Monday, May 26, 2014

Listening to Scripture

You can tell that I'm getting itchy to release my new book into the world, because I keep posting excerpts from my manuscript here. This will probably be the last one for quite a while. This comes from chapter 4: "Listening to Scripture"
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After I graduated from seminary I stopped reading the Bible. It’s been said that for all the gain that comes from dissecting a frog, all the hands-on knowledge one amasses from cutting out the organs and separating and scrutinizing the various parts, something still had to die in the process. My frog was dead. There is no doubt about that.

There had been a season before seminary in which the scriptures sang to me, playing angelic harmonies in what might have been an otherwise monotone life. The Word of God woke me up in the morning. I used to rise at 6:30AM in college, making me the first person awake on campus by about 4 hours, stroll into my drowsy college town under the guidance of an awakening California sun, and read my Bible through the steam of the largest cup of coffee I could find. One December morning I read Mary’s Magnificat and I’m sure that my heart leapt with Elizabeth’s baby when he heard the voice of the woman who carried destiny inside her. I walked back to campus exulting with the mother of Jesus: my soul magnified the Lord, and my spirit rejoiced in God my Savior. Experiences like that made it seem like I floated to seminary on the sound waves of the scriptures, called to a life of studying and proclaiming the Bible. That call was the most glorious sound I had ever heard.

By the time I finished seminary, what had once sung three part harmonies to me now sounded in the dry, unfeeling tones of a lecture hall. The Bible had become a specimen and I had teased apart its components – all its grammatical, historical, textual, and cultural tendons and joints and blood vessels - until all connection and life was gone. The Magnificat lost its singing voice, fading before new life verses, like “The time is surely coming, says the Lord God, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD. They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east, they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the LORD, but they shall not find it.”

The word of God was elusive in those days. Don’t get me wrong: I still opened the Bible once a week, even translated Greek and Hebrew, but it was a manual for preaching, a teacher’s edition textbook. It was the word addressed to others, not to me, and my role was mediator, never receiver. Ambitious as I was back then, I tried to use the Bible as a ladder for climbing to the heights of preaching stardom, as a prop for displaying my own glamorous powers. My treatment of the Bible was not unlike what the money changers did to the temple when they started peddling in its outer courts. They pre-empted a place of personal worship for an place of impersonal transaction. Faces became shadows, persons became customers, and temple courts became selling platforms. Likewise, for me the Bible had ceased to be a place of encounter and had become a place of business.

As much as I value and rely on biblical scholarship, the problem with laboring to creating sufficient distance from the biblical text to see all aspects of it is that you can end up distancing yourself from the One who spoke the word in the first place. When you put the Bible on a slide and examine it under a microscope, you’re the subject and the Bible is the object, an impersonal artifact to be studied. You can end up like Thomas Jefferson taking an exacto knife to the Bible and excising all the miracle out of it.

For all the knowledge that I gained in seminary, what I abandoned was the practice of reading the Bible in conversation. The scriptures lost their Voice. I used to talk and listen openly to the Author of the scriptures as I read, praying that I could become what I read. I wanted my ears to ring with the scriptures as I took steps of faith and love. Yet all the scholarly disciplines I sampled made reading the Bible like a game of telephone, and by the time the message was passed through all the different intermediaries, the Author’s personal message had been obscured and his voice almost unrecognizable. The Bible had been stripped of its Personality.

I do not mean to attack biblical scholarship. Anyone who reads the Bible in her own language is absolutely dependent on the biblical scholars who gathered and translated that text. The problem that those of us who have spent time in scholarly circles face is not unlike the problem that engaged couples confront. Anyone who has planned a wedding will tell you that, from the moment the ring is placed on her finger, it is remarkably easy to get lost in all the details of event planning. In all the negotiations about venue, flowers, invitations, food, guest lists, music, how to run interference with intrusive family members, and the countless other details, many couples forget that a wedding is ultimately a personal and intimate encounter, an act of commitment between two people and the family and friends who confirm their vows. Our study of the Bible can be subject to the same depersonalizing forces. The Bible is a deeply personal book, a stage of encounter between God and his people, but the details of interpretation and the convoluted levels of methodology can crowd out its personality. We can get a wedding, but no marriage.

The good news is this: in spite of all our attempts to create separation from the biblical text, the text itself speaks of a word that refuses our estrangement and even eliminates it. The mystery of the word that originates from the Creator is that it reads us. You open the book, lay it down in front of you, but you instead discover that you have been opened, your soul laid bare by it. My subject to the Bible’s object gets inverted and I become the Bible’s object, arrested by it, revealed in it. I go to it as an actor reading a scripture, but discover that I am the script and the word acts on me. The law may have been written on tablets, but the word is now stitched into our hearts, shaping us and redefining us.