Scripture reading is often thought of as a way to absorb moral principles, doctrine and historical information. In the articles that follow, we are led into a whole new way to interact with Scripture that essentially brings us into relationship with God and satisfies our deep hunger for spiritual connection with our Creator.
These authors have discovered that the Word of God is very much alive and is still speaking to us now. As we approach Scripture with a contemplative posture, opening ourselves up to the illumination of the Holy Spirit, we actually enter into a dialogue with the living God. This is rather exciting when you actually come down to it. This awareness can turn the pages of our personal and corporate readings from simply articulating words written long ago that we “ought to learn,” to vibrant words spoken to us today by the living Christ who uses Scripture to minister to the very deepest parts of who we are.
Our hope is that you would use this section of Conversations in a small group format to explore and even practice the disciplines outlined here. You may wish to devote some time to focus on one or two areas that your group decides may be helpful. Focusing on just one portion of Scripture in lectio style, allowing the text to “read you,” or simply incorporating silence into your group Scripture reading would be a way to begin. These practices are lifegiving and pull us into fellowship with our wonderful God. Get ready for a wonderful journey!
A Postmodern View of Scripture
by Brian McLaren
How do you approach Scripture? McLaren identifies the difference between trying to understand the meaning of Scripture by pulling it apart and analyzing it—as one would learn about a frog in the lab through dissection—and trying to understand the text by allowing Scripture to “read us.” As one would learn about a frog in a different way by observing it as a living being in its natural habitat, so, if the Scripture is “living and active,” it can and does speak to us in ways that transcend and break down our boxes and categories.
McLaren suggests that sometimes, like the Pharisees and Sadducees, we love our boxes more than we love Jesus. These walls that we set up and these rules that we create, both in terms of understanding Scripture and in terms of polarizing Christians by such labels as “conservative” or “liberal,” limit our ability to hear one another and absorb the richness of different perspectives. McLaren has a high view of Scripture, but does not see it as a rulebook from which simple answers can be excavated to answer complex questions. In fact, he asserts, “Sometimes certainty is just an excuse to stop thinking.” Rather, Scripture “immerses us in the struggle [to find answers to current complex issues] and renders us vulnerable to the Holy Spirit.”
- Is the idea of allowing Scripture to “read you” helpful? If someone suggested that this was a more meditative, contemplative way of assimilating God’s message, how would you practice this?
- Do you see the Christian world as polarized by labels and creeds, and unable to appreciate and listen to diverse perspectives? Why or why not?
- In what way do you think the Pharisees and Sadducees loved their boxes more than they loved Jesus?
- How might such boxes in the church today relate to our inability to hear what Scripture is calling us to ascertain and practice in the world?
“Strange Spot” Hermeneutics The Role of Scripture in Letting Me Be Who I Am as I Do What I Should
by Larry Crabb
Crabb begins with the “strange spot” of being in this world but recognizing that the deepest desire of our hearts cannot be met in this life. The strange spot is that we are at least vaguely aware, most of us, that we are not “home” on our journey through this life. Scripture “clears our vision” as we recognize the strange spot we are in, and it renews our energy to continue in the face of mystery and often uncertainty about where we are headed. Scripture comes alive when we stop trying to adjust to this life and decide instead to live this life in terms of the next. This means learning to live in the presence of God and allowing that reality to redefine this one, not the other way around. Part of doing this is learning to “be” in God’s presence and allow our Scripture reading to be a conversation with God. As we read Scripture, aware of the strange spot we are in, we read with a desperate desire to know God, to hear God, and to be transformed. As we approach Scripture and allow it to have multifaceted meaning that we can apprehend with the “playfulness of a sacred imagination,” Crabb suggests three important questions that can help us experience God’s presence as we read: “What questions is God bothering to answer in the text?” (Often God is answering the right question—not always the one we would ask.) “What questions does life, when I face it honestly, require me to ask?” and “How can God get sinful people cleaned up and ready for the party?”
- When do you remember being most aware of being in a “strange spot”?
- Have you experienced Scripture reading as a conversation with God that helps you to adjust this life to the next? If so, describe your experience. If not, explain what reading the Scripture is like for you.
- What questions that you would like to ask God may be embedded in the three questions Crabb encourages us to ask as we read Scripture?
