Making Peace With The Bible By Writing It Out Word For Word

Reading the Bible from cover to cover might seem like a heavy task. But what about writing it? Host Michel Martin speaks with Phillip Patterson, who is just two verses away from writing out the whole King James Bible. He talks about how he kept the faith in spite of loss and illness.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

In a few minutes, you tell us more. Editor Ammad Omar steps to the mic to share some of your comments about stories we've covered recently. That's Backtalk, and it's coming up.

But first, it's time for Faith Matters. That's our weekly conversation about matters of faith and spirituality. And today, we are going to meet a man who took a unique path to getting to know his Bible. Now, a lot of people try to read the Bible from cover to cover, but Phillip Patterson went a step further. As we speak, he is just two verses away from completing a handwritten version of the King James Bible.

And he is with us now. Phillip Patterson, thank you so much for joining us.

PHILLIP PATTERSON: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: So what made you start this massive project?

PATTERSON: Well, at the very root of it, it was simply that I wanted always to know what was in it. And I don't have the mental bandwidth to be able to sit down and read something as complex as the Bible and then come up with any understanding at all. And that was always the underlying thing. And I wondered, how it was we went into court and swore on that Bible, and people don't really know what's in it. They know the stories, but you know, they don't know what's between the lines. They don't know what the atmosphere is that's created.

And then later on, I had a friend who was a Muslim. And we're comparing notes one day - he's got his Quran in his lap, and I've got my Bible in mine - and we're seeing what the similarities are, and what the differences are. And he said to me that in Islam, there's a tradition of hand writing the Quran, much as the Hebrews - the Jews - hand write the Torah.

He said, you don't have that in Christianity? I said no because the Bible is really too big.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: It's too long, can't do it.

PATTERSON: And he said to me - yeah. He said, Well, then you should do it. And at that moment, I thought - so many things came together for me. It was a great - I thought the project was absolutely inspired and I would finally find out what was in it.

MARTIN: You know, it's true that a lot of people do. You'll see people in church sometimes, they'll say - a lot of church bulletins have a space for notes.

PATTERSON: Right.

MARTIN: And you do find people kind of taking, you know, notes throughout a service...

PATTERSON: Yes.

MARTIN: ...something that they want to think about later. Did you use to do that?

PATTERSON: No.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: No, that wasn't you?

PATTERSON: I wasn't that kind of - let's put it this way. I wasn't that kind of agnostic.

(LAUGHTER)

PATTERSON: I have been a person who questions everything. And the moment that I matured enough to be able to think on my own, I kind of rejected the religious tenets of my childhood and had to come back to it on my own - on my own terms.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you about that, because I understand that you do not, or you did not, consider yourself particularly devout. I'm wondering about the exercise of writing out the whole Bible. Did you find yourself - did that take you in a certain direction theologically or spiritually?

PATTERSON: Spiritually, yes. I'd have to do this project a couple of more times to be able to tell you about theologically. Although I did come to a place finally about Jesus. So we can talk about that in a moment. But...

MARTIN: Well, tell me. Tell me. Tell me now.

PATTERSON: Yeah...

(LAUGHTER)

PATTERSON: Right, we are doing an interview.

I had always been, or certainly as I got old enough to think on my own, I had been very skeptical about the whole Jesus being God thing and rising from the dead, and all that stuff. It was a problem for me. It was a stumbling block. Well, in the writing of the New Testament, I guess the thunderbolt hit me during the writing of the Epistles, where I suddenly realized that maybe it doesn't matter to me if Jesus is the son of God or even divine.

But this Jesus that we talk about in the Bible changed the world from what it had been to at least a world where we have hope now for something better. And I figure whoever that guy is related to, he deserves to be the messiah. So I am now able to at least recognize Jesus Christ as certainly my messiah, because what I've experienced and what I've learned and what I'm able to feel I couldn't have come to any other way except through Jesus.

MARTIN: How did you keep going all this time? Were you ever tempted to give up?

PATTERSON: Never. That was easy because I knew once I started I would not be able to stop or just give it up. Because if you get to, oh, I don't know, the middle of Isaiah and you quit, you don't have anything. You've got a Bible that's not a Bible. What is that? So much paper and you become a person who said, Well, you know I started writing a Bible once and then I gave it up. I don't want to be that person.

MARTIN: I understand that you've also been struggling through the years with some health issues. That's one reason why we're speaking to you at home.

PATTERSON: Oh, yes.

MARTIN: How did you manage that? I understand that there were times - do I have it right that you actually worked on this, you know, hours a day? I mean hours, hours a day.

PATTERSON: Yeah. Yeah.

MARTIN: How did you manage that with - while still managing some of these health issues that I understand have sapped your strength at times?

