Boston — George Bernard Shaw owned a dozen copies of the Holy Bible and said he never traveled without one. There must be some reason for such attachment to the Scriptures.
A searching look at the Bible, intended to give all people a sense of its enduring vitality and practical relationship to their own everyday lives, now is open to the public free of charge in a permanent Bible Exhibit at the Christian Science Center in Boston.
Stepping off Belvidere Street into the triangular space at the end of the long Colonnade Building, the visitor is immediately introduced to quotations of famous men and women who relied upon the Book of Books for their inspiration, wisdom, and guidance.
Immanuel Kant: ''A single line in the Bible has consoled me more than all the books I have ever read besides.'' John Ruskin: ''The Bible is the one book to which any thoughtful man may go with any honest question of life or destiny and find the answer of God by honest searching.'' Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: ''The Bible grows more beautiful, as we grow in our understanding of it.''
Robert E. Lee, who saw many dark days during the Civil War, wrote: ''The Bible is a book in comparison with which all others in my eyes are of minor importance; and which in all my perplexities and distresses has never failed to give me light and strength.''
It is this spiritual illumination that has comforted so many through the ages that strikes the keynote of this exhibit, which is called ''A Light Unto My Path: Exploring the Bible in Sight and Sound.'' This theme is taken from Psalms 119:105: ''Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.''
After reading his way across the ''quotation wall,'' the visitor picks up from a recharge rack at the desk of an attendant a little white plastic listening wand, with no trailing wires. This is his audio passport to the two main exhibits on this floor:
* A 32-foot-long historical time-line called ''The Line of Light in the Bible.'' Arrayed across one wall of the triangle, it quickly telescopes the millenniums of Bible times into a single comprehensive view of that historical period.
* A 44-foot-long, 8-foot-high illuminated Plexiglas relief map of the Holy Land region. Ranging across the adjacent wall, the map gives a sweeping view of the Mediterranean area from the western Sahara to the eastern edge of the Arabian Peninsula.
For each of these displays, the visitor pushes a button to activate the narration and illumination that tell their stories.
Stepping in front of the time-line and holding his listening wand to his ear, one finds that the ''Line of Light'' is divided into four 5-minute segments. So in only 20 minutes he can ''walk through'' the Old and New Testaments.
Moving slowly from left to right, he hears narrators present a digest of main Bible events which trace humanity's developing understanding of the nature of God and man.
The appearing of light in its various metaphorical aspects begins with the divine demand ''Let there be light,'' in the first chapter of Genesis and with the rainbow seen by Noah. Subsequent enlightening landmark discoveries by prophets and leaders culminate in the brilliant dawn of Christianity in the life and works of Jesus, who declared, ''I am the light of the world,'' and in Christianity's dispersion abroad by the Apostle Paul.
As the history unfolds, color transparencies on the Line of Light light up to show Bible verses and biblical people and places in chronological sequence, until the entire time-line is illuminated. Above the panels, an indicator traveling the length of the time-line shows the visitor precisely where he is in Bible history.
''Listening'' to the big map, one may choose to hear any or all of 12 journeys made by leading Bible characters. He may select the migration of Abraham or the Exodus led by Moses. He may concentrate on Jesus' healing missions or on the far-flung travels of Paul.
As accounts of these historic trips from town to town and country to country are related, routes of the long treks by foot or sail are pinpointed by dots of light showing up on the map one by one. This illumination is accomplished by a sophisticated combination of technologies, an electronic signal system that uses groups of fiber-optic cables to shine the points of light through the map from the rear side.
This one-of-a-kind work of art, commissioned especially for this exhibit, looks like a piece of clear crystal, with water showing in brilliant blue. It was relief-carved on the back side of its three-quarters-inch-thick acrylic by William P. Reimann, a well-known sculptor and geography buff who is a member of the Harvard faculty of arts and sciences at Carpenter Center, in Cambridge, Mass.
Illuminated at its edges, the Plexiglas transmits and catches the light wherever it has been carved, bringing out minute topographical detail.
This view of the region is as if seen from a space capsule high above Africa. The landscape appears to tilt backward away from the viewer. The idea, the artist explains, ''is to give a more developed sense of the relief so that viewers can visualize more easily how long those trips were and how much trouble it must have been to walk through valleys, over mountains, and to cross rivers.''
