Reading Scripture Fixed and Free

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

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.

A Theology of Reading? by Charles Halton

[This is Charles Halton’s first term of teaching for HBU; he teaches from a distance, partly online and partly by flying in from Louisville; we are excited to have him as part of the theology team and look forward to more from him.]

Our world is awash in words. They fill books and blogs, novels and noirs, mags and ads, texts and tweets. Think of how many hours a day you spend reading and writing them. It’s probably more than you think. Especially if you include all the instances of passive reading when words flash on screens or phrases leap off billboards and lodge themselves into your subconscious. But even if we only include this semester’s textbooks, reading involves a significant chunk of your life.

How does all this time and energy relate to your theology?

It doesn’t. The eye scans the page, the brain forms meaning, it’s what we do. It’s atheological, like swallowing. Or so I thought until I read Alan Jacobs’s A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love.

The title caught my eye. A theology of reading? That makes little sense. A theology for reading, that’s more like it. A theology for reading would help me understand the correct thoughts I should have as I weigh the ideas conveyed in books. Help me determine if the author is orthodox, heterodox, a heretic or somewhere in between. Enable me to see through the lies of advertising and the propaganda in politics. A theology for reading is focused on the content of what we read and if there is a need for theology when reading it’s here.

But that’s not Jacobs’s view. He taught me that theology encompasses the entire act of reading. It doesn’t merely determine the way in which we accept or reject the messages we read. Reading is a theological act–start to finish–and it’s a topic that deserves our sustained reflection.

When a scribe asked Jesus to name the greatest divine teaching he replied:

“Love the Eternal One your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is nearly as important, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The rest of the law, and all the teachings of the prophets, are but variations on these themes (The Voice).

Writing is produced by people–your neighbors. This sounds elementary and it is. But the implications that Jacobs draws from this connection are profound. Writing is the extension of a person. It’s a vehicle that, albeit imperfectly, connects two minds over the distance of time and space. Whenever you read you are in some sense encountering a neighbor. This, in turn, means that avoidance of error in understanding the author is not the main goal of reading, even when it’s a textbook. It means that reading should be pleasurable, even when it’s a dull and dry syllabus. It means that you should love the piece and expect the best for it, even when you disagree with it. Reading with love exposes you to risk but it’s a risk that a theological reader must embrace.

Some of this may sound controversial and in a way it is. You probably approach reading as if it weren’t theological, like I once did. After I came to understand that a theology of reading–one that is centered upon love–is essential to reading Christianly, I found Jacobs’s ideas quite orthodox. You’ll have to read Jacobs’s book to see how he unpacks all this but if you do I bet you’ll never read in the same way again. It looks like I may have added another book to your already long list this semester. But, alas, that’s one of the risks of reading.

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