Conversatio Divina

In the Face of Presumptions: An Interview with Barry Moser

Gary W. Moon

Barry Moser is a big bear of a man with a bald head and a full white beard. He is also a portrait of contradictions.

Moser is a longtime New Englander who banters with fellow artists and intellectuals in the five-college region of Massachusetts, but he has the Tennessee accent of a Bible-Belt preacher—which, for a time, he was. He refers to himself as both a traditionalist and an iconoclast, and has the spontaneity of an artist but the perfectionism of an engineer.

Of all these seeming inconsistencies, the most intriguing to me is that Barry Moser is a self-proclaimed agnostic, yet he devoted five years to his magnum opus—illustrating the entire King James Bible with over two hundred wood engravings.

Why would he do this? Why would a doubter become immersed in the biblical text at the most intimate level, the realm of images, illustrations, and deep meaning? What was the five-year journey like? And how could he experience such a baptism, yet remain on the banks of the Christian life? These questions are the subject of this interview. But first, a few more images from Barry’s life.

Moser was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1940. He put himself through the last two years of college as a Methodist preacher, but his calling to the ministry didn’t stick. Although he was accepted into the divinity school at Vanderbilt, he declined to attend and moved to New England, where he taught for five years. It was during this time that he began to learn the crafts of etching and wood engraving.

He forged himself into an extraordinary bookman and one of the world’s great illustrators. Added to that, he became a brilliant wood engraver, a painter, a designer, a publisher, an author, and a frequent lecturer on the arts of the book. His journey has included teaching stints at the Rhode Island School of Design and Smith College.

Since 1969, when he composed his first line of hand-set type, Moser has illustrated some of this century’s most beautiful private press books. (See the listing of “Moser’s top ten creations.”)

But he never forgot his early love for the Christian Scripture. In the early ’90s, Moser had an opportunity to combine his two passions, becoming the progenitor, designer, and illustrator of a new edition of the King James Bible for the Pennyroyal Caxton Press. Pennyroyal is Moser’s private press. Bruce Kovner, chairman of The Caxton Corporation, a NYC investment banking group, provided the funding: two million dollars of it, in fact. Thus, the name Pennyroyal Caxton.

The result was one of the greatest feats of book artistry of the century, noted not only for the extraordinary beauty of its 236 black-and-white illustrations (each from an intricate wood engraving by Moser), but also for the perfection of its typesetting and printing. Today, copies of the original four hundred-print letterpress edition live in some of the most prestigious book collections in the world, including the National Gallery of Art, the Israeli Museum, the British Museum, and The Vatican Library. If you are thinking of adding this Bible to your private collection, you may want to check your bank account. It currently sells for $12,500. The trade edition was later published by Viking Studio, making Moser’s stunning masterpiece available in a form affordable to anyone with a love of Scripture, a love of beautiful books, or both.

The interview that follows serves as a bridge between the most recent past issue of Conversations (Scripture and Formation) and the current issue (Obstacles to Union). We wanted to pull up a chair for Barry Moser so we could hear more about both his magnum opus—illustrating the entire Bible—and what he has experienced as obstacles to a desire to pursue union with God.

01.  Interview

GWM:   Let me just jump right in. How is it that a self-confessed agnostic would devote almost five years to producing an illustrated Bible?


BM:       I taught myself the arts of typography and book design. If one does that, one finds out very quickly that all the great monuments of printing have been Bibles. As a friend of mine put it, you can walk the history of printing on the spines of Bibles. I simply wanted to join the club, you might say. I was also aware that no artist in the twentieth century had undertaken the entire thing as a book in the codex form. Salvador Dali did a couple of dozen prints for a Biblia Sacra (a Latin Bible), but they were literally stuck in after the book was printed. Also, he did most of his images for the New Testament, which seems a mite off-balance to me. Anyway, I figured somebody ought to have the gumption to do it, so why not me?


GWM:   There was nothing that drew you to this particular project at a personal or spiritual level?


BM:       At that time, I can’t really say there was. My motivation was then strictly typographic and artistic. Now, in retrospect, I think it is more likely than not that I was, underneath it all, seeking a new path to the waterfall, as it were. An attempt to connect with the empyrean in a manner consistent with who I am now, not the emotional and obvious way that I did as a nineteen-year-old preacher boy.