In the center of this three-sided exhibit room is an inner triangular structure called the Bible Exploring Center, where visitors may spend as many hours as they care to in quiet study. This section contains a reference library of about 150 volumes of recognized Bible-study materials - translations, commentaries, atlases, dictionaries. Here guests may also listen through headphones to cassette recordings of the entire Bible, read by Alexander Scourby for the American Bible Society.
A revolving display of biblical material on loan from local universities, as well as rare editions of the Bible owned by The First Church of Christ, Scientist, are on exhibition in glass cases at two of the corners of this triangular structure. The latter show the development of the Bible in the English language, beginning with a Tyndale edition of 1515.
In the third of these cases is a 1611 edition of the King James Version of the Bible, together with ''Science and Health With Key to the Scriptures,'' by Mary Baker Eddy, who discovered Christian Science and founded the Church of Christ, Scientist.
Mrs. Eddy once said to her publisher, William Dana Orcutt: ''It has always been my desire and expectation that my book should encourage more and more people to read the Bible'' (William Dana Orcutt: ''Mary Baker Eddy and Her Books'').
It is at this point that the visitor learns that the Bible is central to Christian Science. These two books are the textbooks of Christian Science and are read by Christian Scientists daily.
The weekly Bible Lesson, which appears in the Christian Science Quarterly and which constitutes the Sunday Sermon in Christian Science churches, may be read in the Bible Exploring Center.
In an adjacent case is an artifact on display for the first time: one of the ancient jars that contained the Dead Sea Scrolls. On loan from the Harvard Semitic Museum, it was given to the museum by the government of Jordan in appreciation for archaeological research the museum has supported in the Holy Land for a century.
There's a children's corner in the exhibit where youngsters may sit down and listen over headphones to favorite Bible stories on records. And over touch-tone telephones, guests may try their hand at a question-and-answer Bible quiz as well as listen to accounts of healing and protection by those who found their help in Bible assurances. These include the dramatic rescue of the late Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker and his party, whose plane was lost in the Pacific during World War II, leaving him and six other men adrift on a rubber raft for 23 days.
Leaving behind these exhibits, designed to enhance appreciation of the Scriptures, visitors enter a high-ceilinged vestibule to begin their own journey to higher ground - a theater above, where they will see a film and multi-image slide presentation called ''As Children of Light.''
They pass huge color transparencies of Holy Land sites. High above them gleams ''The Book of Light,'' a glistening gold and silver wire sculpture by the internationally noted sculptor Richard Lippold, of Locust Valley, N.Y. Commissioned by the church in 1974, this unique work has been installed in the vestibule for many years, awaiting public viewing.
The softly lighted series of carpeted ramps winnow groups of visitors into single file. At each turn the visitor is led onward by illuminated Bible verses. The most prominent of these is from Ephesians 5:8: ''For ye were sometimes darkness, but now are ye light in the Lord: walk as children of light.''
Entering the theater through tall wooden doors, the visitor discovers that although it is two stories high with amphitheater seating, its style is intimate in feeling.
The 40-foot-wide curved screen and 12 arc-light projectors, programmed on computer, permit the simultaneous showing of a kaleidoscope of many color slides of various sizes and shapes in artistic arrangements.
The original motion picture film of Bible Land scenes, photographed in the Middle East especially for this exhibit, is accompanied by a narration that recalls why the words of the Bible have been preserved down through the ages.
Then the scene shifts to the present time as each visitor is invited to ponder what meaning the Scriptures might have for him today. Hundreds of pictures of contemporary life snapped on the streets, in the parks, in homes, schools, and churches right here in Boston blend with Bible verses, music, and a narration to remind the viewer in the words of the Disciple John: ''Beloved, now are we the sons of God'' (1 John 3:2).
As the house lights go up, some viewers may want to read information in three illuminated cases at the front of the theater which provide further explanation of the foundational relationship of the Bible to Christian Science.
Hal M. Friesen, Chairman of The Christian Science Board of Directors, explains that the Bible exhibit is nondenominational. Still, because it was prepared by Christian Scientists, he says, it inevitably reflects to some extent this point of view.
