After several years of research and preparation, Phillip Patterson began work in earnest four years ago on a project to write out the entire Bible by hand. On May 11, he wrote the final lines of it at a gathering at St. Peter’s Presbyterian Church in Spencertown, N.Y.
The project was born out of a conversation between Patterson and his partner about world religions after noting that some faiths have a tradition of hand writing their holy books. Christianity has no such tradition, and to Patterson’s thinking, perhaps deprives followers of a chance to really understand the Bible.
“I really wanted to know what was in it. The Bible is something that’s in most of our lives. Nobody’s read it. Nobody knows what’s in it,” he said. “I knew I would never be able to read it because I don’t have the intellectual bandwidth for that. I could never get through it and understand what I had read after that line but I knew that by writing it, something was going to happen.”
So Patterson set out to find the right paper, the right ink, the right handwriting. Scribbling lines in a notebook was not what he had in mind.
“The thing was I had no idea what it was going to be, but I thought, if I’m going to take the years it’s going to take to write this, let me honor it by doing the best I can,” Patterson said. “I had no clue that it would even be beautiful. It was going to be in whatever handwriting it was I could muster and it did turn out to be beautiful in the end. I just wanted to honor it in the best way I could.”
Along the way, Patterson, who has AIDS, met artist Laura Glazer at a clinic where she was working as a volunteer, and she documented the process in words and pictures. See serenityofknowing.com for additional photos, news articles and a more detailed account of Patterson’s day-by-day process.
The project also garnered far more media attention than Patterson ever dreamed, with media outlets from all over the world covering the story, including a previous story for Presbyterian News Service.
“That it would get worldwide notoriety, I had no clue about that,” he said. “The thing is, it was fascinating to me how many people were curious about the idea and thought it was kind of a cool thing.”
The attention and interest in the work was great, but in the end, the goal for Patterson was personal knowledge. So what did he learn from the experience?
“I learned something mostly about love. In spite of the fact that the Bible is filled with violence and all that other stuff, that’s ultimately not what the Bible is about. There isn’t any place in the Bible where it says, ‘Do not love thy neighbor’ or ‘Do not love,’” Patterson said. “That’s the message that came through to me, that the whole book ultimately sums up: that we should love and that God is a vast and unknowable entity.”
Patterson said everybody needs and wants to be treated with love, but more people need to actually do it. He came away from the project with more respect for the Bible because ultimately, it tells us things that we know but that are forgotten by many of us.
While the handwriting is done, Patterson understands that the work isn’t. Now he wants to share the knowledge and insight — and most importantly the message of love — with others.
“What I’ve learned from this experience is that there’s more work to be done in the corner where there’s love, and that’s a message that I intend to put forth any place I can,” he said.
Patterson is willing to speak with anyone who wants to learn about his experiences and insights. He hopes to organize a gathering of clergy in Manhattan to talk about ways to include more information about love in sermons.
As for the physical Bible, after he finishes binding the final volume, another part of it that Patterson actually does himself, he plans to give it as a gift to St. Peter’s.
“Once it got going, I thought, ‘Oh my God, what am I going to do with this?’” he said. “It was fairly clear to me that the church that has nourished me for so many years should get this as my gift to them.”
Toni Montgomery is a freelance writer in Statesville, N.C., where she is also secretary for First Presbyterian Church.