February 25, 2014


The Bible is not sleight of mouth. You’ve heard of sleight of hand—where skilled distractors make spoons and bodies levitate, or draw silk handkerchiefs or furry rabbits from the bowl of a top hat. Sleight of hand can make you see what is not. It is the power of illusion.

Sleight of mouth is the illusive power of mystery words: say “Abracadabra!” and magic happens. Write it on your amulet, and the malaria goes away, or the plague never comes. Abracadabra: onomatopoeic nonsense, based on an A-B-C-D alphabet, that grows in significance through the perversity of human gullibility about secret knowledge. Baubles and trinkets and muttered utterances swell in power as they are shrouded in secrecy. “Alarte Ascendare!” and objects fly skyward, and Harry Potters become the focus of our financial and literary adoration (though there is little mysterious in itself about ascendare signifying ascent).

The Holy Scriptures, too, become an incantation: “I will read a psalm on you!” they threaten in my country. The words will harm you because Scripture, like Abracadabra, is sleight of mouth, something humans may manipulate. It is cleaner than giving dead chickens to the obeah man. In this way of thinking, the Bible is superior because it is Greek, or Hebrew, or Aramaic, or the Reina Valera, or the King James Version, and Mass is more sacred in Latin. Translation is believed to tamper with sacredness and violates mystery, for God must be properly accessed through a secret ritual.

But Scripture’s power does not lie in its increased inaccessibility, or in Semitic linguistics, or in medieval grammar. The power of the Bible is personal. Isaiah 40:8 does not mean that printed Bibles are indestructible. Only God is. The Bible is His Word. If He is not its power, it has none. The Bible is not sleight of mouth. n