GWM:   I’m wondering if there were any moments when you felt a connection to the celestial as you worked on the project. I’ve read where you state, “What keeps me from being an atheist is that every now and again, I feel that ascendancy; I feel that I become part of it. But such moments are rare. And to make matters worse, those moments are so fleeting and twinkling, I usually don’t know they happened until later.” Barry Moser, In the Face of Presumption: Essays, Speeches and Incidental Writings. (Boston: David R. Godine) 2000) 78.

Feeling the ascendancy. Did you ever feel this while working on the Bible?


BM:       I wish with all my heart I could say yes, I did at every moment—that I felt some divine hand guiding me. But I did not. At least not often. There were those rare times when I felt a—I don’t have a word for it—an elation, I suppose, a joyful feeling of accomplishment, of having achieved something I had never achieved before, but even those moments were always after the fact.

Like, for instance, when I did the crucifixion: I knew it was going to be hard, and since I had done a fairly successful one for my Dante years ago, I decided to quote myself. It was a safe and emotionally dull image, certain to wrinkle no noses, offend nobody, and certain to cause no deep reflection on the Passion. I later decided this was its weakness. Too namby-pamby and not at all what I really wanted to do. What I wanted to do was get in there and mingle with that ugly and mordacious crowd. I wanted to hear the carrion birds squawking and bickering when they went for the eyes. I wanted to see the feral dogs fighting over the blood or tearing open the legs. To be there, as the old spiritual says, “when they nailed him to that tree.” So I did a second version that was much more to the heart of the matter as I saw it. Ultimately, I included them both, using the first one as a sort of afterword—like God’s quietly saying, “This is my son . . .”

I did not know that I was in an ascendancy, a state of grace, at that moment. I still do not know that. I do feel it, however.

And, too, it wasn’t a “moment.” It took a week or more to work out that composition and another week to engrave it. And after it was done and the pages printed, I noticed they were the only pages in the entire book on which there were no words. What that means, if anything, I do not know, but it was then that I felt perhaps I had been in an ascendancy, in a prevenient state of grace, as it were. That was one of those rare moments when, upon reflection—and out of exhaustion and undoubtedly listening to a mass by Thomas Victoria or something, and, who knows, perhaps sipping a dry martini—I thought it possible that the Holy Spirit—again, if you will allow a reprobate use of that sacred term—had moved through me. I didn’t see it coming, nor did I pray for it to happen. I didn’t even know it was happening as it was happening. Can’t explain it any better than that. Sorry. It’s a mystery.


GWM:   I am touched by your humility in your reference to the Holy Spirit. I’m also struck by the fact that you were not afraid of a mammoth undertaking. When I looked at the more than two hundred images from the wood engravings you created, I was stunned by both the detail and the emotion. Yet even at the end of this project, you refer to yourself as agnostic. Sorry to be stuck on this, but how do you contrast agnostic and atheist in personal terms?


BM:       Let me preface my answer by saying that I do not think of myself as an arrogant man. An atheist, it seems to me, is as certain about his or her belief as is the ultraconservative, literalist Christian, Muslim, or Jew. I equate certainty with arrogance. Agnosticism is merely taking the position of saying, “I don’t know.” And I don’t. In fact, I know very little. I suspect a lot, but I know very, very little.


GWM:   Years ago, I was teaching a class in which it was important to examine spiritual maturity. I remember constructing a spiritual maturity scale—just for fun and with tongue, at least partially, in cheek—in which we rated the confession “I don’t know” toward the top and “I know that I know that I know” at the very bottom. The point was, it’s impossible to know, so let’s confess that and continue the journey. But let me get back on track.

Barry, in your collection of essays, In the Face of Presumption, you state that your family members were not readers: “I don’t even remember someone reading to me.” Moser, 25. Yet you have become not just a wordsmith, but a booksmith with few peers. Please say more about your journey from literary deprivation to abundance.


