Innovative Church Practices, Inspired by Stock Photos: The Bible Sniffer

Your pew Bibles should always smell, like, super good.
Innovative Church Practices, Inspired by Stock Photos: The Bible Sniffer
Image: Dream Perfection / Shutterstock

In this regular series, we share innovative practices from the world of stock photo ministry.

The idea of a “pew Bible” is, in the grand scheme of history, a pretty new idea—but then, if we’re honest about it, so is the pew itself. We’re not really sure what people did with their backsides during a church service prior to the Protestant Reformation, but apparently the answer isn’t “sit on them.” Pews weren’t introduced into church naves until around the time Luther and Calvin were busy inventing the long, boring sermon and their parishioners were coughing awkwardly, saying, “Uh, if you’re going to be talking for a while, can we at least sit down for it?”

The pew Bible’s history is similarly checkered, since its existence relies on the printing press, which itself was almost singlehandedly responsible for the Reformation in the first place. Had medieval churches provided every single parishioner with their own personal copy of the Holy Scriptures, their monks’ wrists would have been very, very sore.

And so the rediscovery of salvation sola gratia provided us with not only the wooden benches that are only slightly less uncomfortable (and arguably worse for your health) than standing, but also the cheap, mass-produced Bibles we slide into the slots affixed to their backs. And also plenty of slipped discs.

For a while, I actually attended a local church where every service opened with a welcome to newcomers and an announcement that if they needed a Bible, “the Bibles in the pews are for the taking.” (The pastor always emphasized the verb “are,” as if it was obvious that this would be the question on everyone’s mind.) The Bibles themselves were inexpensively made, with rough, tissue-paper-thin pages and faux leather covers that were actually made from molded paperboard—a reminder of how far we had come, from an era when books were priceless heirlooms to a time when a Bible could be bought for the price of a Big Mac and given away with even less thought. (In this analogy, cross-references are the Special Sauce. I think.) I wonder how many of these Bibles line our landfills—and what those medieval monks would think if they knew.

But regardless of how cheap or fancy, how old or new, or how terribly translated your pew Bibles are, there’s one thing we can all definitely agree upon: the absolute worst pew Bible is one that actually makes you say “Pew!” when you catch a whiff of its pages.

As much as self-proclaimed book-lovers may protest that they love (absolutely love!) the smell of old books, we all know that smell is a shot in the dark at best. Occasionally, the smell of a book ages like fine wine, with the glue maturing into a rich bouquet with notes of orchids and horse hooves. More often, though, the odor a book takes on over the years consists of whatever moistures it’s absorbed and whatever fungi are growing in said moistures. There will always be those who complain about the “sterility” of e-books, but sterility, if literal, isn’t always a bad thing. The last thing you want is a visitor to your church pulling her Bible out of the pew to look up that passage about bears mauling little kids only to be assaulted by an offensive stench.

This is why—and I can’t stress this enough—regular sniffing of the Bibles is an absolute must for the local church. You don’t have to sniff as solemnly as our stock-image friend here, but maintaining at least a passing familiarity with the scent of your pew Bibles is key to keeping guests and visitors from running for the door, screaming that they’ve just caught a whiff of the souls of the damned. After all, since our Bibles no longer have beautiful calligraphy or breathtaking marginalia, they might as well at least not smell like the dumpster full of last week’s potluck leftovers.

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