How to Read the Bible without Dealing with God

If you want to live well and to share wisdom with your children and your neighbors about how they can also live well, the Bible will chart a sound course.

If you are looking for inspiration or comfort or if you are preparing a speech, you will certainly want to lift some of the soaring phrases from the Psalms or a stirring descriptive passage from Isaiah to adorn your thinking.

If you are curious about the future or have strong ideas about politics, you’ll find gasoline-words in the Bible to support your position and to throw on any conversation to keep the flames dancing high.

It’s clear that we can add the Bible to our rhetorical tool-belt and never once be singed by its fiery truth. However, this is not the reason the Word has been given, and in Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading, Eugene Peterson has written a practical guide for those who want to approach Scripture in the manner suggested to the Apostle John in his Revelation:

The voice out of Heaven spoke to me again: “Go, take the book held open in the hand of the Angel astride sea and earth.” I went up to the Angel and said, “Give me the little book.” He said, “Take it, then eat it.”

Ingesting the Truth

John was not the first man in history to eat a book. Apparently, Jeremiah and Ezekiel also ingested truth, and like John, their words reveal the metabolized essence of having been in the presence of God.

In an era in which English-speaking people can select from a menu of Scripture texts, the challenge is for us to begin reading them–and then, to take the next step and begin “reading the Scriptures formatively, reading in order to live.” (xi) To illustrate the kind of reading he’s advocating, Peterson employs the delightful imagery of a dog working with fortitude on a bone superimposed upon an image from the book of Isaiah of a “lion growling over its prey.” Apparently, that Hebrew word for “growling” is usually rendered as “meditate,” as in Psalm 1 where the righteous meditate on the Law of the Lord “day and night.”

As readers of Truth, we are called to take the Word into our being in a way that changes us. In John’s case, we can see from the text that eating the Bible was not an entirely pleasant experience. His stomachache is an important reminder that we may not find everything to our liking as we try to digest the hard truths of Scripture or the parts that seem strange to us.

Scripture in Service to My Needs, Wants, and Feelings

This full-bodied entering into a text, essentially chewing on it, is the kind of reading that takes time and a lot more thought and focused attention than most of us are currently investing in our spiritual reading, and yet it is the words of Scripture, the sentences and paragraphs and trains of thought through which God has chosen to communicate His holiness, His wisdom, and His love to mankind.

Peterson floats a very plausible theory that readers of Scripture have replaced the inspired text with a new text of “the sovereign self.” Rather than taking the Truth of God’s Word into our jaws, and ultimately into “the tissues of our lives,” (20) we have replaced Father, Son, and Spirit with a new Holy Trinity.

The New Holy Trinity, Eugene Peterson, Eat This BookIf my needs become non-negotiable, if my wants have taken on the weight and urgency of a need, and if my feelings have become the sum total of who I am, then the Real Trinity and their communication to me through the Bible become nothing more than a tool in “service of [those] needs, wants, and feelings.” (33)

Rather than “privatizing” (46) Scripture by controlling and fragmenting its message, the believer is called to personalize its words and then to submit to their revelation of God’s character and will. The truth is that we are gathered into the narrative of Scripture; our story is enfolded into the overarching story of God’s people; and the “stories” that we share to illustrate a point are best seen as elements of one huge and coherent narrative.

Approaching the Bible with this in mind effects the way we read, teach, and apply its truth. I appreciated the clarity Peterson brought to five specific topics:

1.  The Reader as Exegete

Exegesis is a pretty intense term for “the discipline of attending to the text and listening to it rightly and well.” (50) In her role as exegete, the reader will pay rigorous attention to the words and their intent, proceeding with caution in order to get it right.

“Exegesis is loving God enough to stop and listen carefully to what He says.” (55)

2.  The Obedient Reader

Peterson compares his reading of Scripture to his reading of a running magazine. When he was actively involved in running as a habit, he never tired of reading about it. However, when a pulled muscle interrupted his running routine, he noticed that his reading came to a halt. In the same way, spiritual reading is “participatory reading.” If we are not participating in the reality of the Bible, we will not have as much interest in reading.  Our reading should be formed around this question:  “What can I obey?” (71)

“All right knowledge of God is born of obedience.”    ~John Calvin (69)

3.  Let the Reader Beware!

As the residents of Narnia warned that Aslan is “not like a tame lion,” Peterson warns that the Word of God will not be tamed by the reader. It is a living Word, and it was first spoken into a particular context, a specific time and place and language. It was not given to make our lives more convenient or more manageable.

“We want to get in on the great invisibles of the Trinity, the soaring adorations of the angels, the quirky cragginess of the prophets, and . . . Jesus.”  (87)

4.  Reading as a Way of Living

Peterson’s thoughts about lectio divina with its four components (reading, meditating, praying, and contemplating) rescue the concept from the ethereal and impractical by acknowledging that “they are not four discrete items that we engage in one after another in stair-step fashion. Rather than linear, the process is more like a looping spiral in which all four elements are repeated, but in various sequences and configurations.”  Tying all our spiritual disciplines back to the Truth of Scripture grounds us in a true living out of their essence rather than a self-conscious performance mentality.

5.  Reading in the Company of Translators

The story behind Eugene Peterson’s translation of The Message Bible links every teacher, preacher, and student of the Word to the role of translator. Against the backdrop of historical translations from Hebrew into Aramaic, Greek, and all the various English translations, Peterson found himself having to translate again, from the pulpit, into “American English.” The formal process that resulted in The Message Bible took ten years and formed his thinking about the importance of remembering the humble origins of the Bible in its original writing. Since the days of Tyndale’s translation which was intended for “the boy that driveth the plough,” many traditional and more modern translations left Tyndale’s plow boy in a cloud of dust with a kind of language that obscured the Spirit-given perspicuity of the text.

