illuminating the scriptures

The university I attend held a series of lectures this week centered around a reproduction of the modern illuminated St. John’s Bible that our campus is hosting over the 2015-16 school year.

SJB-logo

I was able to attend several of these events, and most of the speakers were accompanied by one of the staff interpreters.As a matter of fact, I often found myself paying more attention to the lectures through the mediated means of the interpreter’s signs than to the spoken lecture itself.

Two things I noticed particularly from these lectures were especially fascinating to see interpreted in ASL.

  • A conversation being reenacted. One of the speakers’s presentations incorporated an imagined dialogue between the Biblical characters of Eve and the tempting Serpent in the Garden of Eden. I was able to watch a demonstration of contrastive structure in action as the interpreter switched back and forth with the alternating voices. The facial markers accompanying the story also brought the narrative to life, just as much as listening to the speaker’s voice changes.
  • An interesting anecdote. During one of the presentations, a professor made reference to the original manuscript of the illuminated text, which has not been bound yet, saying that if all the pages were bound into one volume, the text would be almost three hundred pounds! He then recounted incidents of monks being killed by large old illuminated manuscripts falling from high shelves in various monasteries. The interpreter’s gestures to accompany these stories were particularly forceful and vivid, and made the anecdotes even more humorous to me.

I found an interesting analogy to the idea of illuminating scripture in the work that an interpreter does. Just as the beautiful artwork in ancient Bibles served the purpose of communicating the Word’s message to those who could not read the Latin text of the Bibles, ASL creates an image for those who cannot hear the spoken Word.

This comparison is not at all intended to equate the Deaf community with the Middle-Ages people for whom illuminations were intended, but rather to compare the two forms of art used to convey the message of the Bible to every person, no matter who they are or what their language may be.

More than just being utilitarian in explaining the text,  illuminations and American Sign Language are beautiful and unique means of communicating the ideas they represent. Neither are exact copies of the words they accompany, rather they are full, living images of the meaning of the texts. Just like poring over the gilded pages of an ancient book or basking in the multi-hued light of a stained-glass window, watching an ASL interpreter signing a Chapel message or passage of scripture gives me the sense of being in the presence of living art.sign-language-translator

The harmony of beauty and meaning that the illuminations and ASL embody is one of the fullest and most amazing ways that art can be used to proclaim God’s Word. The Bible, seen through these means, is more than a collection of words that are at least two thousand years old, often more. Brought to life by illuminations and interpretations, the stories of Scripture can be more fully appreciated as their living, relevant selves.

my asl journey

I have had a long history with ASL, a sort of off-and-on interest. My mother tried to teach me some sign language when I was young, but I was not motivated enough to care.

My revived interest began this summer. A near relative was involved in a car accident that left her mentally fully functioning, but unable to speak. Her inability to communicate left her frustrated. She still had motor skills, and if she and I had known sign language we would have been able to communicate.

I determined to learn ASL when I went to college, even taking my book with me, but lost track of my plans in the hectic schedule that is sophomore year. I had forgotten all about my idea until I ran into the idea of ASL in a place I least expected to.

One of my interests is reading, and while in the past that mostly meant novels, I started this year reading comics. A friend had recommended a series for me, Matt Fraction’s new version of Marvel’s Hawkeye, and I was enjoying them very much. I was reading through one issue when the main character is deafened and all of the dialogue is written in sign language. I was completely lost, and I realized that if I’d been learning ASL all along I might have been able to understand some of what was being said.

That’s how I finally got around to learning American Sign Language. I’ve done a lot of research and realized that this is not an easy language to learn. I will have to spend a lot of time and energy learning not just signs, but the unique ASL grammar, facial expressions, and body language that are all a part of speaking ASL properly. I will also need to learn more about the unique Deaf culture and how sign language fits into that.

All in all, this is going to be much more of a challenge than I had originally anticipated when I picked up a sign language book written for middle schoolers. But this is no challenge compared to what a deaf person lives with on a daily basis. By making the effort to learn to communicate with the Deaf in their own language, I can show that I respect these people and am not treating them as a lesser person just because of a physical disability.

The end goal of this is that I will someday become fluent enough in ASL to be certified as an interpreter, which will be a real possibility since I am majoring in Communications. It will take a long time for me to reach this stage, and I feel that this blog will be a motivator to keep working so that I have something to post every week.