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Reform Magazine | November 29, 2023

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Jumble sales of the apocalypse: Gideons Bibles

Jumble sales of the apocalypse: Gideons Bibles

Simon Jenkins turns to the Gideons Bible

I didn’t know that Gideons Bibles – the ones you find in hotel rooms – are colour-coded, just like tube lines and Daleks. There are red Bibles for school pupils; orange for the victims of street evangelism; green for uni students; white for medics; camouflage for soldiers, and Bibles covered in little black arrows for convicts. OK, that last one isn’t strictly true. Or even at all.

The camouflage edition for troops is a new development in the legendary relationship between Bibles and bullets. I thought this only went back to the First World War, but it actually dates from Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army – in the stories, a bullet hits a Bible in a soldier’s jacket pocket and rips all the way through to the book of Ecclesiastes before it is stopped, hallelujah.

Woody Allen has a similar testimony; years ago, he says, his mother gave him a bullet, which he kept in his breast pocket: “A berserk evangelist heaved a Gideons Bible out a hotel room window, hitting me in the chest. That Bible would have gone through my heart if it wasn’t for the bullet.”

The Gideons have been dishing out free Bibles since 1908, starting as a mission to help travelling salesmen behave themselves in hotels. They expect to give away their two billionth Bible in the next year or two.

The Gideons Bible has faced tough competition for a long time. In the old days, the Bible in the drawer was the only form of entertainment in the average hotel room, but now it has to compete with the minibar, wifi, flatscreen TV and the porn channels. Surely the days are numbered when businessmen gratefully turn to the Book of Obadiah for some improving reading before crashing for the night. And yet, half of all Bibles produced by the Gideons in the century since they started have been given away in the last 15 years, so they must be doing something right. The fact they got name-checked in a Beatles song has to count for a lot too: “Rocky Raccoon checked into his room/Only to find Gideons Bible…”

Gideons Bibles have been taking a hit in the news lately. They were basically dropped by Travelodge in the summer, who cleared all the Bibles from their rooms and popped them into a forgettable cupboard behind reception. The hotel chain, in an unusually theological moment, said they didn’t want to “discriminate against any religion,” even though no religion had put in a complaint. If anyone wants a Bible, they said, they can ask Wayne on reception to fish one out of the cupboard, if he can find the keys. This prompted Premier Inn to smugly issue its own creed: “Bibles are available in Premier Inn rooms.”

The last time the scriptures were forced to vacate their rooms, they were replaced with copies of ghastliest book of all time, Fifty Shades of Grey. The manager of the hotel in Cumbria which made the switch explained: “The Gideons Bible is full of references to sex and violence,” – the rest of his sentence is so banal and unfunny that I won’t bore you with it.

Meanwhile, national treasure and incarnation of Gandalf, Sir Ian McKellen, admits to a habit of ripping pages out of hotel Bibles whenever he opens a bedside drawer. Says Sir Ian: “It’s Leviticus 18:22 that I object to: ‘Thou shalt not lie with a man as with a woman. It is an abomination.’ I think the punishment for being abominable was being stoned to death. I don’t think those are very comfortable words to have at the bedside of someone passing a lonely night away from loved ones.” Ironically, both Gideons and Gandalf are united in wanting to bring spiritual comfort to lonely travellers, but disagree over whether the Good Book actually does it.

Comfort offered itself in a rather unexpected way to one businessman, who checked into his room one evening with a heavy heart as he was feeling lonely and missing his wife back home. He found the Gideons Bible beside his bed, opened it and read: “If you’re sick, read Psalm 38. If you’re in danger, read Psalm 91. If you’re lonely, read Psalm 23…”

“That’s me,” he thought, and turned to the lovely words of Psalm 23. As he finished reading, he found a scrawled note at the bottom: “If you’re still lonely, call Fifi on 202-126-0311.”

The Gideons should take it as a compliment. That and Sir Ian McKellen’s redaction. Indifference, not editing, is surely their biggest enemy.

Simon Jenkins is the editor of Follow Simon on Twitter: @simonjenks


This article was published in the October 2014 edition of  Reform.

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