Reading


Yes, that is a quote from 1 Thessalonians 5, so you can skip looking it up. No thanks necessary.

Received this email from a student, re: my Religions of the World course.

It is very difficult for me to take
these religions seriously. I honestly feel that most people in this
course are pretty much BS-ing when they talk about how amazed and
fascinated they are about these things. It’s writing what the
professor wants to hear instead of how they really feel. I have
actually talked to some students who have agreed this is the case. I
thought that by being honest and giving my genuine point of view was
better than sugar coating it, but that is often not the case in
school, as I have learned over the years. I will put my own feelings
aside in the future and only state facts. Hopefully that will help. I
honestly do not appreciate these other religions because I am a strong
Christian and God is a jealous God and does not find these other
“religions” to be at all appreciative. That’s just how I feel. I
cannot praise a religion that worships any God but the one I believe
is the ONLY one who exists. That is my struggle. I hope you understand.

Sincerely,

J. Doe, who really wants to get an A in the course without compromising her beliefs.

And, for what it’s worth, my response:

Well, I do understand. I myself am a licensed minister in the American Baptist Church of Vermont/New Hampshire. I don’t want or expect anyone to necessarily “like” any of these religions; there is much in them that doesn’t jive with Christianity. I want people to engage them, but we cannot engage them unless we know about them and look at what there is in common, as well as what the differences are. Like it or not, this is a world that is far more complicated than we Christians typically like to admit. Practitioners of religion – any religion – have got to learn to be sensitive to people of other faiths, even if they totally disagree on points of theology. This course is NOT a theology course. There is a difference between studying theology and studying religions; studying religions is studying how humans express in their own cultures their relationship to whatever is sacred to them. Studying theology is studying what humans say about God. We haven’t been doing that, although it has come up in discussion posts, which is fine, but I am not encouraging this. I do not believe we can have productive conversations about what humans think about God unless we know something about what they say and think about their world.

Part of being a Christian is being able to recognize the good. No less than Paul tells us to “Question everything, but hold on to the Good” (see 1 Thessalonians, chapter 5 I think). We can’t do that unless we learn where goodness and beauty lies, and I am of the persuasion that it does not only lie in Christianity; far from it. Genesis tells us that God the creator created our world as very good. I am trying to train students to recognize the good wherever it appears, and in this course in particular, being able to see the good and the beautiful in other religious traditions. Of course there is much that is not good; the dark side of religion is present in all of them, and this includes Christianity. I don’t know about you, but I have seen enough Christian-bashing to last me a lifetime, and I believe that throughout our history, we have deserved much of it. It is not a perfect faith. It is not “just fine the way it is.” God himself may be perfect and completely good. But Christianity is not, and I would prefer not to turn the faith into an idol that replaces God himself. It’s bad enough that this happens to the Bible.

In being critical of other religious traditions, we don’t have to resort to sarcasm and vitriol. That’s what automatically happens when we don’t understand something, usually due to our own unwillingness to be challenged or shook up a little, whether it’s in the voting booth or in conversations about religion. I hope to be giving students the tools to be critical of what they disagree with without coming across as bigoted know-it-alls who think anyone who thinks otherwise can go to hell, because they aren’t going anyplace else anyway.

So I do want you, and others in the class, to be honest. If you honestly can’t see anything the reflects the good and the beautiful in Shinto or Islam or whatever, I want you to tell me that. But you must be very specific. Condemning a Shinto garden simply because it’s not a Christian one isn’t going to cut it. Condemning the Qur’an without reading any of it simply because it’s not  New Testament isn’t going to work.

[some specific comments about student’s essays]
Peace, Benedict
Thy Word is like a seductress at my feet?

Thy Word is like a seductress at my feet?

Ran across this piece today on Walletpop.com: Flashy ‘Bible’ seeks to inspire the ADHD generation.” Fascinating stuff, and tons of food for thought. The publisher’s basic idea is to produce a New Testament that the visual learner (and, evidently, visual reader) can connect with and relate to. No doubt a second motivation is to capitalize on the popularity of Thomas Nelson’s Revolve Bible with a rival book. The reviewer, Bruce Watson, has this to say about it:

Ab Forlaget’s Bible Illuminated seems designed for people with a total lack of imagination and only a tangential interest in scripture. The text is presented in a three-column style, with highlights around important passages, and key sections reprinted in large-type insets. All in all, the style should be familiar to any reader of Playboy, Harper’s Bazaar, or Us. Essentially, it looks like a fashion mag that has been annotated by a not-particularly-bright high school student.

