Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Reading, Meditation, and Christian Writing

I suppose I am like a lot of Christians. I have a hard time keeping a regular, habitual practice of reading the Bible. Why is that so? I am a seminary graduate (Westminster Theological Seminary, MDiv, 1979) and if anyone should have regular Bible reading down by now it should be a seminary student.

The typical excuses I find cropping up with me - too rushed, not always convenient, too many other things that need to get done, etc., etc. Yet I do like to read, all topics and a variety of genre. I can sit for hours and persist in a novel. Biblical and theological books can hold my attention for a long time as well, even some of the heavier ones. But I find trouble devoting the same amount of time for the Bible, that is, to sit down and read, and read persistently!

I think, for me, the biggest problem, which should also be the biggest motivation (and it is) is that the Bible is not just another book. It is the inscripturated Word of God, the means by which God speaks to us today. It must be read carefully, prayerfully, meditatively. I don't do that with a novel, and the only time in which I come within a mile of doing so is if the novel is written in such a way that the great truths of the Bible are profoundly exposited either in the narrative, character(s), or action. Not many novels, even so-called Christian novels, are like that.

This reveals the first obstacle to persistent Bible reading. It is not easy because it is not entertaining. A contrast: The Harry Potter books. The ingenuity of J K Rowling and her superb writing ability (true, she doesn’t write in the same style as J R R Tolkien, but I would place her skill side by side with his) provided a series of books whose entertainment value, for me, has few equals. The Wingfeather Saga, by Andrew Peterson, is another. The latter is considered Christian fantasy while the former is not. Now I think the latter qualifies as Christian fantasy only in an anemic way, that is, it does not bring out the gospel prominently and forcefully. And whether that is good or bad is another question and deserving of an article in itself. But it is fascinatingly entertaining, far more so, and far better written than any other young adult (children’s) fantasy of the last dozen years or more. I love to read them (Rowling and Peterson) because they entertain and captivate; I find myself in the middle of the story, like a holodeck.

Not so the Bible. The closest I come to encountering such an experience are in the historical books of the Old Testament, the gospels, and Acts. Yet, these do not have the entertaining power and sway as do the modern day examples I mentioned above. Which leads to the second reason why it is so hard to read the Bible.

The Bible requires work, even the easier historical narratives. The work is this: I am a Christian and as such I want to understand what God is saying through the pages of Scripture in such a way that it changes me. I want it to make me pursue holiness and seek first the Kingdom of God. I want it to change my heart so that I love as I ought. I want to get a glimpse of the glory of God, and be transformed by it. To do that, I have to read the Bible carefully, even meticulously so that I get the meaning right. If I don’t understand what the plain words of the Bible are saying through the logical and grammatical construction that they come in, even the Spirit of God cannot help me. So, when I read the Bible, I do it slowly and carefully, making sure that I understand what it is saying. If I have to, I’ll stop, think about it (sometimes for a long time) consult a commentary or a sermon if available, check it out in the original language (again, if available), and then move on. Sometimes it takes me days to get through a handful of verses. Some passages, I keep coming back to time after time, still trying to sort out the meaning of it. It’s hard work, and hardly ever fun.

When I ponder (meditate) on Psalm 1, often I am convicted:

Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stands in the path of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scornful; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and in His law he meditates day and night.

I confess, I do not go through the process I described above day and night. If I did I would neglect other things that I, as a Christian, ought not to neglect. But here is what I do find. The Scriptures follow me. After having painstakingly worked through a biblical text, I find that it keeps interjecting itself into my mind while I am away from it. Sometimes it comes in a verbatim recollection, more often in a paraphrased truth that is succinct and apropos. Often, I wish it were more often than not, without trying, I am analyzing my situation or a situation that affects me or others important to me, and I am doing it from a perspective that comes from the remembrance of scripture. In other words, I am thinking, meditating, applying the scriptures without their being open before my physical eyes. I think this is as much as what is meant by meditation as the traditional understanding.

Psalm 1 is one of those passages that I return to time after time, and the meaning of that word meditation is something that I am still working on, not merely a sterile definition of it but a flesh and bones experience of it. What does it mean for me (or anyone, David included) to meditate on the Law of God? It is important because it is the means by which I am going to prosper in this life; and to prosper (another word of the passage), I think, means to prosper in holy and godly living not in material things (the context of the first verse establishes that). In other words, my spiritual well-being and progress is directly related to a proper understanding of meditation and a proper practice of it, both in the immediate contact with the written page, and also in the mediate recollection of it as I confront daily life.

In light of all this, and harking back to the anemia of much of our Christian writing, it is better (though not an absolute requirement by God) if the Christian writer takes on the role of not only entertainer but also expositor. Entertain by all means, but in the doing of it, teach, so that the product of his pen analogously follows the profitability of scripture which is 'profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness,' 2 Tim 3:16.