What follows below is a reflection published in the newsletter of my local parish church, St. John’s Episcopal Church, in Thibodaux, Louisiana. Although I wrote it initially for Episcopal readers, it has, perhaps, a wider application for both Christians of other denominations and for non-Christians who read The Bible as a book full of general wisdom and poetry.
An Anglican Reflection: On Reading the Bible and Letting the Bible Read Me
In his Collect for the Second Sunday in Advent, Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556), author of the Collects and composer of the first Book of Common Prayer (1549), called upon God to aid believers in understanding Scripture:
Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read,mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience, and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ.
The words “hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them” have become particularly well known. In his Preface to the 1549 prayer book, Cranmer states that it important to have such a book written in a language understood by the people and that the Scriptures, also read in English at divine services, should take parishioners through most of the Bible every year. As we know from the history of the Reformation, this translating of the Bible into the native language of the laity was one of the most profoundly significant events in church history
But how should the Bible be learned or read? Cranmer’s Collect breaks down this process of reading into several steps
Hear: This word suggests the public reading of Scripture and a corresponding attentiveness on the part of the laity.
Read: This word suggests the private reading of Scripture (but for Anglicans such reading must never be the only kind).
Mark: Not just in one way or another to “highlight” passages that seem of particular importance immediately but to weigh what is of eternal significance and what may have been of local or temporary application (perhaps certain dietary laws or circumcision). Marking is also an aid to memory and is characteristic of a mind activity engaged in reading.
Learn: Not simply to memorize but to meditate on the meaning of a Bible passage — to analyze, interpret. (Again — for Anglicans — this is done not only in private but also corporately in Mass and with others in Christian Education or Bible study groups.)
Inwardly digest: The analogy with eating food suggests that the words of Scripture should permeate our whole being — body, mind, and soul — and should nourish us in every way thereby.
Points to Ponder when reading Scripture:
Most of us are reading English translations — not the original Hebrew or Greek. It is prudent to read more than one translation and to try to assess whether a verse has been put into English in a fairly commonly accepted way or not – and if not, why not. Some translations aim at ends beyond simply trying to be as accurate as possible. New scholarly discoveries may necessitate changes, even, alas, in beloved passages.
Cherry picking: It is tempting to find one or two verses that seem to support our views, especially on controversial issues. A wise Christian will take any one Bible verse in its context and not only in relation to other verses that may add a different or fuller perspective to the subject but also in relation to the great story of Bible as a whole.
Eternal, Temporary, or Local? In some cases, it may be necessary to try determine what is eternally true and required of us as opposed to what was necessary or helpful to believe and do in a particular community in a specific time and place. Such “sifting” is not always easy.
Me Reading the Bible or Letting the Bible Read Me? The current writer at times tries to open himself up to reading Scripture with as few preconceived opinions as may be humanly possible to set aside — at least for a time. As one form of reading, we should let the Bible speak to us as we try to attain the kind of receptive spirit that Our Lady showed at the Annunciation. One may also recall the old fairy tale rhyme: “A wise old owl lived in an oak. / The more saw the less he spoke. / The less he spoke the more he heard. / Why aren’t we like that wise old bird?”
Like Christ: Let us remember that Christ himself studied the Hebrew Scriptures and knew them by heart. Invoking heavenly guidance in prayer as one begins to read the Bible should also be a part of Scripture study.
The Act of Reading in This Day and Age: We live in an age of seemingly endless noise, stress, anxiety, and distraction (especially technological distraction). As our Anglican poet T.S. Eliot once said (long before TV, computers, or hand held gadgets of one kind or another), we are “distracted from distraction by distraction.” He also said that we live in a time when wisdom is lost in knowledge, knowledge in information. We need to set aside a regular time and place for fruitful Bible reading and study. This includes, most importantly, reading Bible stories with children
Regarding the Bible, What (If Anything) Do I as an Anglican ‘Have’ to Believe? Article 6 of the 39 Articles of Religion (adapted from the Church of England and adopted in 1801 by the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States of America, Book of Common Prayer, 1979 edition, page 868) states the following: “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.” This article might well be kept in mind as we debate controversial issues in the Episcopal Church and the wider Anglican C0mmunion. Determining what is a “first order issue” on which we ought all to agree (the biblical teachings of the Nicene Creed, God’s creation of the universe, the Resurrection) and what may or may not be a “second order issue” on which we may disagree without threatening church unity is a difficult but necessary task to perform. Article 6 should give us all comfort in such debates.
The poem below, based on a painting by Rembrandt (1606-1669), is by Alabama poet John Finlay (1941-91). The poem evokes the precious, hard-won gift and heritage we have as Anglican Christians to read the Bible privately in our native tongue. The poem is about an old man who has known suffering in life but who remains true to his faith and his habit (probably lifelong) of reading the Word of God:
On Rembrandt’s Portrait of an Old Man Reading the Scriptures
Exposure salted his grave Northern face.
An unerasable sadness tinged that grace
Of sourceless light glowing on solid form.
Hard winter nights — the isolating storm —
His oil burned out onto the living word.
A man matured in loss, in griefs incurred
By love outside himself, he would expend
His mind on God, still opened to the end.
John Finlay, from Mind and Blood: The Collected Poems of John Finlay, John Daniel Press, 1992, edited by David Middleton.
David Middleton / Parishioner