Sunday, May 31, 2009

Be hearers of the Word, and not readers only

I sat in the shade on a campground in Northern California last summer, talking about the Christian life with a fellow counselor. He told me some of the story of his spiritual growth, describing how establishing regular Bible reading habits had greatly strengthened his spiritual life. He said that he had come the conclusion that this was essential to spiritual growth, and even though he had heard people downplay its importance and shrug it off as legalism, he didn't see "how anyone could grow spiritually without consistent, daily Bible reading." I had a brief, existential struggle before I replied. Do I point out how silly that statement seems in historical perspective, when this idea had obviously impacted this young man's life in a dramatic and heartfelt way? After my few seconds of internal angst, I think the reply I gave was something like, "You know, personal Bible reading has had a powerful effect on my spiritual growth as well; it's such an amazing privilege to have considering that through hundreds of years of church history, the majority of believers didn't have a copy of God's Word in their own language." I hoped that this communicated support for the habits that had shaped him, while at the same time gently pointing out that even illiterate people and those who have lived in times and places where it was not practically possible for them to have and read their own copy of the Bible did manage to grow spiritually somehow.

This launched me into reflection on how I think of "consuming" and interacting with the content of Scripture as an American Evangelical - and what other ways I could effectively experience the the inspired literature that reveals God's person, plan and principles.

My profs have more than once pointed out that when the letters of the New Testament were sent to their original recipients, they would have been read aloud to the church, not photocopied and passed out to everyone, or put up on a screen. (Both Xerox and Power Point would have been anachronisms at that point and for a long time afterward.) This was also how the majority of Jews would have taken in the OT writing: hearing them read aloud by a Rabbi. Owning a scroll would be way to expensive. Thus there may be some things in the way the letters were written that come across better in hearing the letter rather than looking at it on a page. I decided to explore this in a Sunday evening service at my church. So I practiced reading Ecclesiastes, then read it aloud from my trusty old NIV to the group that had gathered that night. Then I opened it up for questions and comments. It turned out to be quite an enjoyable and edifying experience. A visitor's questions led to a discussion of the gospel, and of God's love and grace, even towards those who wandered away. Not really where you plan to go when you open up to Ecclesiastes, but sometimes good conversations begin in a very roundabout way. And we read the Word in community, with the collected insights and reflections of our local church community. This seems to me a step better than consuming a book with only my personal thoughts and reactions to the content.

A couple weeks ago my pastor mentioned that he had made arrangements with a Bible media group to get audio cd's of the Bible in MP3 format, intended for people to put on their ipods or other media players. Wycliffe has been putting these files on solar-powered or hand-cranked players to take the words of Scripture to a lot of places it's never been before in our world. In our context, this group reasons that a lot of people say they don't read their Bibles because either A)They "don't have the time" or B)They don't like to read. So why not take away these excuses? Surely, you say, someone who is truly spiritually interested doesn't need things dumbed down and made more user-friendly and convenient to make them willing to take in Scripture content. But wait...what if now they're going to hear the Word, in a way a bit more akin to the original audience, rather than read it like most post-Gutenberg Christians. Okay, we miss out on the community aspect here; you can't win 'em all. But I'm excited to offer this to sixth-graders I know who are painfully slow in their reading, but show spiritual interest and just may listen.

The invention of the printing press and the spread of literacy did so much good for Christianity. When people can check the pronouncements of the church for correspondence with the teachings of Scripture, we really seem to get a lot closer to who God wants the people of God to be than when power over doctrine is solely in the hands of tradition and an educated elite. Thank God for movable type, and how it has shaped the movement of Christianity that has shaped me. And thank God for digital sound files (And even for the people who listened to the Bible on cassette tapes back in the ancient days of the '80's and '90's): may they increase our understanding and appreciation of Scripture and democratize Biblical knowledge for coming generations around the world. I'll be watching the mailbox at the church, waiting for those cd's to get here....

5 comments:

faithbornfromdoubt said...

Since I like it when people comment on my blog, I should at least comment on yours and let you know I read it.

I remember you telling me about that conversation about a year ago, but I enjoyed remembering it. I liked your reply. I would either argue or say nothing, almost certainly the latter. Your reply revealed the Sage in the poor bearded man.

I also liked your innovations for ministry. I sometimes feel the protests of those who feel irked at the perceived laziness of those who "don't have time to read their Bibles" but I have also run across too many teenagers who can barely read. When they do, they have difficulty understanding everything. We can complain about illiteracy, and I will complain by golly, but we have to accept it on some level at least.

Thanks for the enjoyable post

Bren said...

what a great answer to your friend. a lot of people wouldn't have been as sensitive or gracious. i really appeciate this post. as someone who has gotten frustrated in the past by what i perceived to be a "legalistic" perspective towards "daily quiet times" (ugh i really do detest that term), it is interesting that you point out that for the majority of christian history people didn't have their own personal copy of the written word. yeah, that would be true. so can you tell me when people did gather to listen to a letter or hear a rabbi read from the ot, how often they did that? was it everyday? weekly? thanks for sharing this with us nate. good stuff.

theone withabeard said...

Brenda, I'm not sure about the frequency of their readings. The OT narrative seems to note and emphasize so much when there are public readings of Torah, that I get the impression in those times it was far more rare than it should have been. The reading and exposition under Josiah and Ezra seem to be quite notable occurrences. As I understand it, there was a big shift during the exile from being temple-oriented to being Scripture-oriented, so from Ezra's time on I imagine it was more frequent.
In Deuteronomy the Word is viewed as something that should be a constant part of life for families, and was obviously a part of national religious ceremonies. I think that their oral culture allowed them to memorize and retain the content much better than we do, since we always have a printed page to go back to.
My thinking in this post is that we should be creative about how we interact with the Word, and introduce and welcome new ways for people to incorporate God's word into their lives. If reading the Bible for ten minutes a day and listening to a sermon at church is the greatest we can call people to, well, I'm glad they're doing that, but it should be coming into our minds and hearts in many different ways at many different times. The overall content of the Bible isn't boring, but if the means of receiving that content is boring to some people, then let's give them a new-fangled way to hear the Bible - that's kind of like the old-fashioned way, before we locked ourselves into the individualistic print-loving box. Not everybody in the world is as textually oriented as seminarians.

Bren said...

thanks, nate for your answer. i like your statement: "...it should be coming into our minds and hearts in many different ways at many different times." i certainly understand the importance of interacting and meditating on God's word regularly. i guess my issue in the past was the mentality that often went with the daily devotional concept and the box-like confinement of what that was supposed to look like, that rubbed me the wrong way. at any rate, you present some great points abt the need for finding different ways to engage those who otherwise aren't being engaged.

Austin said...

Ah! An advertisement for the Audio Hebrew Bible DVD I got a few years ago! Good thinking...