Bible Illuminated is, as Watson points out, yet another example of how Bibles are produced for niche markets. But usually, these other bibles at least usually “look” like Bibles. Take the very popular Women’s Devotional Bible, for example, or the Mom’s Study Bible, or The Green Bible. These appeal to specific audiences with particular concerns and ideologies that these Bibles highlight and provide commentary on. But they “look” like Bibles in that they are about the same size as most others, actually say “Bible” on the cover, have nice, thin, crisp paper, and are formatted in easily recognized “Bible-style” layout and typeface. The media and the published form of the media tell the reader before even opening the book up that “this is a Bible, and you should read it as a Bible.” There is a material “iconicity” that these books depend on for their use and authority. (Shamless plug alert! Go to the Iconic Books Project Blog at http://iconicbooks.blogspot.com/ , another blog I contribute to, for tons of stuff on the iconicity of books in general, including this new Bible, and world scriptures in particular.)

Like these other “niche Bibles,” Bible Illuminated is oriented to a specific audience: those for whom the only reading they do is the high-gloss eye candy mass produced in pop culture. It’s iconic aspect screams out “Read me like you were reading Cosmo or Maxim!” It is a “hybrid” text that co-opts the material and iconic element of one type of reading in order to seduce the reader into reading something from a totally different iconic plane. In effect, Bible Illuminated is telling us to read the Bible the same way a sixteen-year-old “reads” Playboy or Seventeen.

What is fascinating, though, is that so much of the content in the Bible is tailor-made for a presentation like this. Good preachers interpret the text through verbal and semantic description of the content that makes the text come alive. An image accompanying the Book of Revelation, for example, depicts a young man in flames, apparently trying to hurl himself into a flooded street. One can only imagine what image from pop culture accompanies the story of David and Bathsheba; Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, maybe? Who do they tab to play Hosea’s wife Gomer? Jenna Jameson? The possibilities are endless.

The image of “the Bible” and what it is supposed to look like, feel like, read like, and so on is, I think generally disconnected with much of its content. A hybrid book like the Bible Illuminated may, in some ways, make parts of the Bible that are usually skipped over actually come to life not just for the ADHD generation, but for us old fogeys as well.

St. Benedict reading a bookBooks can be holy objects, and reading is a spiritual discipline. I thought I would here present some thoughts from the Christian ascetic and monastic tradition on books and reading.

1. Antony was so attentive at the reading of the Scripture lessons that nothing escaped him: he retained everything and so his memory served him in place of books. (Life of Antony)

2. The books read at vigils should have divine authority: the Old and New Testaments and explanations of them given by recognized and orthodox fathers. (Rule of St. Benedict)

3. During Lent, they should each receive a book from the library that they are to read straight through to the end. (Rule of St. Benedict)

4. On Sundays, all should devote themselves to reading, except those who are assigned to special duties. (Rule of St. Benedict)

5. Reading is bound to silence. … Constant and attentive reading done devoutly purifies our inner self. (Peter of Celle, The School of the Cloister)

6. I consider a room without reading to be a hell without consolation, an instrument of torture without relief, a prison without light, a tomb without ventilation, a ditch swarming with worms, a strangling noose, the empty house of which the Gospel speaks. (Peter of Celle, On Affliction and Reading)

7. Reading is the food, light, lamp, refuge, solace of the soul, the spice of all spiritual flavors. (Peter of Celle, On Affliction and Reading)

and finally…

8. Study is hard work. It is so much easier to find something else to do in its place than to stay at the grind of it. We have excuses aplenty for avoiding the dull, hard, daily attempt to learn. There is always something so much more important to do than reading. There is always some excuse for not stretching our souls with new ideas and insights now or yet or ever. (Sister Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict)

Word Made Flesh.Whatever else Christian faith may be, it is incarnational at its core. It is common for us to think of this in the classical expression of “God becoming man,” but the gospel of John speaks of it in terms that are not spoken of nearly as much. For John, the incarnation is the Word becoming Flesh.

I offer up some thoughts of reflection on the idea of Word becoming flesh.

Flesh is passionate and desirous.

But it is not only passionate and desirous for other flesh, but also for knowledge.

Knowledge for us comes in the form of Words, and we are oversaturated with words in the twenty-first century.

Knowledge is erotic. The Bible tells us as much in its Hebrew expression, and the classical Greeks knew this to be the case in Homer as well.

To know something is to regard it, and as Jane Hirshfield notes, “what we regard must seduce us, and we it, if we are to continue looking.” The power of the Word is in its power to seduce us and to awaken desire for knowledge.

Adrienne Rich: “I dreamed you were a poem, I say, a poem I wanted to show someone…”

Rich, again:

What kind of beast would turn its life into words?
What kind of atonement is this all about?
-and yet, writing words like these, I’m also living.

and:

I have written so many words
wanting to live inside you
to be of use to you

The Desert Fathers of the Christian tradition believed the flesh to be evil on account of its capacity for passion and desire, and so they fled into the desert, long the archetype of dryness, infertility, and anti-passion. Yet it is in this environment where passion and desire are awakened most. They also had a profound mistrust of the written word, and yet their own words were assiduously recorded onto parchments. It was as if the Fathers knew the eroticism of knowledge and the desire for the Word.

