Monday, May 11, 2009

Dude, where's my Bible?

I, and I know others as well, was really struck by an extended metaphor in yesterday's sermon. It's actually quite cheesy, absurd even. But maybe that's part of its staying power. It was certainly effective, stubbornly refusing to disappear like that stain on my kitchen table.

Imagine the Bible in my car. Where would it be? At this point, I thought we would be heading towards the Bible as engine, but that's not where we ended up. Is it

1. in the boot? Out of sight, out of mind? Something we sort of know is there, but in practice it may as well not exist?
2. in the backseat? Like an annoying backseat driver whom we just want to chuck out, or at least tune out?
3. in the front seat? We appreciate him as a conversation partner, a dispenser of good advice, and hey, like a good map, frequently worth consulting. But it's us that's still in the driving seat.
4. in the driving seat? Allowing it to lead us wherever we are?

This is actually a very helpful taxonomy and really gave me pause as to whether I'm allowing God's word to shape me as it should.

The literary critic George Steiner makes a point worth considering in relation to this. In a well-known essay, Steiner distinguishes between a critic and a reader. While recognising that this antithesis is, in reality, a false one, he employs it to make a salient point about how we approach a text. The "critic" becomes the judge and master of the text, whereas a "reader" is servant to the text. The former retains a distance, the latter attempts to draw near. But the former, in doing so, turns the text into a commodity; he empties it of any "real presence". Steiner is not dismissing criticism per se, that's his vocation after all! But only as readers first can we offer proper respect to the text, and by implication, its author. To be a "critic" first and foremost only serves to stoke the ego.

I think that's where the danger lies as we struggle to be disciples of Jesus. As we seek to "grow up in our salvation" (1 Peter 2:2), we sometimes confuse our increasingly sophisticated reading of the Bible with genuine Christ-like maturity. The pastor-scholar Dan Doriani, commenting on James 1:19-21, very insightfully maps out the potential pitfalls. As a new Christian, our reading might be naive and devotional. We have our highlighter pens out, as we earnestly desire to hear God's voice. Hopefully, we learn to be better readers, placing texts in their contexts. Maybe we even advance to becoming technical readers, with knowledge of Greek, biblical culture etc. As part of the community of believers, we become technical-functional readers, personally detached, even as we share our insights with others. But what we really need, Doriani suggests, is to become technical-devotional readers. Every technical skill remains, but we need to rediscover that child-like desire to let the word speak directly to our hearts again.

I currently read the Bible one-to-one with a younger Christian. And I increasingly see that unless I allow the Bible to really speak to me, to probe me, to be "consumed by the text", to use Steiner's language, I don't really have anything to teach. Or learn actually. A truly sophisticated reading of the Bible is one which reads our lives as well and seeks to "live into God's story", to borrow a phrase from Eugene Peterson. And that's really scary. So I need to ask myself regularly: Dude, where's my Bible?

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