BM:       We were just talking about this over dinner not long ago. I was slightly dyslexic as a kid and found reading a terrible chore. Having parents who read only the papers and a few bestsellers here and there did not abet my desire to read. Neither did my slow stumbling over one-syllable words when called upon to read in class. So I just didn’t read. I read Classics Illustrated to prepare for exams—no need to say that I did not do well on those exams. Today, however, I find that my natural slowness in reading has been a great asset to my work. My wife tells me she thinks I am one of the most observant readers she has ever known. If that is true, it is because I read pretty much word for word, looking for detail to make sure I don’t screw up. It’s a real embarrassment to paint a character with red hair when on page 48 the author clearly states (and perhaps only that one time) that the character is raven-haired. In my profession it pays to go slow, to be careful.


GWM:   While my confession is far less shocking, I’m sure that if the rural Georgia school I attended had had a school psychologist, I would’ve been diagnosed with dyslexia—among other things. I hated to read and always tried to change the subject if folks started talking about what they’d been reading recently. But I know what you mean as far as finding a bright side to being a, let’s say, very deliberate reader. Plus, now that I’ve discovered books on CD, a whole new world has opened—but enough commiserating.

Tell us more about the history of this present project—The Pennyroyal Caxton Edition of the Holy Bible. I understand you once said that if you could do [illustrate] just one book, it would be the Bible.


BM:       I did say that, and now that it’s done, I’d say it again. I’d like to start all over again. Nothing is ever perfect. I see things, lots of things, I would do differently. For anyone in my “bidness,” as Miss O’Connor might have put it. . . .


GWM:   And for those who don’t speak Southern, you just said “business.”


BM:       Thanks.


GWM:   I just didn’t want any of our readers to think your dyslexia had become expressive.


BM:       Thank you. For those in my “bidness,” the Holy Bible is the profession’s Everest. It is like what Michael Jordan said about playing basketball in Madison Square Garden . . . until you’ve played there, you’ve still got something to prove.


GWM:   So, in one sense, you decided to tackle this project because it was there and it was big.


BM:       That’s fair to say.


GWM:   But even so, a project like this can also be a canvas for projection. I’m struck by an essay you wrote entitled, “Refiner’s Fire.” You say, “I was refined through the fires of my own particular and unique history and experiences—an early mentor, a racist family, military school, thirty years of teaching and rearing my own family, and now what seems like a lifetime of studying and practicing my craft, polishing it over and over like my grandfather polished his sword.” Moser, 22.

How has the context of your life story affected your ability to do this project?


BM:       It is very important for a writer or an artist to sit up and pay attention. Nothing should escape your notice—even though, considering the current hypocritical, arrogant, and mendacious political milieu in this great nation of ours, paying attention can drive a guy nuts! And all things noticed inevitably go into the cauldron that comprises your own unique history. For me, it was a racist family; angry, bigoted cousins; and my six years at Baylor, the preparatory school I attended

in Chattanooga, where I had to struggle just to keep up and to keep trying even in the face of certain and inevitable defeat, especially in the classroom and on the athletic fields. Going into that Bible project, I did not know that I would succeed—and I am not yet entirely convinced that I did. In fact, I thought it very likely that I would not. But I had to try. I had to at least do that.

My years in the classroom have taught me just how much I don’t know, as have all these thirty-odd years of designing books and engraving images. I think it was E. L. Doctorow who said that every time you start something new, it’s as if you’re starting all over again from the beginning. Things you thought you knew, you don’t know. With the Bible, it was this verity in spades. I am still learning, thank God, and I hope that’s always the case.

All this history comes into play with my images for the Bible. I am certain that all those years of marching with an M-1 rifle paved the early ground of my typographic interest—all that lining up and dressing down, all that counting cadence. It left its mark. I sometimes feel that my life with type was inevitable.

And I’m sure this history plays a big part in my built-in iconoclastic, in-your-face attitude. I did not make these images to be a comfort for the pious. I did not look for nor want the approbation of the saved. Hell, no. In fact, if anything, it would be just the opposite—shock the old fogies! Make them think about a familiar story in a new way. Bring them face to face with the poverty of Jesus and ask them to consider the contradiction and hypocrisy made manifest by the wealth and pomposity of so many self-righteous Christians, Bible-thumping televangelists, and religious corporations. Let’s confront the rape of Tamar directly. Let’s shove past the pious and symbolic interpretation of that wonderfully erotic love poem called The Song of Songs, of Solomon—call it what you may—and see the lovers in their embrace among the mandrake, hellebore, and other flowers. Let’s question why an angel of God stayed Abraham’s knife when he was about to slaughter Isaac and did not do the same to save Jephtha’s daughter. I could go on, but your journal ain’t long enough.