- How would you interpret Crabb’s suggestion that we approach Scripture with the “playfulness of a sacred imagination”?
Scriptural Meditation: Welcoming God Each Time
by Jan Johnson
Approaching the Scripture with a “sincere, searching heart for the Holy Spirit to speak” is the thrust of this article. Johnson defines this attitude succinctly by stating that it is an “invitation-request-submission of self” posture that allows for openness to God’s voice. As one reads Scripture, this posture brings insight, relevance, and personal growth. This approach is a noncontrolling way to hear the Scripture speak through the power of the Holy Spirit as we learn to let go of our agenda to “have a productive time with God,” or get the results we want. Our time with God is not about gaining efficient results to accomplish specific human goals. Rather, this type of scriptural meditation is about opening us up to the richness and depth of the love of God that is highly personal and fulfilling.
A regular time and place for Scripture reading, a journal to write down distracting thoughts, and a pad for our “to do” list that may come up as we learn how to listen, are helpful, practical ways to keep ourselves open to God’s voice.
Of course, our minds can deter us in other ways too. Johnson refers to different voices in the mind as being “committee members” who have distracting messages that play into our own unhealthy dynamics, causing us to feel guilty, overextend ourselves, get in our own way by feeling superior about helping others, or making us feel just plain lousy and futile. It is important to recognize these voices, name them, and then lay them aside, refocusing on what God is actually saying. Doing this is paramount, so that we can set aside negative associations with scriptural meditation and find freedom and relationship as we stay open to interacting fully with the very life of God.
- What distractions do you most often experience as you meditate on Scripture and pray? How do you handle them?
- Does Johnson’s portrayal of trying to have a “productive” time with God or “get results” from God sound familiar? How have you experienced this?
- Are you likely to recognize when you may fall into a more controlling, agenda-driven posture in your moments of prayer and meditation? What are the red flags?
- Does having a vital interaction with the reality of God’s very presence make this process of meditation somewhat exciting? How so?
The Destabilizing Bible
by Gray Temple
Temple is quick to tell us that the real presence of the risen Jesus Christ with us now is our ultimate authority. The Bible points to Jesus and is used by the Holy Spirit to speak to us, but until the Protestant Reformation it was never given the kind of “papal” authority that it has today in many churches. Temple’s thesis is that trying to struggle with the cognitive dissonance which Scripture presents us—just in terms of logical inconsistencies (e.g., the way Judas died, the creation happening in six days, etc.)—makes us force the Scriptures into a mold they were never intended to occupy.
Temple suggests that certainties gleaned erroneously from the Bible are often a way for the opinionated to avoid wrestling with issues in prayer and allowing the Holy Spirit to intervene and interpret. The Bible was not meant to reduce tension, but rather allows us to embrace uncertainty. As we remain flexible, we grow and mature as we bring everything into God’s presence. Temple asserts that if the Bible were meant to reduce tension, it would have been written far more like a rulebook, without so much ambiguity, and would have been far more systematic and clear. He encourages civil discussions instead of quarreling between Biblicist and non-Biblicist Christians, believing that both have received grace and ought to share it rather than sharing scorn and condemnation.
Viewing the entire revelation of God through Scripture (God’s revelation in Jesus Christ), Tradition (doctrine and creeds), and Reason (understanding gleaned through prayer and the Holy Spirit’s revelation) is a helpful guide. When all three line up, this congruence is good confirmation, and with this intact, reason is not discarded at the expense of the other two. As Temple declares, “When godly, humble, and eager servants of God discuss a matter prayerfully with open Bibles in their laps, they’re in for an adventure.”
- Have you ever discovered a scriptural truth from someone you might not have considered to be in your camp theologically? What was it?
- When have you struggled or wrestled with Scripture and found yourself growing?
- What do you think about Temple’s perspective that the risen Christ is our ultimate authority, and Scripture is a tool that God uses—not an authoritative rulebook to be defined in only one way?
- What kinds of generative possibilities might come from open, respectful dialogue between Biblicist and non-Biblicist Christians?
