Reading the Bible as Scripture

As mentioned in a previous entry, I am enjoying the rigors of an online Master’s program in Spiritual Formation and Leadership through Spring Arbor University. My next few posts will be reflections on our annual January Residency requirement. What follows are the beginnings of my thoughts from our most recent one. To wit…

It has been a rare occasion indeed when I have walked away so wrecked from an encounter than from this year’s January Residency. All of the reasons for this will, quite possibly, never be totally clear to me. What I can unpack with any sense of intelligibility is what follows.

Particularly appropriate to, and ironically illustrative of, our time with Dr. Robert Mulholland was a 2-day spiritual retreat under the leadership of Dr. Wil Hernandez. The inner nourishment provided by means of silence, community, liturgy and prayer served as an ideal foundation, the soil as it were, into which words about the Word might be planted. And that was the essential point of the entire week: how the word is ever the Word or Logos to us, God as text, the place of transforming encounter with God. My continuing reflections seek to answer some of the questions posed to us in a communal song, “The Summons”:

Will you come and follow me if I but call your name?

Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same?

Will you let my love be shown, will you let my name be known?

Will you let my life be grown in you and you in me?

Like millions before me, my initial introduction to the Scriptures was welcome, warm and winsome. Words fell effortlessly off the page to meet eyes lusting after more truth than I could possibly understand, let alone live. Jesus seemed alive in the gospel narratives. Paul’s careful exegesis of life, church, Jesus and their interrelationship was at once intriguing and alluring. The Psalms whispered or shouted in turn their voice of blessing, comfort, anger or woe and the Prophets proclaimed loud and clear God’s desire for holiness of life and faithfulness in worship.

Numerous study Bibles and countless marking pens later and I was neither appreciably closer to God nor to God-likeness. In fact, it was actually starting to become boring and stale. I found reading Shakespeare or Gerard Manley Hopkins more satisfying, theoretical physics more challenging and novels interpreting Arthurian legend more engaging. It seems that I had fallen under the same spell as any other post-Enlightenment, rational, Western individualist and treated the Bible much like the DVD Player or X-box instruction manual. What happens when I get it mastered? What then? Should I move on to more “difficult” material than God? When all the pieces are finally put together, as is the intent of such an approach, will I be more like Jesus? More fulfilled? More?

Dr. Mulholland set out to address this among other issues related to the role of Scripture in the process of spiritual formation. He was tacitly engaging, consistently interesting and a model of the interplay between keen intellect and deep faith. How could this not be a challenging experience!? In the words of Thomas Merton (a favorite author of Mulholland), “it is of the very nature of the Bible to affront, perplex, and astonish the human mind. Hence the reader who opens the Bible must be prepared for disorientation, confusion, incomprehension perhaps outrage” (Thomas Merton, Opening the Bible, pg. 13). Mulholland sets out to address why this is so.

Of particular interest to me were Bob’s (see how I did that? I waited before being so presumptive) stories and analogies which richly illustrated his thoughts. As a Presbyterian church music director I appreciated his analogy of Scripture as a symphony – in this case the Third of Beethoven – by which we might come to understand the heart and intentions of a God made “real” in a musical score. It is not a dry, academic exercise. It is the evocative dance of lovers set to the music of heaven. God’s heart is best seen in poetry and art than prose and mechanics. As Bob describes, the Scripture is iconographic in that it provides for us a living, multivalent window into the sacred.

In a sense, rather than having our nose pressed to a book for study we were taken high above the Scripture to see it as birds see the ground. The knowledge we seek is not a factual mastery of text but the relational subtleties of experiential knowing. To “know” our spouse in a biblical way seldom seems to translate to our knowing God in a “biblical” way: a visceral, sensual, vulnerable reality between two lovers in communication.

Part 2 later…Rob

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