The recent uproar around Darren Aronofsky’ Noah — driven largely by bickering between the chronically aggrieved “culture warriors” on both the Right and the Left — reminds us that, when it comes to explosive topics, religion blows sex, politics and every other hot-button issue out of the proverbial water. The media, it seems, have a very hard time covering any debate around religion without the conversation quickly being co-opted by the shrillest voices in the room.
The Noah hullabaloo, meanwhile, sent us back into our archives to see how a publication that wielded LIFE’s unique influence back in the day might have engaged in the national dialog around religion, in an era when Christianity was the undisputed dominant creed in the land. The Dec. 25, 1964, special double issue of the magazine provided the answer. In close to 150 pages devoted to The Bible (Islam rates exactly one mention in the issue; Judaism a few dozen), LIFE attempts to delineate the Bible’s enduring appeal for untold millions, while legitimately grappling with its uncanny power.
“Our age has been haunted by theories of history,” LIFE noted in an introduction to the issue, “and by political theories that appeal to the verdict of history (the thousand-year Reich, the historical dialectic of Communism.)”
History seems to be the only irrational subject that modern rationalists revere. Man, who has deified everything else, now deifies his own history and wants a theory about it in which he can believe. The Bible contains a theory of history, the oldest and most durable of them all. But the faith of the Bible is not in history, it is in history’s God.
In that entire issue, the one article that stood out — to our eyes — as a uniquely LIFE way to approach the Bible was the very last feature in the issue. Titled simply, “In Praise of the Lord,” those handful of pages included color photos made in the Holy Land by Paul Schutzer, along with excerpts from the psalms — a book in the Bible in which, LIFE noted, “praise to the Creator . . . reaches a height of poetic utterance.”
Here, we offer some of Schutzer’s photos, both published and unpublished, as well as excerpts from the psalms — ancient hymns to the silence — that ran alongside the pictures: examples of how, 50 years ago, one media outlet chose to address the eternally thorny issue of faith.
— LIFE.com Editors