Dealing with God is Not Optional

God intends to speak with clarity to His people through a written Word. Therefore, in reading His Word in the way He intends, dealing with God is not optional. Participatory reading, reading that is formative, hands over all preconceived ideas about God and eats, chews, gnaws and receives, with humble delight the wild and untamed words of Scripture so that reading and living become one offering and one way of being with God in this world.

Many thanks to William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company for providing a copy of this book to facilitate my review, which, of course, is offered freely and with honesty.

I  am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. If you should decide to purchase Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading, simply click on the title (or the image) within the text, and you’ll be taken directly to Amazon. If you decide to buy, I’ll make a small commission at no extra cost to you.

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Knowable, Necessary, and Enough

I’ve heard it many times and from the most unexpected sources:

“I try to read the Bible, but . . . it doesn’t seem to say anything to me.  I don’t understand what I’m reading.  It doesn’t help me, so I end up quitting . . “

Set this response beside David’s from Psalm 119:

129 Your testimonies are wonderful;
Therefore my soul keeps them.
130 The entrance of Your words gives light;
It gives understanding to the simple.
131 I opened my mouth and panted,
For I longed for Your commandments.

The question Kevin DeYoung poses (and rigorously answers) in Taking God at His Word is this:  How does one go from Ho Hum (response #1) to Whole Hearted (response #2)?  If the goal of life is Psalm 119-zeal, what are the pre-requisites for getting there?

The truth is that, without exception, every woman I have heard confessing her lackluster response to the Word of God would pass any test for orthodoxy.  She would affirm that the Word of God is true, that what it demands of us is good, and that what it provides is also good.

It’s the feeling and the doing components that are missing in their lives.
There’s no delight:   “My soul keeps Your testimonies, and I love them exceedingly,” (Psalm 110:167).
There’s no desire:  “Open my eyes, that I may see wondrous things from Your law,” (Psalm 119:18).
There’s no dependency:  “I cling to Your testimonies!” (Psalm 119:31).

It is Kevin DeYoung’s goal to bring belief, feeling, and action together – not with a checklist (heaven, help us!), but with Truth.  What does the Bible say about itself that will convince the reluctant and indifferent reader to dig in and spend time in the Word?

For starters, we need a foundation of trust.  “You will not find anything more sure” than the written Word of God.  Then, using the memorable acronym, S-C-A-N, Taking God at His Word sets forth the attributes of Scripture that demonstrate why it’s worth your mind’s attention and your heart’s affection:

Sufficiency
I struggled off and on for years with the high-handed notion that I would rather hear from God through more personal and direct communication than I find in His written Word.  Hebrews 1 reveals that God has spoken to us through the Old Testament and, then, gloriously, through His Son, who is His final Word and Revelation.  J.I. Packer elaborates:

“While this kind of ‘immediate’ revelation has ceased, we should allow for ‘mediate’ revelation whereby God gives us new insights and applications — sometimes in surprising ways — but always through Scripture.”

This is HUGE in relation to relevance, because the times when I question the relevance of a book which claims to provide all that I need “for life and godliness” (II Peter 1:3) are the times when my life is . . . not exactly focused on godliness.  “The doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture invites us to open our Bibles to hear the voice of God.”

Clarity
God has spoken truth in story, in poetry, in apocalyptic style, and even in didactic correspondence.  Before Scripture was available as it is today, Moses was reminding Israel that God bends over backwards to communicate with His people.  While some portions of the Bible are clearer than others (anyone read Ezekiel lately?), the main teaching points for  knowledge, belief, and action are spelled out transparently.  Furthermore, if a topic is hazy in one context, it is made plain elsewhere.  So, a PhD in theology is a nice thing to have, but certainly not necessary in order to be a student of the Word.  “Ordinary people using ordinary means can accurately understand enough of what must be known, believed, and observed for them to be faithful Christians.”

Authority
The Bible gets the last word — ahead of science, human experience, church councils — and my cranky observations about life.  This dismissal of all conflicting truth claims is politically incorrect and out of step with the culture in sufficient measure to play havoc with your next office party, but it’s not a matter of aggravating people.  (Remember Anne Lamott’s great quote:  “It’s not always necessary to chop with the sword of truth.  It can also be used to point.”)  The example of the Bereans in Acts 17 is illustrative.  They compared the Apostle Paul’s words with the inspired Word “to see if it was so.” Likewise, it is to be our compass.

Necessity
“The heavens declare the glory of God,” but they don’t spell out the plan of salvation.  Those who would believingly follow God through Christ must know who He is and how to enter into the life He offers.  He has made this known through His Word in which “He speaks so that we can begin to know the unknowable and fathom the unfathomable.”

If this is all true, our right response to the Word of God is to harvest its wisdom and share its truth with confidence and boldness.  Jesus’ earthly ministry gives a pattern for living in light of a high view of Scripture.  He quoted it, referred to Old Testament characters as historical figures, and considered that whatever Scripture said, God had said.

Five words lifted from John 10:35, 36 speak volumes:  “The Scripture cannot be broken.”  Not because He was out to prove the point, but because He believed it to be true, He simply stated the fact that Scripture could not be dismissed or dissolved.  He addressed the matter with more intention in His Sermon on the Mount:  Teach it as it stands and obey what it says if you want to be great in my Kingdom!

On the way to assimilating a Psalm 119-level regard for the written Word of God, consider Paul’s words to Timothy.  With characteristic practicality, he lays out its uses:  teaching, reproof, correction, training in righteousness.  Underlying this is its amazing origin — God-breathed, the very words of the Almighty — and every day, when we open its pages, the Bible offers the privilege of taking God at His Word.

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