How Do You Read the Bible?
What if meditation was the key to reading the Bible?
I was in high school and attending something called a Summer Institute at Eastern Michigan University. Rising high school seniors could attend the institute in a number of disciplines. I attended this two week experience for music. It was an amazing couple of weeks and I met some really fun people.
It was at this Summer Institute that I was first exposed to meditation. We sat on yoga mats and were told to clear our minds. Then we focused on breathing. It wasn't long before most of us were asleep, myself included. I didn't really get the whole meditation thing.
Over my years in ministry I have come to love Eugene Peterson. The translation of the Bible that he lead, The Message, has been salve to my weary soul. His books have inspired and challenged me to know end. He is, in so many ways my spiritual mentor. I want to be a pastor the way he was. I want to love well and write and preach and care for my neighbors.
As I was reading his beautiful little text, Eat This Book, I was shocked by the discovery that he was in many ways primarily writing a book about meditation. Eat This Book is a book about spiritual reading. The primary question that Peterson wrestles with is this, “How do we read the Bible?”
Many of us read the Bible as though it is a rule book or an encyclopedia. We mine it for information that we can then use. The thing is, that's not what the Bible is. The Bible isn't a textbook or a set of rules or a history text. No, the Bible is the collection of people's interactions with the Divine.
Does the Bible have rules? Yes. Does the Bible have information? Yes. Does the Bible have history? Yes.
But, the Bible is not really any of those things. It is qualitatively different. It is a collection of stories that are all used to tell one story. This is a magnificent story about a God whose engages people with “love-in-action”. So many other god stories are about capricious gods seeking to win the affection of their adherents. It's hard to tell the difference in those stories between the gods and the people. The stories of this God are similar but different. What I find different is that they are stories of a God who takes the initiative through love-in-action, ultimately becoming like the very ones God seeks to save.
As I was saying, Peterson is writing about how to read the Bible focuses his attention on meditation. This punched me between the eyes because ever since that day at EMU I have never been a fan of meditation. It always seemed to be nothing more than a good excuse to have a nap. (Now that I think about it, perhaps I should have leaned into it sooner!)
Peterson writes, “Meditation is the primary way in which we guard against the fragmentation of our Scripture reading into isolated oracles. Meditation enters into the coherent universe of God's revelation. Meditation is the prayerful employ of imagination in order to become friends with the text. It must not be confused with fancy or fantasy.”
Why does he write this?
He writes this because meditation of the Scripture breaks us free from our approach to it as a rule book or encyclopedia or history text. When we study it, we break it down into atomistic pieces and as a result can fragment the text beyond recognition. This, I think, is one of the reasons that we have seen such a spiritual degradation in our American evangelical context. We read certain verses in isolation from one another in such a way that we think they exist in a vacuum. But, the verses of the Bible exist in an organic connection to one another. We need to let them into our lives.
As Peterson writes, we need the Scriptures to become our friends.
You don't befriend a person by learning all their key facts.
Know, you befriend a person by being with them. You get to know them beyond their bare details.
Have you ever been to a bad funeral? I have. Bad funerals are the worst. A bad funeral is one where the officiant clearly doesn't know the person who has died. They simply relate some facts about the person and then read a few Bible verses and that's that.
I've also been to some really good funerals. These are funerals where those who speak knew the person. They tell stories and often there is laughter. But, they also communicate to those there what was most important to the person who passed away. These funerals are the good because there is a depth of friendship that permeates the whole experience.
Meditation on Scripture is the act of getting to know the text.
You read it. You meditate on it. You ponder it. You wrestle with it. You let your imagination run with it.
The primary Hebrew word in the Old Testament that we translate as “meditate,” is hagah. It carries the idea of murmuring, pondering, imagining. It can also have this idea of “make like” or “to compare.” It's interesting to consider these latter ideas.
When we meditate on the Scripture and we allow our holy imagination to become engaged perhaps it brings us to a place where we might be able to begin making this world like the kingdom of God? Perhaps we bring a little heaven on earth if we spent more time meditating on the Scriptures?
As I learn more about the practice of meditating on the Scripture I find that it shapes my view of the world. I become more hopeful. I become less cynical. More and more I see the world through a lens of grace and mercy and love.
Perhaps if pondered this text more and studied it a little less, we would become more loving?
May we ponder together this beautiful story of the loving-in-action God!
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