GWM:   We’ve been known to print extra pages when someone is baring his soul. Barry, given the theme of this current issue, obstacles to union, I’m wondering, to use your terms, whether “the wealth and pomposity of so many self-righteous Christians, Bible-thumping televangelists, and religious corporations” have made an impact on your own spiritual pilgrimage.


BM:       You mean other than just astounding me and pissing me off with their pious, self-serving arrogance?


GWM:   Assuming our publishers will let you say that in print, yes.


BM:       Well, from that specific group, no. They just basically irritate me, make me want to puke, like when I see and smell maggots and detritus on the bottom of a garbage can.


GWM:   Don’t hold back on my account.


BM:       Two incidents that happened years ago did turn me away from the church—by which I mean from the social church. The first incident involved a young girl in my youth group at a church where I was the assistant minister and youth director. She got pregnant, and when [the fact of her pregnancy] came out, the entire congregation of that church turned their backs on her. The only place she and her boyfriend were welcome was in my Sunday school class. They’d come to my class and then leave and go home. I lost my job over it, but that’s beside the point. My real hurt was the irreconcilable chasm between that congregational behavior and the word of the Gospel as I read it.

The other incident involved a black man who worked for my daddy back in the ’60s. His name was John. He was a deacon in his church—a Baptist church, I believe it was—out near Howard High. John was always asking me, the preacher-boy, to go to church with him. Well, you realize, given the times, that was a social impossibility, especially as far as my family was concerned. Again, to make a long story short, I went to church with John one summer Sunday. Not only was I warmly welcomed in that church that day—the only white face within a half-mile radius—I was invited to sit on the dais with the preacher and to give the morning prayer, which I did. The point of all this is that John could never have gone to church with me. If he had, he would have probably been hanged in the front yard of the church—me too, for breaching the racial divide. Like the young pregnant girl’s situation, I simply could not reconcile this betrayal of charity with the way I read the Gospel and understood the ministry and teaching of Jesus. Couldn’t make sense of it. So, like ol’ Huck Finn, I figured that if they were right and I was wrong, I’d just have to go to hell.

As I said, this all happened in the early ’60s, within a two-year period of time. And it thoroughly disgusted me, so I did what I do best in such circumstances: I left. I left the church, I left my family, and I left my beloved Dixie.

Over the past five years, I have often thought that my making of the Pennyroyal Caxton Bible might turn out to be a new sort of ministry, a sort of picking up where I left off—just using a different medium of communication. Who knows?


GWM:   Barry, I appreciate your raw honesty. And your reference to Huck Finn was striking to me because in reading your essays and listening to you now, the abrasive but keen insights of Mark Twain [Samuel Clemens] so often come to mind. If you could travel back in time and see yourself again as that nineteen-year-old “preacher boy”—before being hit by those two bolts of hypocrisy—how would you have approached the task of capturing images from the Bible then, versus your work in the present project?


BM:       I don’t really know, of course, but I am fairly certain that the images I might have invented at age nineteen would have been sickly saccharine and painfully pious. This was the form of my religiosity at the time. I held the Bible to be the infallible, inerrant word of God. I thought of myself as a pious, saved Christian who knew the will and mind of God. No question about it. It was, of course, my mind I knew, not God’s—and I can see now that I didn’t even know that nearly as well as I thought I did. Who does at nineteen? My mind was of the same stripe that, three-hundred-odd years before, would have followed the conventional wisdom of the religious leaders and plopped old Galileo’s arse in the hoosegow for promoting his heresy that the earth was not at the center of the universe. Thus, I have to deduce that any images coming out of that time and that mind-set would have aimed at convenient sanctimony because I would have been doing it for my juvenile understanding of “the glory of God.”

