible Society is partnering with the Green family (the family of retailer Steve Green who contributed two-thirds of the exhibits) to get the Bible exposed to a larger number of people around the world.
CP: There are so many Christian traditions represented within this exhibition. It seems like the different Christian traditions are coming together more and more to do positive things.
Vest: The mission of the American Bible Society since its very beginning has been to be inter-confessional. We need to celebrate those things that bring us together and all of these traditions are brought together by the same living Scripture.
The founder of the American Bible Society admonished the future generations to allow the Bible to speak for itself. He said the Bible is its own best missionary, let it speak for itself. I think that's what we see in this exhibition and that's what we see in the American Bible Society. We don't get involved in doctrinal issues or trying to interpret. We simply say here is God's Word, let it speak to your heart.
CP: It is often said that the average American owns seven Bibles. A different question altogether is how many, if any of them, they read. Do you hope in the long term that the exhibition will inspire people to take the time to read God's word?
Vest: Absolutely. In my conversation with the Green family, I asked what it was that they wished to accomplish when a person goes through this exhibition. The response is that we want people to leave saying, 'You know, this is an exciting story, I may just pick up that book and read it.' And that is what the American Bible Society is all about.
We've been involved for many years now in translation, publication and distribution but now we've added to that: Bible engagement. By that we mean that it is not enough to own a Bible; how are you engaging yourself with it? As you mention, the average American has four to seven Bibles, depending on which quote you read, but only about 22 percent of Americans are in any way engaged on a regular basis. Our job in the exhibition and through the American Bible Society is to say: it is time to take the Bible off the shelves and put it into our hearts and lives.
CP: So in that sense it's not simply about bringing the Word to those communities that don't yet have it in their own language but also bringing it to those who do and just don't read it?
Vest: It's a two-fold mission and we identify this as eradicating Bible poverty. In some cases there is biblical poverty because people don't have Bibles and so our job is to get a Bible to people who don't have them in a language they can read and understand. But there are also people who are living in Bible poverty who have several Bibles and we are saying the simple thing is not to buy the latest translation or newest edition but take the Bible that you already have and engage yourself and let it engage you. I am often asked 'which Bible translation do you recommend?' and I always respond by saying, 'The one you are reading every day.'
Christian Post Reporter Katherine T. Phan contributed to this report from New York City.