Beyond all the techniques for reading, the most important thing you bring to the text is questions. The kinds of questions you ask of a text determine to a large extent the kinds of answers you get back.
So, in honor of our election season, here’s the thing: It’s about God, stu…, um inquiring reader.
This should seem obvious. And at one level it is. In my experience, however, we tend to read prioritizing a different set of questions. Alexander Campbell, for instance, asked the question, “What was the ancient order of things and how do we restore that in today’s world?” That’s a religious question to be sure, but only indirectly a question about God.
Campbell’s question is not so important to many of us today. We tend to ask questions of self-help. How will the Bible strengthen my life? My life becomes the key interpretative question to understanding Scripture. We might say that this is a spiritual reading of Scripture (though I have my doubts sometimes. It appears to me to be more of a psychological reading), but it is still not directly about God.
When we start with my life, two things typically result from our readings, neither of which are good. We spiritualize and/or moralize. Because much of Scripture was not written to strengthen the interior life of the individual, we have to spiritualize it–turn into something other than what it is. Or we turn it into a variety of moralisms– a set of expectations or patterns for behavior in each and every circumstance. Sometimes the Bible is interested in this, but not nearly as often as we think.
So, before I ask the questions what kind of church should I organize, or how should I feel about my life, or what should I do today, the question should be what is this text saying about God? And second, how does this compare, contrast, fit with other things the Bible says about God?
My favorite example here is the story of Jacob and Esau. Because we have short attention spans, we chop this story up into so many episodes, either in sermons or children’s Bible classes, or our own personal readings of the Bible. And when we do, we feel the need to make points or lessons at the end of each episode. So, we moralize about birthrights and exchanging short term gratification for long term blessing. And when we do, we blunt the scandal of the story and lose track of the God whose promise is inscrutable and unmanageable. It’s not until the end of the story, when Jacob says to a merciful Esau, “you appear to me as God,” that we have something to say about the meaning of the story. And its about God.
So, here’s a suggestion. As I suggested in my post last week, take a book of the Bible to stay in for awhile. Start with a narrative text. Go with Exodus or 1 Samuel or Matthew or Luke-Acts. Keep a journal where, for awhile, you respond to only two questions. What is this text saying about God? What would it mean to participate in God’s life? The second question is tricky because we will still want to make this primarily about me. Notice, the focus of the question is still on God. And often this participation is primarily about a “we,” and not first about a “me.”