Now, I am not saying that what I did as a crusty old man at the turn of the century was not for the glory of God. Perhaps it was. It’s another one of those things I don’t know. The conscious reality is that I did it for myself. It was, in a very significant and personal way, an old reprobate’s prayer to an elusive deity. Perhaps you know this already, but the ancient Hebrew word for prayer is the same as the word for work. This is why I included the last line of Nehemiah’s book, accounting for his work rebuilding the walls around Jerusalem, as the very last line in the Pennyroyal Caxton Bible, falling on the tail of two pages of acknowledgments. That line, loosely translated, reads, “Remember me for my work, O Lord.”


GWM:   It is easy to hear your own prayer in those words. You have said you see yourself as both a traditionalist and an iconoclast. This is fascinating. I can see your iconoclastic contours, but please say more about yourself as a traditionalist and how this paradox has played out in your life.


BM:       I don’t see this as a paradox. I am a traditionalist in that I adhere to the tenets of past times, especially the early Italian and German Renaissance. I respect craftsmanship and endurance. I also look to the likes of Thomas Eakins and Albrecht Dürer for my inspiration—and I mean that in the true meaning of “breathing in” with them. Without them and others of their ilk, I don’t think I could breathe at all. I have no truck with notions of talent or creativity or inspiration in its broadly misused sense. I believe in solving problems. And, as with the Bible, I often set them for myself. I believe with Flannery O’Connor that God and posterity are served only by well-made articles. I also believe with John Gardner that no artist or writer worth his or her salt ever sits down to express himself. We sit down to write a sonnet or an ottava rima. To invent an Ecce Homo or a Deposition. To compose a symphony in C major or a concerto for violin.

I am an iconoclast only in that I choose to see, and work hard at seeing, things in surprising ways. For instance, Potiphar’s wife is usually depicted as a sultry young thing who came on to Joseph, unleashing a torrent of sordid events. I tried to break that image (the meaning of iconoclastic) by being sympathetic towards her. Hey, she was married to a politician, and if nothing else, that makes her a sympathetic character in my book. So perhaps her husband is just too busy for her. So perhaps she sees this young hunk and comes on to him and is rejected by him. What a sad woman she must have been, especially if we see her not as a young beauty but as a middle-aged woman who is starved for affection. This interpretation does not in any way conflict with the text. It merely offers another reading, much like the Jewish midrash expanding biblical texts, explaining the story further and giving names to the unnamed.


GWM:   I have great admiration for those who respect mystery, and I certainly appreciate your humility in that description. Barry, you state, “This work has brought me back to prayer—and I don’t mean clasping my hands together and getting down on my knees and mumbling Our Fathers. I mean the understanding that what-ever God is, He-She-It knows my heart’s mind and my heart’s voice. I will never know what God is. I, like Aquinas, believe that whatever I can think God is could not be what God is—simply because I’ve thought it. For me, God is—and must be—a mystery. This work I have done is a song to whatever God is. It is an expression of gratitude for having the strength, ability, and energy to do the work and for the opportunity to live long enough to see it fulfilled.” Moser, 178. Please say more.


BM:       I don’t know that I can. That sentence did not just tumble off the tongue. It probably took me all day to write that sentence—that’s the way I write—and I think it says it well enough. Today, five years after the completion of my Bible, I can and will say the same thing about all my work, whether it be of a religious nature or purely secular. You’ll note I did not say “spiritual nature,” since I think of all my work as spiritual, but now that I’ve said that, I wish I hadn’t because the bloody word spiritual, like creative, has been so casually overused that it no longer means anything. As long as I am trying to make something better this time than I did the last, my “prayerfulness” is, I believe, strengthened. I am a worthier person for it. And by worthier, I mean worthier to myself. I take—here’s an iconoclasm for you—Jesus’ exhortation to “Love one another as you love yourself” to mean exactly and literally that. Love as you love yourself. If you are not comfortable with who you are, if you do not love yourself for who you are, then what love you have to give away is a weak and poor thing to give. Understand, I am not advocating self-delusion, self-indulgence, self-deception, self-importance, nor self-aggrandizement, but merely the idea of being comfortable within yourself by constantly trying to understand, accept, and love yourself for who you are. That’s a tall order to fill. You can figure God into that formula anywhere you wish, or not, but for me, I have to try constantly to better that clay pot into something which, by some act of grace, God’s wine may (or may not) have been placed.