The Ancient Text: Nourishment for the Soul
by Gordon Smith
Gordon Smith gives us some important ways to engage the ancient text of Scripture in life-giving ways. The Scriptures are not a self-help book, not based on our own efforts, and not meant to be a dry, dogmatic set of rules. These kinds of perspectives do not nourish our souls and do not bring us into a life-changing encounter with Jesus. The Scriptures are never an end in themselves, Gordon reminds us. They are a means to the end of knowing, loving, and serving Jesus Christ. In order to have a life-giving, transformative experience as we engage with Scripture, he gives the following suggestions:
First, studying and engaging the text with thoughtfulness are important skills and should be utilized, especially as these skills encourage each person to be able to read and understand Scripture on his or her own.
Second, allowing the Bible to speak as we lift up our hearts with “childlike attentiveness” is key in allowing the text to ask us questions; slowing down and being patient listeners are important in this process.
Third, reading in community breaks down our assumptions and prejudices about a certain text and opens us up to the diversity of interpretation and meaning generated by the whole community of faith. Things we might never have considered in isolation come suddenly to life.
Fourth, our response to the text, if heartfelt, will necessarily involve a change in the way we live as we operate in obedience to the text.
Finally, rituals and practices are sacred moments when, together in community, we act out, as in the Lord’s Supper, the Word of God embedded within us.
Such practices of engagement with the Scripture fill the yearning in our hearts for a deeper knowledge and heartfelt relationship with the God of Jesus Christ.
- Which of the above practices comes most easily for you? Which of these practices do you find most difficult? Why do you think this is?
- Have you experienced situations in which it seemed as if the Scriptures were treated as an end in themselves? What kind of effect did this have on you?
- Did you ever have your own assumptions and prejudices come to light when you were able to read the Scripture in the context of the larger community of faith? If so, did this change your response with regard to Gordon’s point (fourth point above) about living out obedience in response to the text?
Word Become Flesh: Relating with God in Scripture
by Judith Hougen
Hougen shows us that Bible reading, often set apart from prayer as an exercise in memorization or accumulating information, can, when approached differently, become a relational experience with God. This kind of reading is the foundation of spiritual formation—where God’s story and our story link up. Head and heart must join together in the reading of Scripture so that it does not become cold and formulaic, but integral to hearing God’s voice and growing in relationship to Him. When we read with openness to the Holy Spirit, instead of “mastering” the Scripture, we allow “God’s Spirit to master us,” allowing ourselves to “be read by God.” (Nouwen, 2). In other words, in this receptive posture, I am learning how to “be” with God, instead of how to “do” for God. Reading the Scripture is not about amassing brownie points about how many Scriptures I can know or plough through. Reading the Scripture is about my “becoming present to God’s love for me.”
Practices found in the discipline of lectio divina help us learn how to “be” in God’s presence. The first, “Lectio: Taking Up the Scripture,” calls us to drink in the text while listening for a word or phrase that may be meaningful or that catches our attention. “Meditatio: Engaging with the Passage” gives us permission to read the text again with imagination and intellect that give rise to salient questions, such as, “Where does this word intersect with my life?” or “What questions or images do I have in relation to this text?” Eventually, slowly, even when we’re unaware of it, this open, meditative posture allows us to be transformed and molded by the message of God to us. “Oratio: The Deep Self Touched” is a time of expressing our longings to God and allowing God to become that longing. It is a time of communicating with words and in silence to the Author of the text just read. Finally, “Contemplatio: Resting in Silence” allows for quiet moments of resting with the text. Sometimes it is good to read the passage again, slowly and gently. Silence gives us space for our whole being to say yes to God’s word that is being formed within us.
To what end do we do this—to be able to love as Jesus loved in concrete, tangible ways in the world and to grow to see God’s presence, and live in God’s presence, in every aspect of our lives?
- How does the above process of lectio divina take us beyond the “brownie points for God” approach to Scripture whereby we simply accumulate a lot of Bible-truth, head knowledge?
- For some, lectio divina sounds too otherworldly or “spooky.” How does this process actually end up, for Hougen, being intensely practical or, in theological terms, essentially incarnational?
- Why is silence in God’s presence sometimes difficult? Do you think there is enough silence in our lives, in our churches, in our prayers today? What is it about us and about our culture that rushes to fill up empty, silent places that God might wish to fill instead?