She asked about the slim, leather-bound book I’d been reading on the airplane.
“It looked antique. And I just love old books. I was an English major at university.”
I immediately decide that I like her, this colleague of Ryan’s with whom we were traveling to St. Thomas last week.
I told her that it was a Bible I was reading, explaining how I was attempting to read the Book of Genesis in one sitting, without interruption. And considering that uninterrupted hours aren’t a common occurrence around here, I committed to the task during our flight from Toronto to St. Thomas.
I would like to tell you that I am always eager to read the Bible – and most of the time, I am, given that it fits neatly into the
short time, which I’ve allotted it. More than I’d like to admit, I’m up for spiritual fast-food. I want fed – and I want it cheap and quick. And much like a diet of Portillo’s fries tastes spectacular (when they’re hot, and you’re eating them straight from the bag as you pull out of the drive-thru – take me back to Chicago, please!), fast-food, spiritual and physical, does nothing to really nourish the body and soul.
As you know, I’ve been reading Eugene Peterson’s, Eat This Book, and he is challenging me to consider how I read the Scriptures. I am left to wonder whether it is I who steps into the vast landscape of the Scriptures, allowing its world to stretch my imagining, shape a courageous faith, and enter a world of new allegiances? Or is it rather, that I, pressured by time and limited in my willingness for all that Scriptures means to upend and reorient in me, keep so much at arms’ length, choking the vastness of the Scriptures into the narrowness that is me?
“The Scriptures, simply by virtue of their narrative form, draw us into a reality in which we find ourselves in touch with the very stuff of our humanity; what we sense in our bones counts. It is a story large with the sense of God, a world suffused with God, a world permeated with God’s spoken and unspoken word, his unseen and perceived presence, in such a way that we know it is the world we were made for, the world in which we most truly belong. It isn’t long before we find ourselves imaginatively (imagination and faith are, again, close kin here) entering the story, taking our place in the plot, and following Jesus. . . “It takes the whole Bible to read any part of the Bible.” Eugene Peterson, Eat This Book
Peterson points out how easily we’re inclined to read the Bible for its sound bytes of moral principles and devotional thoughts. That, I suppose, is what fast-food Bible reading is.
A better way to read the Bible is to enter its narrative landscape: let its characters and plot lines help you re-imagine what a life of faith could really mean. On the ground.
It’s only with great reluctance that I overcome my impulse for the quick and cheap fix of feel-good Bible reading. When I took the Book of Genesis in hand on the airplane last week, I admit that I battled thoughts like, “I know this book. What’s this really going to do for me? There are SO many other books I could be reading now.”
Kicking and screaming, I sat down with Genesis.
The book, as it turns out, is fantastic. (Duh.) The one-sitting reading allowed the book to absorb into my bones in ways I never would have imagined.
(Watch out when you pick up the Bible and give it a fair shake. It was never intended to be safe.)
I saw phrases that before I never before noticed: These are the generations of Adam. These are the generations of Noah. These are the generations of Isaac.
You can’t help but read Genesis and notice that what counts is FAMILY and LAND. The narrative tension of the book centers on whether or not the promises God gives to Abraham (for both family and land) will be granted. The FAMILY promises are threatened by barrenness: Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel. For a season of time, each of these women struggles to conceive and bear the children they’ve been promised by God. And the LAND promises are constantly at risk: there is family feuding, there is famine, and at every turn, it seems there is reason for someone to leave the land that God has promised Abraham. The book ends with Jacob and his entire family settling into Egypt where Joseph intends to care for them during the duration of the famine.
And other things you notice when you take in the broad narrative scope of a book like Genesis: you realize how much is left out of the narrative. Between chapters, you have years of silence. Genesis 16: Hagar gives birth to Ishmael when Abraham is 86 years old. Genesis 17: Abraham is 99. Genesis is so much about waiting, so much about faith’s longevity. There is no immediacy to any of God’s promises.
Stepping into the landscape of Genesis, I find how altogether foreign its world is to mine. We live in a culture where neither land nor family counts for much of anything. And conditioned as we are by our metric of technological nano-seconds, we simply can’t wait for anything. (Heck, I consider it almost a capital crime that my doctor has asked me to wait a period of days for the results of my strep culture. Eh-hem. In the States, we do a little test called the rapid strep culture??!!)
I’d like to sit at Abraham’s feet for a little while and learn how faith is sustained in silence, in waiting, in perplexity. I have a feeling it has everything to do with authentic encounters with the living God – a confident sense that you’ve been visited by the Holy, heard from the Divine. And when you have, there is simply no turning back.
Genesis 24: Abraham sends his servant to get a wife for Isaac. “See to it that you do not take my son back there,” back to my homeland, back to my family. When God has granted you a vision for the future, a calling of promise, you cannot return, you cannot look back. This is the Jesus principle of the “one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is not fit for service in the kingdom of heaven.”
All this – gained from 2 hours of sitting with one book.
Years ago, I read someone’s take on what is the best way to read the Bible.
1. Read a book through (in its entirety).
6. Repeat as often as you need to grasp a sense of the book’s themes and its overall narrative arc.
7. Then, begin piecing it out in smaller chunks.
8. Pay attention to its theology, its redemptive themes.
9. Notice all the commands.
10. Take everything you’ve learned, and put into practice.
11. Begin again with another book.
12. Don’t worry – there are 66 books, and you’re young.