The connection between parched desire and parchment may be more than coincidental.

stjohnchrysostom.jpgNothing makes one so dizzy as human reasoning, which sees everything from an earthly point of view, and does not allow illumination from above. Earthly reasoning is covered with mud. Therefore, we have need of streams from above, so that, when the mud has fallen away, whatever part of the reason is pure may be carried on high and may be thoroughly imbued with the lessons taught there. This takes place when we manifest both a well-disposed soul and an upright life.

St. John Chrysostom
Homily 24 (John 2:23-3:4), A.D. 390

Medieval ScrollI am often asked how I read Scripture, what my guiding principle is. The most recent occasion was one Sunday afternoon after I delivered this message to a church in Massachusetts. I usually kind of stumble over the question, because I haven’t actually given much thought to it, and because I know that my approach to reading Scripture is not at all consistent. Sometimes I read it “academically,” sometimes devotionally, sometimes homiletically, sometimes as lectio, and so on. But I’ve been thinking about it since Sunday for some reason, mostly because the gist of the question I was asked was along the lines of “is there any difference between reading the Bible as an academic in the field of religion and the Bible and the way you read it when you’re working on a sermon?”

After reflecting on the question for a few weeks now, I still don’t really have a good answer, but in trying to come up with one I’ve been able to give some some serious self-examination on it. This is still pretty much all off the cuff.

I think that what it comes down to is that many, many people think that we all read in just one way, and that this way is the way we all read. That way, of course, is to read to gather “information.” But the problem is that we simply can’t read everything that way with any production, and in fact we don’t; most of us do not read novels the way we read a newspaper or an encyclopedia entry, or a self-help book, or a technical manual. When we read for “information” we have no investment in the material itself. There’s no spiritual investment, and no emotional investment, and perhaps not even any physical or material investment, given the preference that most seem to have for electronic and virtual media for informational reading.

Because of this, people are under the impression that information and data and facts is all that reading counts for. But not every book is an encyclopedia of information, and this is especially so with sacred works and scriptures. We can’t read the Bible like an encyclopedia all the time, although of course we might have reason to do that for various purposes (like Bible classes or church indoctrinations, and so forth). But even in these environments, reading the Bible only in the way we would read an encyclopedia article really is to distort and misread it, because it overemphasizes the literalness of the ipsissima verba, the actual words on the page, at the expense of the vox or “voice” of the text that is only revealed through a different kind of reading.

This kind of reading is poetic and metaphoric. In order to get to what the Bible says in any given passage, we need to read it as if we’re reading poetry. We have to be able to hear its voice and not simply see its words. Realizing that Jesus’ parables are metaphors that draw from the stock of the real life of a first century agricultural society dominated by imperial forces in both local and regional governance opens up his parables in ways that “informational” and “factual” readings cannot. Realizing that the Revelation’s descriptions of armies of locusts are neither literal nor analogical (meaning they’re not real armored bugs or John’s misunderstandings of what tanks look like) but a metaphorical, poetic stock description of massively sized destructive armies that comes from the Hebrew Bible frees us from wooden and deterministic readings of the text.

So the way I read the Bible, and other scriptures like the Qur’an, the Mishnah, the Vedas, Avesta, and whatever else, is mostly a poetic reading. Whatever “information” these texts contain is largely incidental. The ancient writers and compilers of Scriptures did not focus on our modern ways of persuasion by information, facts, and data, and while this type of rhetorical persuasion is probably the dominant strategy of authors today, we can’t expect their ancient counterparts to have cared about the same.

Cover of Davis McCombs, Ultima ThuleI’m sitting here doing a little reading from Davis McCombs’ Ultima Thule, a collection of the author’s poems inspired by Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. Told from the vantage point of a slave cavern guide to tourists of Mammoth Cave in the 19th century, these poems are stunning reflections on beauty and provide some pretty awesome metaphors for life, spirituality, the whole bit. As a religionist and student of scriptures who also views the natural world in metaphoric terms for deep spirituality and community ethics, I was particularly taken by the poem “Tours:”

Tours

The services of a guide cannot, as a rule,
be dispensed with; we alone can disentangle
the winding passageways. I will admit
the tours for me grow burdensome.
How long must I endure their need to fill
with talk the natural silence? I have heard
it all before, their proposed improvements:
Widen the trails so that two carriages
may pass abreast … Here, a capacious ballroom.
Mere fancies. And yet beneath their words
I have discerned a kind of rough-hewn fear.
From drawing rooms and formal gardens
they come to me, from sunlit lives they enter
the chill, grand and instantaneous night. (Ultima Thule, p. 17)

This is such a striking metaphor for what we as educators do. It also speaks to me in terms of stewardship; like the poet, we have all heard of proposed improvements to just about everything from Bibles to Bayous. Despite my vocation, I do feel moved to sometimes just turn off the exegesis, turn off the exposition, the discussion, and just let the text/landscape speak for itself, in silence.

And the rough-hewn fear … yeah, for both student and educator, laity and pastor, reader and expositor.

To do this poem justice, I must cease now, and let it speak to you in the silence.

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