The last two weeks and this week, we’re previewing my new Bible study, which is available now on Amazon.com. I will be using it this fall with the wonderful people who attend the adult forum hour at my church. If you’re looking for a similar offering for your church or Bible study group, I hope you will give P.E.A.C.H. an audition. Two weeks ago we previewed the preface, last week we previewed Session 1, and two we preview session 2 of the five week study.
“E” stands for “Encounter.” After you pray, read your chosen passage. Your prayer has readied you not just for a simple reading, as you might engage a novel, but for an encounter. An encounter presumes two parties interacting in the transaction, and such is the case in our study of scripture. The text itself, enlivened by the power of the Holy Spirit, is one party, and we are the other. Some commentators go so far as to say the text “reads” us as much as we read the text. In other words, the text draws us in to the life it describes so we become a part of it, even as it becomes a part of us. In this way, reading the Bible is very much like Holy Communion, in which we dwell in Christ, even as Christ dwells in us.
The text of the Bible is not simply ink on the page; it is a window to the experience of our spiritual ancestors who did the best they could with the limits of human language to describe something beyond words. These spiritual ancestors are alive in the power of the resurrection; they are members of the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us, but to whom we still connect through the eternal love of God. The Holy Spirit activates their witness in our lives when we study their words. That’s the encounter.
We make ourselves available to the encounter through prayer and a few simple steps.
Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” (Acts 8:27b-31a; full story 8:26-40)
Read the passage out loud. Allow your face and body to feel the words: the breath coming from lung and diaphragm; the sounds from vocal cords, tongue, and lips; the pitch and timbre from your own unique physical presence. You don’t need to perform the text like a Shakespearean actor, but do notice the choices you make. These are choices that are often invisible in silent reading. How does a character say a particular line of dialogue? Is she angry or curious or indifferent? By reading aloud, we force ourselves to make these choices, oftentimes without conscious thought. And without even trying, we find ourselves interpreting the text.
Reading aloud slows us down. We can read much faster in our minds because our brains skip words, even whole sentences, once we think we’ve gotten the gist of whatever we’re reading. But reading aloud forces us to read every single word, to acknowledge punctuation, and to struggle with names and places that often mean more than we realize.
Reading aloud brings us in line with the general practice of the day when the books of the Bible were written. Paul’s letters to the churches of Greece and Asia Minor were not passed around from person to person. They were read aloud in gatherings much like we do today (though they most likely read larger chunks than we do, if not the entire letters in one go).
Look at the story of Philip and the eunuch from Ethiopia. Philip hears him reading the prophet Isaiah while the eunuch is seated alone in his chariot. And this gives Philip his entrance into dialogue.
O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock! (Psalm 137:8-9)
Every encounter with the Bible is more fruitful when we bring to it our authentic selves, and this includes our emotional reaction. Don’t allow your preconceived notions about how you think you should feel about the Bible ruin the authentic encounter. If the text makes you revolted, allow yourself to feel revulsion.
In the passage above, the psalmist really does wish for babies heads to be bashed against rocks – a horrifying image. But if we soften the image or, as many churches do, leave out the verses entirely in our public readings, we do not receive the fullness of the psalmist’s authentic feelings. This horrific desire comes at the end of a psalm decrying the exile in Babylon. The psalmist has wept his or her eyes dry because the people of Judah have been taken from their land. Does this justify infanticide? Certainly not. The psalmist is simply giving voice to the desire within a prayer to God.
If we are afraid to tell God the truth about our feelings, we’ll never master telling anyone else. The end of Psalm 137 is revolting, so it’s all right to feel revolted. The Bible contains copious bloodshed, even genocide. Don’t think you somehow have to be OK with everything that happens in the Bible in order to be OK with God.
Of course, revulsion is only one authentic response to the texts of the Bible, and hopefully a rare one. If the text makes you question, feel confusion. If the text makes you peaceful, dwell in that peace. If the text makes you laugh, then laugh! The Bible is funnier than we give it credit for. But the humor is often hidden behind layers of translation, culture, and monotone reading.
In the end, feel whatever you feel, and offer your feelings as part of your participation in the moment of encounter.
It’s so easy to get distracted while reading the Bible because many editions clutter the page with so much extra stuff. Besides chapter and verse numbers (which are not original to the text), you’ll see section headers, footnotes, annotations, cross-references, inset commentary boxes, red letters and black letters, and more! The original sources had none of this. Some didn’t even have spaces between the words.
There’s a time and a place for the annotations and commentaries, but the primary moment of encounter is not it. If the clutter of the modern biblical page distracts you, try one of two things. First, find an edition that only has chapters and verses. (Ones without even them do exist, but they are rare.) Second, using the internet and a word processor, cut and paste your chosen passage into an empty document. Delete the verse numbers. Double space the text. Leave a lot of white space in the margins. Print out this pristine version and use it for your initial reading.
The initial encounter is not the time to interrogate the text or put it through a series of critical hermeneutics. (That will come in the next letter of P.E.A.C.H.) In the first encounter, simply bring yourself to the text. Open yourself as wide as possible to the fullest range of expectations and emotions. Read as you would a bedtime story to a child – without agenda, without too much holy heaviness, but lightly and with much wonder.
1. What is your favorite book (not book of the Bible, just a book in general) – the one you’ve read a dozen times that has never gotten old? What do you like about it? Why do you keep coming back to it?
2. What is your experience of listening to scripture being read aloud in church? How do most readers/lectors approach the text? How would you approach the text differently in the context of Bible study rather than public worship?
3. Perform one or more of the following passages as if they were miniature plays. What choices do you have to make? How does this practice deepen your encounter with scripture?
• Jesus and the boy with the spirit (Mark 9:14-29)
• Jesus and the Samaritan woman (John 4:5-26)
• Jesus’ encounter with Pontius Pilate (John 18:33-38)
• The road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35)
• Or choose your own passage.
4. What story of the Bible revolts you? What story confuses you? What story brings you peace?
5. What does it mean to bring your authentic self to an encounter with our sacred texts?
That does it for our preview of PEACH: A Bible Study About Bible Study. The final three sessions, Atmosphere, Charge, and Humility can be found in the Bible study book available for purchase on Amazon.com.