Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Beyond lost immediacy

My bible reading used to be motivated by a strong sense of immediacy, an expectation that God would speak to me in a direct, obvious and practical way. It was this sense that kept me going back to the bible again and again; I could read it an 'hear God' directly speak into every detail of my life in a no-nonsense one-on-one way.

But like so many Christians who enjoy probing their faith and chewing on difficult questions, one can quickly lose such early, for want of a better word, naivety. And then reading the bible suddenly becomes far more complex and the clear waters that used to so profoundly inspire become muddied. It is like outgrowing the excitement of Christmas morning, waking up on the 25th December without that expected magical feeling. And not only is the bible then left on the shelf, the good book can even become the source of great annoyance! Indeed, some, as a result of this process, turn into outspoken sceptics. Not all of course. Others press in and through their questions (and sometimes faith-crises) to Ricoeur's 'second naiveté', one that does not ignore but is profoundly shaped by the critical phase. For those of you who recognise what I am getting at, I would be interested to hear how you managed to reengage the bible with pleasure. How did you relearn a love for the bible? What changed about your vocabulary, thinking, expectations? Any thoughts?


At 1/15/2009 5:19 AM, Anonymous Tim said...

Chris – that all sounds very familiar to me. I used to use the Bible in exactly that way; always expecting God to speak to me directly, opening pages randomly with a pencil stab in the hope of critical guidance – you know the pattern. And everyone around me seemed to use their Bibles in the same way.

I think a key breakthrough for me, in thinking that there was an alternative way, was reading Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart’s “How to Read the Bible for all it’s Worth.” They said really sensible things such as scripture couldn’t possibly mean something other than what it did when it was first written. I have completely transformed the way I read the Bible as a result.

Firstly, I read it! Secondly, I study it rather than just read it which includes embracing secondary literature (commentaries) rather than thinking that they were sullying the experience. I write notes copiously, largely focussed on developing my own summary of a book in my own words. I have learnt to engage my brain. And the result is, I thoroughly enjoy it. My focus is now on working out what the original author was trying to say and therefore engaging in a bit of history also; as a spin-off, I am finding far more that actually inspires me to do something (God speaking??) than I ever did through the direct approach. Largely I guess because the learning is about a principle, or at least is well grounded in a consistent theology, rather than finding something to induce an immediate behavioural change based on nothing more than reading, eg Isaiah 52:12 in the KJV and deciding to take the train instead. I also find myself thanking God that the Bible is all so complicated and that I have years of grappling to come!

I don’t think what I am doing is in any way normative; other people are very happy reading the Bible in incredibly different ways, but it works for me.

As a result I’ve also started reading some theology and then ended up hanging around on theology blogs. So it hasn’t all been positive!

At 1/15/2009 6:16 AM, Anonymous Kenny said...

This sounds familiar to me as well. I find it helpful (though it does not, by any means, eliminate the problem entirely) to intentionally engage in prayerful Bible reading and intentionally keep it separate from study time. During this time, for instance, I generally make it a rule not to stop to look anything up (although I of course still apply things learned in previous study).

I also find it helpful to use unfamiliar translations for this purpose. (After using NKJV for a long time, I switched to HCSB, partially just for the sake of recovering 'freshness' and found it very helpful - until I started to get familiar with it too, of course, but the number of translations in English is practically unlimited, and if you speak a few other languages I'm sure you'll never run out.)

At 1/15/2009 6:20 AM, Anonymous Levi said...

for myself, learning Greek and Hebrew renewed interest a lot. The explanation/application sections of WBC or NIBC often renew that interest in those times as well.

At 1/15/2009 1:29 PM, Anonymous John Ottens said...

I've found that I now read the Scriptures with the hope of filling out my understanding of the biblical narrative, rather than looking for quick fixes. I now look for answers not by proof-texting but by understanding the biblical story as a whole. Also, though, the Bible has gained renewed importance and immediacy for me as I have come to realize that it is authoritative first for God's people, as a whole, and its relevance for an individual within that people is actually quite indirect. This began for me as a loss of the Bible I had know for years, but it has ultimately made the Bible much richer and more meaningful.

