Let us begin by clearing up the old confusion between the man who loves learning and the man who loves reading, and point out that there is no connection whatever between the two.
– Virginia Woolf, “Hours in a Library” in Times Literary Supplement, 30 November 1916.
I am convinced that hardly a Christian reads the Bible. We may crack its spine every morning, study it groups, or vocalize it in services, but we never, ever, actually read it.
That’s because we use the Bible. We approach Scripture with the specific agenda of learning from it. We burn through four chapters a day to complete it in a year, distill theological principles from paragraphs, and make moral applications from the Decalogue.
Portrait of Virginia Woolf by Roger Fry via Wikimedia Commons
Learning from the Bible is undoubtedly good, but when is the last time that you just read it? Not to prepare for a lesson or to discern a principle or to understand theology but merely to rest inside a narrative? To feel the energy between sentences, to let a poem’s emotion wash over you, to feel the horror of Judges 19 and sublimity of Psalm 23? Maybe never. But this is what reading is. It’s approaching a text with the agenda of mere enjoyment.
But we don’t enjoy the Bible. We use it as a vehicle to get us somewhere else — to another spiritual reality, a different moral space, a more developed theological perspective. We hardly ever linger within its pages, asking it to do nothing else than capture our imagination. But surely this is one of the things its editors desired. Why else would they have assembled a canon that contains genealogies, cosmologies, etiologies, biographies, narratives, laments, liturgies, letters, credos, contracts, visions, riddles, oracles, apocalypses, histories, hymns, parables, proverbs, poems, laws, ordinances, reports, dreams, encouragements, rebukes, songs, and speeches when they could have saved some ink by giving us a few bullet points of doctrine, some ethical guidelines, and a barebones narrative?
It seems that the Bible was intended to nourish the entire person, not merely shape our beliefs and guide our behavior. Otherwise, the poetic and literary nature of the Bible is purely superfluous. Yet, most of us never take a break from studying the Bible to read it.
There are several reasons for this but perhaps the biggest stumbling block is our conception of what Scripture is. We think of it as a divine handbook, a love letter, a depository of data to fuel research, or a story of salvation history and then we strip mine it for information. Rarely to do we consider it a work of art or a cultural expression that could shape our aesthetic. But why not? The mere fact that it contains poetry should be enough to convince us that Scripture has an artistic nature in addition to a didactic one.
Many Christians approach the Bible through a rigid system — a liturgical calendar, a prescribed reading schedule, or a daily quota. This is tremendously problematic if these are the only ways in which we relate to our most sacred text. Potentially, the Bible becomes another task that we tick off our to-do-list. We need to cultivate times of unstructured reading. To borrow a phrase from Alan Jacobs, we need to read at whim. If the desire arises to read a Psalm or a Pauline letter, or, dare we say, Leviticus, and it’s not the specified passage for the day, carve out a few minutes and soak in it.
But equally problematic is the person who reads the Bible with no rhyme or reason, retweeting a random verse here and flicking open a Bible to whatever page there but never getting around to finishing an entire narrative. There’s hardly a chance that this person will enjoy the Bible’s story lines or integrate its teachings into coherent ideas. The books that make up the whole were intend to be read through. If we treat the Bible like a jumble of hypertexts and bounce around its pages we will never appreciate it in the ways its authors intended.
There is an inherent tension in our relationship to the Bible. This tension is similar to the ways in which Jewish tradition approaches prayer — certain prayers are to be recited at particular times but petitions should also flow out of the heart. Prayer demands both keva (set times of recitation) and kavanah (spontaneous intention). We could loosely translate these terms as “fixed and free.”
Like prayer, the Bible is best read fixed and free. Impromptu sessions should accompany liturgical recitations and whim should interrupt schedules. In addition, we should read the Bible for enjoyment as well as study it for understanding. To a large degree these are very different acts but embracing the Bible more fully involves holding together the tension of keva and kavanah.