Lingering with the Bible

What are your views on Scripture? I’ve been thinking about this question quite a bit the past few days, for a couple reasons. First, along with colleagues from across the ELCA, I’ve been reading If God Still Breathes, Why Can’t I?: Black Lives Matter and Biblical Authority, by Dr. Angela Parker. Dr. Parker is a biblical scholar of African descent who interrogates scriptural authority, particularly toxic interpretations of infallibility that have been deeply influenced by white patriarchy.  I appreciated her critique of the ways in which scholars are trained [and then turn around and train others] to believe that biblical exegesis is objective and neutral–that the “truth” of the Bible is uniform–and that one’s own embodied identity has no place in exegesis [especially if that body is not a white male body]. She argues strongly that our own context matters deeply for the way we read the Bible, and that it is only when we bring our whole selves to biblical interpretation that we can experience the living God who awaits us there through the power of the Holy Spirit. We simply can’t talk about the Bible being “inspired” while she and others still can’t breathe. The loving, saving breath of the living God is for all to breathe, not just some. It’s a great book.

Then, a few days ago, one of my colleagues, Professor Troy Troftgruben, who was installed into the Walker Chair of Biblical Theology, gave a fabulous installation address titled “The Spirituality of Exegesis,” which I am still thinking about today.

Troy proposed that we think about exegesis as a “spiritual practice,” with three components: dialogue with God; listening for God; and discernment about the will of God. He argued that reading the Bible is a critical practice for Christians–and not because we are “supposed to,” but because, in the words of Eugene Peterson, we fall into a “sappy, soapy, and self-indulgent spirituality” without being grounded in Scripture. But sadly, too many of us either don’t ready the Bible at all or skim it quickly; Troy suggested that the greatest obstacle to studying the Bible is the belief that “I already know what the text says.” But, when we have that attitude, we miss out on so much. He quoted Rachel Held Evans, who said that when we are curious [when reading the Bible], we will learn something new; and then, when we are persistent, we will be inspired.

In my hearing, the overarching point of the lecture was a call to linger in Scripture, which is very countercultural in our current society, where attention spans are shrinking, social media scrolling is ubiquitous, and we all are conditioned to make snap judgments. But, this simply doesn’t work with the Bible. In what was my favorite line of the whole address, he made the comparison between lingering with Scripture and enjoying good chocolate or fine wine, arguing that in all cases, “wolfing it down just won’t do.”

I know that there are many people who simply reject the Bible altogether. It is too patriarchal, there are too many passages that are exclusive and unwelcoming, it lends itself too easily to weaponization, it’s outdated and no longer relevant, it’s oppressive. Choose your excuse.

The wholesale dismissal is tidy, quick, and easy, but it also is superficial and one-dimensional, and it misses the heart of what the Bible is, which is, in Luther’s words, the cradle of Christ; and even more expansively, a faithful witness to the living God–a witness that surprises us, challenges us, and even more, inspires and transforms us.

The Bible is not an answer book, a history book, or a book of great quotes, where you can dive in and pull one out at random to stand alone. It is an invitation issued to us by the Great Lover of the universe through the power of the Holy Spirit into an ongoing relationship of deep love and commitment [and sometimes frustration and confusion!] that lasts a lifetime. Simply put, scriptural study is a precious opportunity to linger–intimately, lovingly–with God.

All of this reminds me of one of my very favorite quotes, from Rainer Marie Rilke, which I know I have shared before. He also talks about the power of lingering–but using the language of patience and “living the questions.” I close with his words, because I think they also speak to the discipline of reading the Bible for a lifetime, not for a moment.

“I beg you, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

Such good thoughts as we prepare for the season of Lent.

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