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The book that shaped Europe

WITH GREAT ANTICIPATION WE THREADED OUR WAY THROUGH THE STREETS AND CANALS OF AMSTERDAM towards the Biblical Museum. This would be our first of many museum visits during the two-week Share the Heritage tour. We had gathered in De Poort, the YWAM training centre in Amsterdam, twenty-two of us from eight different countries. After introductions we had each shared why we had chosen to participate in this mobile seminar.

The purpose of the tour, I had explained, was to stimulate awareness of Europe’s Christian heritage, and of how central the gospel had been in shaping Europe’s past. Short memories bred short-sightedness, I had stressed. When we were not aware of our roots we were easily robbed of our heritage.

The Bible, I had claimed in preparation for our visit to the Biblical Museum, had made Europe Europe in the first place. This book had had a unique relationship with European civilisation. No other book came anywhere close to its influence on the European peoples. Our visit to the museum would surely confirm this.

We filed up the short staircase into an ornately decorated merchant house on the Herengracht canal and stepped into a stately marble foyer. Our first encounter was a little confusing. A magnificent 18th century painted ceiling of the large front room on the ground floor depicted classical gods, the four seasons and signs of the zodiac. What the connection was with the Bible was not immediately obvious.

Climbing the stunning elliptical stairway to the upper storeys, we encountered a world famous model of the Tabernacle built in 1851 by the Reverend Leendert Schouten, around which the museum has developed. On the next floor was a large model of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem with displays explaining its significance to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Yet another storey was devoted to models of the various temples. All of these were of course related to the biblical era, but so far we had encountered little about the book that had shaped Europe.

Climbing further to the attic, we discovered a multi-media presentation originally prepared for the presentation of the new Dutch Bible translation released last year. This fast-moving, multi-image show sandwiched clips from contemporary life and culture between footage of a royal christening and a royal funeral. Projected onto fragmented screens of different shapes and sizes, this post-modern portrayal of the all-pervasiveness of biblical references even in our post-Christian society today drew clips from Pulp Fiction, Madonna and images of a half-naked female Christ-figure hanging on a cross.

For some of us, this was too much. Where was the true Bible message? Was this all that could be said about the impact of the Bible in society today? What was this museum really about? Temples, gods and post-modern distortions of scripture? Was this what we came to see?

Some walked off their frustration in the beautiful large garden displaying plants from the Bible. Others visited the Aroma cabinets offering aromas in alabaster jars with various scents and perfumes mentioned in the Bible.

Then we discovered the cellar. Floor to ceiling displays and shelves of Bibles old and new, and touchscreen information displays gave extra information about various historical Dutch translations. Surely here was what we were looking for!

Indeed, references could be found here and there to the impact of the Bible on the Dutch language and culture. But although they hinted at a major role, there seemed to be little attempt at further explanation. Disappointingly, the museum seemed to be more an expansion on the quaint hobbies of long-dead clergymen rather than a clear statement on the singularly unique relationship the Bible has had with both Dutch and the broader European culture.

When pioneer missionaries like Patrick and Columba, Willibrord and Boniface, introduced our pagan European ancestors to the God of the Bible, they wrought a revolutionary change in world view. This transformed the current understanding of reality, of God and of the purpose of human life. It produced a new framework for social life, giving a new basis for law and social customs. This book shaped European sensibilities concerning history’s direction, that history was going somewhere, that is, was linear not cyclical. That was a radical departure from pre-Christian, pagan ideas. Even Marxist and humanist views of human progress drew from the biblical revelation.

The Bible inspired education through the ages. Monastery schools became universities with theology as queen of the sciences. The assumption that there was a universal reality integrating all of knowledge lay behind the very name ‘university’. The father of modern education, Jan Amos Comenius, who created the first picture books for children, was the last bishop of the ancient Moravian church. Modern science developed after the Reformation, as believing scientific explorers like Bacon, Newton, Pascal and Kepler were freed to explore God’s book of works as well as his book of words. One survey of Nobel prize winners in natural science discovered 96 per cent to have Protestant, Jewish or Catholic backgrounds, while only four per cent started from non-biblical worldviews.

Many European languages were fundamentally shaped by Bible translations into the vernacular. That was true of John Wycliffe’s English translation, Martin Luther’s German translation and the Statenvertaling in Dutch. It was also true of the much earlier efforts of Ulfilas giving the Goths the Scriptures in their own language, and of Cyril and Methodius doing the same for the Slavs. Such translations gave a standard reference for the development of nation-wide uniformity instead of countless local dialects, and became the source of many proverbs and sayings embedded into European languages and thought patterns.

The Bible inspired the vast majority of European art and literature up until modern times, including such artists as Michaelangelo, da Vinci, Rembrandt and even van Gogh, as well as a host of writers including Shakespeare, Milton, Donne and Herbert. It had shaped the development of politics, inspiring the separation of powers in Reformational times between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government, reflected throughout the world today in democracies. Many parties today draw their primary political inspiration from biblical wisdom. Most of the founding fathers of the European Coal and Steel Community, the forerunner of the European Union, consciously understood their efforts to be towards the reconstruction of Europe on biblical foundations. Even the rejected EU constitution embraced concepts such as subsidiarity, solidarity and human rights which owe their inspiration to the biblical understanding of humankind.

And on we could go: hospitals and nursing, the abolition of slavery, the emancipation of women, laws to protect the working man and woman, the development of trade unions, many philanthropic and service organisations from Alcoholics Anonymous to the Red Cross, were all directly or indirectly inspired by this unique book.

Shouldn’t Bible museums be places to make people think about such things? After all, ‘museum’ comes from the word ‘muse’, to think. Perhaps such stimulation was there to be found, but we missed it. Of course, the Bible has not been the only influence on Europe. And when we forget the Bible and ignore its truth, we will find these other influences filling the vacuum – like those ancient deities painted on the ceiling, that were already there before the Bible museum moved in. As Bible consciousness wanes in Europe, the old deities that were worshipped before the Bible was introduced are returning in new seductive guises. Witness the Da Vinci Code.

Over the next two weeks, however, as we travel through Holland, Germany, the Czech Republic and Switzerland, we will discover that Europe is still one great open-air museum testifying to the singular influence of this Book on this co
ntinent.

More about
that next week.

Till then,

Jeff Fountain

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