This quarter I am taking a directed study Seminary course on the art of reading the Bible. What I’ve come to see is that this practice also encompasses the art of being alive, of being human, and of living in relationship with others and the Other.
In its simplest form I’m learning that an artful reading (and living) of the Bible allows the words to mean what they say.
This is harder than it initially appears. We come to the text inundated with modern notions of psychology, author’s intent, conspiracy, and reading between the lines. We don’t read the words as they are, we are constantly and subconsciously trying to get beyond or beneath or behind or between them to figure out their true or real meaning. Even scarier, we’ve decided this is what it means to be intelligent and perceptive leaders.
In reality, I think this makes us passive aggressive and distrustful humans; both when we attempt to read the Bible and when we enter into relationship.
The struggle of reading the words of the Bible, or of interpreting a film, or of loving another human being, is not found in the need to get behind what’s on the page. The struggle comes from the words, the story, and the relationship itself.
This does not mean that contradiction, paradox, conflict, or hard teachings and images disappear from the text, from life, or from the relationship. What changes, rather, is where we engage. I don’t participate in dissecting, analyzing, and getting behind these contradictions (as if to find their “answers”), I participate through the act of reciting, practicing, and living the words and the stories as they appear. I am part of living the struggle itself, not part of finding its solution.
To learn to trust words for what they say – and to trust people for who they are and what they say – is contrary to the way our modern, intellectualized minds work. And it takes more than single individuals to re-form and transform our distrustful, hypothetical systems for interpreting people and stories. It takes communities of people willing to help each other see and read differently.
I fall victim to this constantly. The deeper beyond reality, the further behind the words, I try to go, the more and more I am removed from actual reality. I participate in a false world, the space between the lines, arrogantly trying to drag down and squeeze the real world (the real text, the real relationship or person) into the one I’ve created and somehow deemed more real, more true, or worse, more right.
This is a toxic way to read the Bible and to engage in relationship. We don’t have to look very far into history, our own communities, or our political and religious systems to see the damage that this kind of un-artful reading and relating does to the way we live and treat each other: slavery, racism, holocaust, genocide, broken and estranged relationships, competing communities, war, factions, depression, suicide, and loneliness. We must surrender and submit our desire to know and understand to the art of living, reading, and relating; we must learn to allow the words to mean what they say.