''But the main purpose,'' he stresses, ''is to provide an inspirational experience for all people.''
The areas around the Church Center, including its plaza, are very public ones , used by people from all walks of life, all faiths, nationalities, races, and professions.
''So the Bible Exhibit is an effort,'' Mr. Friesen says, ''to share with the community something that will be inspiring and uplifting to a visitor of any faith - or no faith. People need light. The Bible has that light, and we would like to have more people share the light that is available in the Bible.''
The idea of some sort of Bible exhibit as part of the Christian Science Center has been in the planning stage since before construction of the center began in 1968. A theater seating about 70 was included for that purpose on the second floor of the Colonnade Building above a street-floor Christian Science Reading Room. These two public spaces, at the busy downtown edge of the center near Boston's convention auditorium and several hotels, were conceived of from the beginning as a symbolic open door welcoming the public to the Church Center.
During the 14 years the Bible Exhibit was contemplated, many ideas of how to use the theater and the four narrow ramps leading up to it were presented. But it was not until three years ago, when the decision was made to move the Reading Room to a nearby location, that the vacated first-floor space made possible the much more comprehensive, two-level treatment of the subject, which is opening today (Nov. 12), just before National Bible Week, which starts Nov. 22.
However long in coming, the Bible Exhibit is timely. ''Around the world, interest in the Bible has never been greater,'' reports Alice E. Ball, general secretary of the American Bible Society.
Throughout the last three years that it has taken to put the exhibit together , work on it has had to measure up to the very spirit of brotherly love and caring that the Bible itself demands, says Allison W. Phinney, Manager, Committees on Publication of The Mother Church.
Cooperation proved to be the key. The project drew into cooperative association many people who had never worked together before.
''And many fine relationships have developed between the Christian Science Church and community people of various faiths, talents, skills, and expertise who have graciously assisted in the exhibit's preparation,'' Mr. Phinney reports. ''There has been a lovely spirit in the community that has responded. This generous cooperation is what has made the exhibit possible.''There are many examples:
* Although the Harvard Semitic Museum has been engaged in archaeological research for 100 years, its first public exhibition will not take place until next year. The museum director, Dr. Frank Moore Cross, and museum curator, the Rev. Carney Gavin, were therefore happy to have their treasured Dead Sea Scrolls jar shared in the Church Center Bible Exhibit.
* Every biblical fact presented in the exhibit has been carefully reviewed by Bible experts, including Harrell F. Beck, professor of the Old Testament at Boston University's School of Theology; Jon Levenson, professor of the Old Testament at Wellesley College; and Helmut Koester, professor of the New Testament at Harvard Divinity School.
* The hunt for reproductions of masterpiece paintings, color slides of the Holy Land, and other elements of the exhibit was aided by friendly cooperation from individuals and museums in the United States and abroad.
The result is a rich buffet of information about the Bible where a visitor may help himself to as much or as little as his appetite dictates. Even a five-minute walk through the first-floor exhibit room will provide a fleeting glimpse of what the Bible is about. But it takes about an hour and a half to see and hear the bulk of what is offered here, plus 30 minutes to view the film and slide show.
In preparing the exhibit, the church did not want to duplicate the work of Bible exhibits elsewhere. ''As far as we can determine,'' says David Lamb, overseer of the exhibit's design and development, ''there is not another exhibit of this kind anywhere. Of course, there are great libraries for biblical research that are open only to scholars. But this kind of public exhibit, which brings together a lot of interesting features in one place and is accessible to the average person, is unique.''
The Bible is for reading and pondering. The exhibit lets the Bible speak for itself through some 50 quotations that appear throughout the various presentations. In this way the exhibit invites the active participation of every visitor.
The exhibit is open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. and until 8 p.m. on Friday, and from noon to 4 p.m. on Sunday. It is closed on Mondays and holidays.
Attendants on duty are well versed in the Bible and equipped to answer questions. There is no admission charge and there is nothing for sale.
Because the space is limited to about 130 visitors at a time, Bible study groups, Sunday School classes, and other groups are encouraged to make arrangements in advance by calling the Christian Science Center at (617) 262- 2300.