Engaging with the Bible beyond merely reading
“Walking around the Cologne Cathedral seeing the biblical story unfold on the stained-glass windows was an “a-ha!” moment for me, as I realised that the biblical text has not always, or even primarily, been engaged with as written words on a page. Listening to the words of Psalm 122 spoken from memory by a local resident as I walked through the Zion Gate entering the Old City of Jerusalem for the first time, I recognised that these ancient words visualised a real place and spoke to me about my own place in the world. Whenever I read the opening words of Psalm 139 and hear in my imagination the voice of God speaking through the version I memorised as a six-year-old, I appreciate the powerful effect of the biblical text when it is internalised rather than read externally.”
The above quote is the opening paragraph of my PhD thesis. As someone who became a Christian as a teenager in the 1990s, I was taught to read the Bible in my daily “quiet time” as a private, silent, individual, and visual exercise. (And to feel quite guilty when I found this difficult or unexciting). Studying and teaching the Bible in more recent years, I have been challenged by the idea that this is not the only way to engage with God’s Word, and perhaps not even the ‘best’ way. It is certainly not the way most members of the community of faith throughout history have engaged with this text.
Reading the Bible as an individual pursuit with a printed copy held in your hands and scanned silently with your eyes is quite a recent experience (and one that is rapidly decreasing in this digital age). And it can be a practice that leads us to assume that the primary purpose of the Scripture is the provision of information – engaging with our minds. While this is certainly important, it is not the whole picture. The Bible explicitly seeks to transform us; our whole beings. How might considering the effects the Word of God has on our emotions, our imaginations, our bodies, and communities, reinvigorate our engagement with it?
I’ve been challenged to consider how we can engage with the Bible in ways that are corporate and communal, public and integrated, vocal and oral, embodied and kinaesthetic. This is something I’m still exploring – in my own devotional practices, in my church, and in my teaching. But I’m finding it resonates with many who have found ‘reading’ the Bible somewhat challenging or a bit tedious. So I thought I’d share some of my experiences as well as some ideas you can try yourself, in that hope that you too might be encouraged to engage with God’s Word in new ways this year.
Memory and embodiment
As part of my studies, I ‘memorised’ and ‘performed’ a group of fifteen Psalms. This was a transformative experience. I was able to go beyond ‘rote’ memorisation to a point where these words of Scripture lived within me and could be spoken as ‘my’ words. Using my voice and body to express their emotions and movements, taking on their perspective, imagining myself in their world, these Scriptures became living and active for me in a whole new way.
I realised that it is a fundamentally different experience to speak out words that come from within you, than it is to read and take in words that exist on a page external to you. These words will always be with me, and God continues to use them to speak to me even as I speak them – whether to myself, to Him, or to others. While Bible memory verses are something we often leave to Sunday School and children, I want to encourage all of us to consider how we can learn and enter into God’s Word in these ways.
Learn a Psalm: choose a psalm (start with a short one like Ps 1, 4, 15, 70, 121, or 131; or if you’re really short on time, 117). Learn it by heart – not just the words, but try to feel what it feels, see what it imagines, and embody its movement. Speak it aloud, stand up and move around as you say it over and over again, until its words become your words. Then continue to use it as a prayer and an encouragement to yourself.
Community and public
One of my most enjoyable practices of 2017 was meeting regularly with my friend Lauren to read through Mark’s gospel together. We met in public places – outside in a city square when the weather was good, in a café when it wasn’t. Reading the stories of Jesus together, aloud, while watching daily life go on around us brought out very different aspects and questions than reading it alone in my room has done. Many times we noted how confusing and confronting Jesus is. We pondered aloud just how radical and even crazy His teachings are as we considered what those passing by would think about what we believe.
As a similar but one-off exercise, I took a group I was leading on a retreat into the city for the day. (One of the guys suggested maybe it should have been called an ‘advance’ instead). At lunchtime, we split up into groups of 2-3 and found a spot in the middle of a food court or the main shopping mall, where each group did an out loud lectio divina exercise using Matthew 5:13-16, before praying for our city. While some people found it awkward at first, it opened up new applications of the passage and brought it to life anew in our context.
Read together: find a friend and ask them to read through a gospel with you. Meet up in a café, a park, a schoolyard, somewhere you can watch the world going by, but wherever works for you. Just speak and listen to the words of Jesus in that setting and see what He has to say.
Performance and inspiration
At Surrender Conference, as I listened to Joel McKerrow’s poetry I thought, “that’s what the Old Testament prophets would have sounded like.” The prophets were poets. They spoke words of imagination, pointing to a future not yet realised but even now unfolding. They challenged and rebuked and confronted and provoked. They inspired and uplifted and motivated. These parts of the Old Testament can be difficult to read, but can be much more engaging to hear. US poet David Bowden does a contemporary spoken word version of Jeremiah chapter 7 that gets me every time.
In our church we spent three weeks recently looking at Isaiah 52:1-12. Three different people took on the challenge of learning the passage and speaking it as a kind of ‘performed poem’ to the congregation, which was so different from the usual Bible reading and really captured people’s hearts and imaginations. Of course, the greatest benefit was to those who learned and spoke it.
Perform a prophetic poem: find a passage from one of the Old Testament prophets that speaks words of hope, justice, or peace. (Some suggestions include Isaiah 9:2-7; Isaiah 40; Jeremiah 31:31-34; Amos 5:1-15; Hosea 11:1-11; Micah 6:1-8; Habakkuk 3:17-19) Have a go at re-writing these words into more contemporary poetry. Spend time considering the way they use language, the ways different words play off one another, the pictures they paint, how you can make it sound rhythmic and repetitive. Then, see if you can find an opportunity to share this with your small group or church congregation and let them be inspired, challenged, and encouraged anew by it.
Listening and the big picture
One of the key differences between reading with your eyes and listening with your ears is that you can’t go backwards. It’s harder to get bogged down in the details and you have to give yourself permission to ‘miss’ bits and pieces. You end up with a sense of the big picture rather than all the details. I think there is a time and place for both these types of Scripture engagement.
In my New Testament class last semester, I knew most people were much more familiar with reading a chapter or few verses at a time and looking for the details. So I asked them instead to listen to a whole book of the New Testament at a time, seeking to gain an overall sense of its message and vision. The New Testament letters would have been read aloud to the churches to whom they were written, so we can put ourselves in their shoes and try to hear how they would have heard. Students found this experience quite different and really helpful. In particular, taking an hour to sit and listen to the book of Revelation was an experience many commented on as helping them understand this book in a new way.
Listen to a book: choose a letter from the New Testament and listen to a dramatised audio reading of it. (Bible gateway has some audio versions here) Then, for a good recap, watch the Bible Project overview of that book. If you want to dig even deeper, you might consider the Bibledex video for that letter for some scholars giving extra info.
Melinda is an ordained Baptist pastor currently working as Senior Lecturer in Biblical Studies at Tabor and Director of Ministry Accreditation for Baptist Churches South Australia. She completed her PhD on the Psalms of Ascents in 2016.