PATTERSON: Well, starting with the HIV piece and moving into all of the galaxy of things that came as a result, which was one of the reasons that I was uniquely qualified to do this project, because I could be very productive and sit. So that's how I managed. I did have to put the project aside sometimes for months at a time, to recover from various and sundry ailments that would plague me. And I was always - in those times I was feeling very guilty that I wasn't doing the project. And then slowly, slowly I'd gain my strength back and, you know, there I was, great guns.

But in the beginning I also worked 10 to 18 hours a day. You know, that was not uncommon. And of course now fortunately I'm finished but I can only manage probably about six hours a day. And sometimes I squeeze out a little bit more. You know, willing to stay up all night.

MARTIN: Why the King James Version? There are other more contemporary versions.

PATTERSON: I know. I know.

MARTIN: And many people feel that, you know, the understandings - the theological understandings of the time were those of the time but that there are more contemporary translations...

PATTERSON: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...that some people feel just have the benefit of more recent scholarship, they think maybe a little bit more clarity.

PATTERSON: Yes. Yeah.

MARTIN: Why that one?

PATTERSON: That one was because I was interested in the poetry. And I really appreciated the way that the syntax flowed in that particular translation. I'd looked into some of the more contemporary translations and even some of the old translations, you know, translations from other religions. And I was sold on the King James. I mean it was just no question for me.

I'm also, you know, a Shakespeare fan, so the language I'm very comfortable with.

MARTIN: Is there a particular verse that even now you can't shake?

PATTERSON: There is a verse that has always been with me. And it has had different meaning to me over time. And that is: Love thy neighbor as thyself for the love of God. And in terms of a design for living, that's really the bottom-line. You know, if we start there, we can end there gracefully. It's just that when we lose sight of those words that our vanity kicks in. We want. We covet. You know.

So yes, that verse - Love thy neighbor as thyself for the love of God - that is the verse that stays with me the most.

MARTIN: What about some of the passages that people today find particularly challenging? And there are many. I mean...

PATTERSON: Oh, my heavens.

MARTIN: ...there are passages that, you know, call for women to be silent in the church. There are passages that condemn homosexuality. There are passages that suggests that slaves should be obedient to their masters, for the kingdom of heaven is coming. All of those are things that I think in your own life - if you don't mind my mentioning - you might find, you know, troubling among lots.

And I just wondered how you struck that when you came to some of those passages.

PATTERSON: I - well, I don't necessarily subscribe to the facts that the Bible is the Word of God, that God whispered in someone's ear and said this, this and this. My belief on that is the Bible is written by men who were desperately trying to understand the world in which they live, as we are today still. You can imagine what it was like for them that many thousands of years ago.

So, you know, people still have those thoughts, still have those ideas. Women are still marginalized. Homosexuals are still marginalized. But I am not able to believe that the God that I discovered in this Bible would support those ideas.

MARTIN: Does it make you sad that the friend who inspired this project - I understand that it was a long-time friend of yours...

PATTERSON: Yes, a 20-year partner.

MARTIN: ...20-year partner...

PATTERSON: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...passed away before you were able to finish. Does that make you sad that he wasn't able to see you finish?

PATTERSON: No, not really, because in those 20 years, you know, it had been an exuberant and loving relationship. And once he was gone, I knew that there was nothing else for me to do except just continue on with my life.

And that was complete, because I had so much joy with him up until the end. You know, his family came around and were very kind to me, where, you know, they had been trying to make me disappear before. But it all ended gracefully and well. So, yeah, do I miss him? I do, but I don't necessarily feel like I would have needed for him to see the end of this.

First of all, he would be totally nuts over all of these TV and radio interviews.

MARTIN: Hmm. Well, thank you for taking the time. And it's one of those mundane, ridiculous reporter questions, but I have to ask.

PATTERSON: Sure.

MARTIN: How do you feel now that you're about to finish?

PATTERSON: Serene, totally serene - not like without a few butterflies here and there, but I feel totally serene, you know, because it's what I set out to do, and I did it.

MARTIN: Well, congratulations.

PATTERSON: Thank you so much.

MARTIN: That was Phillip Patterson. He is just two verses away from finishing a handwritten version of the King James Bible, and he was kind enough to join us from his home in Philmont, New York. Congratulations, Mr. Patterson. I know you're going to have a celebration - or should I call it that - to acknowledge...

PATTERSON: Sure.

MARTIN: ...the end of this project...

PATTERSON: Oh it's...

MARTIN: ...so we certainly wish you well.

PATTERSON: ...a total party.

MARTIN: A total party. Wow. We know it'll be a great one.

PATTERSON: Thank you.

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