At 1/15/2009 2:44 PM, Anonymous One of Freedom said...

Actually it has been liturgy that has re-invigorated my relationship to the scriptures. I found several moments along the way from critical that helped, but did not sustain the same expectant reading - semiotics was one of the most powerful. But scripture really didn't come alive again until I took up the lectional cycles and plunged deeply into the gospels. I'm not so concerned about God's voice to me personally - that idea comes out of a worldview that I find deeply flawed.

The lectional readings raise questions and force me to dwell beyond my pet verses and ideas. As a preacher it drove me to understand the surrounding textual context to ensure I wasn't violating what I could reasonably discern of the authorial intent. But devotionaly it drew me to let a cluster of scriptures dwell in my mind and forge synaptic connections.

At 1/15/2009 10:42 PM, Anonymous chris said...

It helps me to remember that I just may not "get it" when I read it or hear it read this time, and that that's okay. In the mornings I read long passages that I've read before and rather than being prayerfully expectant I feel like I'm rushing through it and am quite bored. So I reread and pray for openness and willingness. Sometimes it comes and sometimes it doesn't.

Reading Scripture as a member of the Body of Christ means that I have to be comfortable with moments of ignorance and of belonging without being the focus of attention. God's words may feel wasted on me at times but who am I to judge? That's the work of the Holy Spirit.

At 1/16/2009 6:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Chris,

it´s Niko. Really hope you´re doing fine over there in Rainland...ähh England. I enjoyed the chat we had the other day in Tübingen-thanks:-).
Concerning the topic I thought I write a few lines:

The longer I study theology and read more books about who Jesus really was and about what Paul really meant, I wonder how much time the first disciples spent in libraries.

I think most texts in the bible are written by people who lived a very different life than most of us christians do today. Besides all the cultural and chronical differences I think they were concerned by spreading the good news to as many people as possible and by making new disciples wherever they would go. I think they were living a very "practical" life and that´s what influenced their writings as well.

Is it possible that many of us when we started following Jesus were very passionate and one main characteristic of us was that we just HAD to tell people about Jesus. Maybe that´s one (out of maaany) reasons why so much of the bible "spoke to us" in a very practical and relevant way. Is it because our goal was the same of those who wrote the texts, namely to go and share the good news?

When I look around and often when I look at myself I realize how many of us have pulled back out of the world, don´t know anymore how to talk to someone who doesn´t no Jesus, read a thousand books about how great it is what Jesus has done but seldomly overcome our fears and conveniences and go out to tell someone about him...

What I wanna say is: let´s spend at least as much time with people who don´t know about gods love for them and be a voice of hope to so many broken and hurting people as we spend time trying to understand the gospel and the bible sitting at home reading and thinking.

I am convinced that scripture will then open up to us in so many new, fresh and exciting ways.


At 1/16/2009 7:36 PM, Anonymous Weekend Fisher said...

I think it has to do with *how* we use historical/critical/grammatical. If we use it as a way to box things up in the historical past (which many do), the Bible will seem dry and distant ... which was the point; "objectivity" = no personal connection, right? The "immediacy" of the text comes when we take the author's original intent more seriously: the text is the handle of an eschatological lever that was intended to move the world. If you're not moved, you're not *really* reading it with the author's original intent, no matter who might say otherwise.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

At 1/17/2009 6:14 PM, Anonymous Rev Tony B said...

I think I echo Anne/WF - I quite enjoy looking things up, doing the critical stuff. But I don't do it to box things into the past, but to bring the story to life. Seeing how things really worked, what was happening to whom, why this bit was written, etc - it's part of my story, the story of my ancestors and antecedents in faith, bumping into the same obstacles. It brings the Bible to life for me, and for the congregations for whom I preach.

Well, that's what I think they're telling me... ;)

At 1/17/2009 10:16 PM, Anonymous J. Ed Komoszewski said...