GWM:   What things have best helped you to be able to accept and love yourself?


BM:       My family and my understanding of the nature of work. My family because it is the experience of family that best teaches us to get outside ourselves—you simply cannot be inside yourself all the time and be a full participant in family life. And only when we get outside our self can we look back at it and examine it. The experience of family teaches us that. It also teaches us that you can love and enjoy a person despite that person’s shortcomings and faults. That is key to me, key to the deepest aspect of self-love, which is to be able to recognize that which should be disciplined, as well as that which should be celebrated. And that’s where work comes in: I am my own harshest critic—you have to be if you are worth a tinker’s damn as an artist—and after a day of constant self-criticism, it’s good to be able to have the self-confidence and honesty to admit that the day’s work was crap, or that it was good, and in either case to be able to relax and go have a cold martini or whatever else helps end that day so you’ll be ready to get up and at ‘em the next day.


GWM:   Last question. Of all the 236 engravings you created for the Bible project, which one, for you, inspires a desire for union with God?


BM:       My first thought, the image that jumped immediately to mind, was Jonah, the image I titled “And the Sea Stopped Raging,” where old Jonah is just about to be gobbled up by that big fish—but I don’t know why, so I’ll go with another choice: I’ll choose “My Life Is Wind.” It’s the image of Job, who, like us all in these tragic days of war, greed, hypocrisy, and mendacity, sits in his pit of ashes, or dung, depending on your translation. For me it inspires, though that’s a suspect word in my vernacular, a desire—no, a yearning—for justice, wisdom, charity, and truth.


GWM:   Barry, I’ve enjoyed this time with you. Your insights and opinions are often uncomfortable, like a bucket of cold water—well, to borrow a title from you—”in the face of presumption.” But I also found myself struck by your sense of respect for the mystery that surrounds us.

I’d like to close this interview with some better questions, so I’ll let you ask them. What follows is your self-interview.

02.  Self-Interview

Friday, September 4, 1998


Q: You really do believe that God is intervening in this work, don’t you, you old reprobate?


A: I wish I could believe that.


Q: Honestly now, deep down, you do have a sense that something—even if you don’t choose to call it God—is at work here. Something other than your own puny self.


A: Yes.


Q: What is it, then?


A: I don’t know. It just seems that time after time, when something like this Virgin image has to be done over again or, in this specific case, over and over, I always come up with something that makes the whole of the work better—even if it has to be done over for reasons that are extra-pictorial.


Q: Well, why do you resist so strongly admitting that it might be God at work here? You used to believe that God was omnipresent, that He could do anything. You used to believe that He directed your life, that He kept you from danger—like that day in 1958 when you damned near got shot. That threw you into the ministry, albeit you were a boy. Now you resist the possibility of divine intervention.



A: Why do you call God “He”?


Q: Convention. I don’t believe any more than you that God has any sex. But that’s beside the point. You’re avoiding my question.


A: I know I am. I don’t know why I resist. I think that, in part, it is because it’s too simple. To believe something like that is to deny the complexity of what God must be if God is.


Q: Why?


A: Look at what the Hubble telescope can see, for God’s sake—damned near to the end of the universe, and at that, it’s looking in only one direction. It ain’t even looking in all the possible directions. Can’t, because there are an infinite number of them. Look at the structure out there. And that’s just outer space. Same thing goes for inner space. Huge, both ways, so huge I can’t imagine that any human being, pitiful and tiny as we are, has the ability to understand, to even grasp a feather of the wings, if you will, or a mote of dander from the hair of whatever created all that. . . .


Q: [But] why don’t you accept it? Embrace it. Maybe it would make you a more complete human being, a better person.


A: Because it’s just too easy. And besides, I don’t feel that anything is spiritually broken and in need of repair.


Q: Are you sure?


A: Yes. Well . . .


Q: Oh, God, I give up. Why don’t you just get to work?


A: Hey, don’t go bitching at me. You’re the one with all the questions.

03.  Moser’s Top Ten Creations

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, 1982

Frankenstein, 1983

The Divine Comedy, 1980–84

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 1990

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 1985

Moby Dick, 1978

Jump! 1986

The Tinderbox, 1990

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, 1985

The Holy Bible, 1999