Early in my education I unwittingly approached the text with two very different attitudes. In my devotional times I opened the Bible expecting to hear from God and contemplating the ways that I needed to adjust my life to the text. Other times I approached the text from the cool vantage point of preparing for an exam or writing a paper. I eventually learned that that's an awful dichotomy. Every time that I crack the Scripture's cover, God is speaking to me in one way or another. Approaching the text with that attitude has renewed my passion for it and instilled in me a desire to practice reverent scholarship.

That said, I still read the text in two ways (but now with one attitude). There are times that I live in a mere slice of the text, getting lost in the myriad of exegetical details. There's something very exciting about research that is in pursuit of life-changing truth. There are also times when I simply read large chunks of the text. It's just as important, I think, for us to cultivate broad familiarity with the text as it is to work from the bottom up. What's more, as the years pass, my synthetic reading is more and more informed by the details that I've taken the time to previously discover. In that way, the bigger picture is perpetually fine-tuned. So I dare not abandon a "generic" reading of Scripture.

As a final thought, I think that there's some sense in which even the most basic reading of Scripture changes us. I can't explain it, but a broad reading of the text is much like pouring water through a sieve. The sieve allows the water to pour through it very quickly, but the more water that flows through it, the cleaner the sieve gets. That's my personal experience with Scripture. The more that it passes through me, the cleaner my life gets.

In short, I've learned that I have good reason to get excited about reading the Bible both ways.

At 1/19/2009 12:07 AM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

Thank you all for helpful comments. I'll try to summarise these suggestions in another post.

At 1/19/2009 10:06 AM, Anonymous Edward T. Babinski said...

Your description of reading the Bible in your youth, naively expecting God to be speaking just to you, sounds like childish egotism. And may also have been bred out of your level of ignorance of the Bible with its wide ranging history and complexity of interpretation.

In a similar fashion, I bet you felt in your youth a more immediate connection with God in prayer than you do now, and you now have more questions concerning the efficacy and meaning of prayer than you once did.

At 1/20/2009 7:05 AM, Anonymous Weekend Fisher said...

I think the expectation that God should speak to us is not mere egotism (though I've seen it done with egotism; either condition could exist). I think the Bible and the history of the church both teach us to expect God to speak to us.

"When I grew up, I put childish ways behind" ... I see different things now. But childlike simplicity (unblinded by presuppositions, and unjaded) is often the key to their discovery. I'm not too concerned if someone calls me a fool; I do believe God's foolishness is wiser than my wisdom, and that he has hidden some things from the wise and learned and revealed them to children.

Or to put it more concretely: how many "wise doctors of the church" overlooked some of Therese of Lisieux's insights. Then a devoted young woman, hardly more than a child, humbly and gently upstages centuries' worth of the great theologians of the church. She in her simplicity saw things that so many others had missed ... and is now numbered among the Doctors of the Church.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

At 1/23/2009 1:06 AM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

"In a similar fashion, I bet you felt in your youth a more immediate connection with God in prayer than you do now"

Hi Edward,

Actually, I have discovered quite the opposite.

Thanks for your comment.

At 1/23/2009 1:21 AM, Anonymous Grandmère Mimi said...

I grew up in the RCC, attended RC schools through university. I had not much exposure to the Bible until my university years. Thereafter until Vatican II, it was only the four readings at mass.

After Vatican II, I attended Bible studies until I pretty much lost my faith, but continued through the motions of church attendance.

I found my faith again and began to study the Bible seriously, but pretty much on my own with the same sense of immediacy and expectation for personal revelation as you, Chris.

Then I left the RCC and joined the Episcopal Church, where I was in Bible study classes and learned something of serious critical studies of the Bible.

Although the new knowledge was somewhat jolting, rather than shaking my faith, the new knowledge made a whole lot of sense to me in the end.

I love reading the Bible, and it's still very much a living word for me. I appreciate it all the more for the critical studies.

My only explanation for how it all worked out for me is grace.

I'm trying to make this comment not too long, so I'm not sure how uch sense I'm making.


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