Here is part 3 of my reflections on ‘traveling the text.’ Using the metaphor of various modes of travel I have explored different ways of reading the Bible. We’ve examined flying through the text where we got a bird’s eye view of the Biblical story. And we have looked at the metaphor of driving where we talked about how we drive to get somewhere (purpose), we drive on particular roadways (read the Bible in the way its meant to be read), and obey the road signs (read in community). Now I want to talk about a whole different method of travel: Feet. This includes walking, running or hiking. Obviously all these metaphors have been plundered when talking about the Spiritual life, but I want to continue with a focus on what they can tell us, specifically, about reading the Bible
I am a father of three and that means I go on walks with my family to get them out of the house; I run to get some time alone and get some exercise(and escape my family). The thing is in the U.S. people generally don’t walk to get anywhere because it is inefficient. The statistics tell us that the average American walks less than 400 yards a day. Compare that with Kenyan women who walk, on average 8 hours a day carrying 45 lbs of water. You see, Americans don’t walk anywhere because we have to, we walk (or run) because we want to. It is something we do for leisure!
I Went Walking
The first two modes of transformation pretty much spells out most of what it means to read responsibly with an eye to the wider context. But it is when we learn to slow down and walk through the text that we really get to know our Bibles. In The Unforseen Wilderness Wendell Berry reflects on having driven the freeway to a walking path along the Kentucky Red River Gorge:
In the middle of the afternoon I left off being busy at work, and drove through traffic to the freeway, and then for a solid hour or more I drove sixty or seventy miles an hour, hardly aware of the country I was passing through, because on the freeway one does not have to be. The landscape has been subdued so that one may drive over it at seventy miles an hour without any concession whatsoever to one’s whereabouts. One might as well be flying. Though one is in Kentucky, one is not experiencing Kentucky; one is experiencing the highway which might as well be in nearly any hill country east of the Mississippi(51-52).
My whole use of the travel metaphor in reading the Bible is predicated on the idea that the pace that you travel determines what you see. Berry is clear, unless you slow down, you can’t say you’ve actually been to a place:
The faster one goes the more strain there is on one’s sense, the more they fail to take in, the more confusion they must tolerate or gloss over–the longer it takes to bring the mind to a stop in the presence of anything. Though the freeway passes through the heart of the forest, the motorist remains several hours’ journey by foot from what is living at the edge of the right-of-way.(52-53)
I certainly know how slowing down has caused me to see things in a new way. For several months I have lived in a small gated community in a family owned house. Over the past several years I have stayed at this house often, but never ventured into the neighborhood. As a result, I didn’t know how the roads fit together (they wind and turn in on each other) or where any of the playgrounds were. Occasionally I used to get lost driving in endless loops. Now living here, I walk and run through the neighborhood. In the spring, I saw which neighbor has the prettiest garden and which yard had the most promising fruit trees. In the late summer, I knew where the sweetest blackberries hung. My jogs explored every roadway, footpath, hill and incline nearby. I know every loop and every dead-end. It is by slowing down, I have finally entered into a place which I have visited often.
How does this relate to Bible reading? How many of us rush through our daily ‘quiet times’ with our reading plans and devotionals and never really slow down enough to see where the Spirit of God is beckoning? If we really want to enter into the land of the Bible, to know the contours of the landscape, we can’t rely on what we see from a car window or our bird’s-eye view overhead. We must discover times of leisure to slow down and really enter into the text.
…I strut my stuff…
Part of slowing down in the text is just for the fun of it. If you want to grow in your intimacy with God, I think it is essential that we learn to play in the pages of the Bible. I think it is intriguing that as Evangelicals we have lots of advice about reading the Bible responsibly and working through the dynamics of Biblical interpretation. We have reading plans, devotionals, commentaries, study guides. But if we are really in a personal relationship with God and the Bible is where we hear His voice speak the clearest, maybe we should find a way to enjoy it. If I spent my entire time ‘working’ on my marriage but never took the time to enjoy my wife, my marriage would be lousy. For a deepening faith, it is crucial that we make the space for play.
So what are some of the ways we can have fun in our Bible reading? Here are somethings I enjoy
1. Walk the same path you did yesterday. You really get to know a place when you travel it lots. Do you have a favorite walking path through a park or a forest? Is there some place you go, just to experience the beauty of creation? Why not do this with the Bible!?As I have read and re-read some of the Psalms, there imagery has become more vivid. By going over the text again and again, you memorize it. Despite what you remember about cramming for exams in college, memorizing can be fun. In highschool I used to quote the Song of Songs to girls at church whose hair reminded me of goats descending down mount Gilead. As an adult, I attended a Bible study where were supposed to recite a memory verse each week. I always tried to find the most outlandish one. As a result, there are a bunch of interesting verses in my head that I know just for the fun of it. When you memorize something, it becomes a part of you and you can enter into it a whole new way. Why not walk a path until you know every tree?
2. Walk where you aren’t supposed to- When you are driving your car, you are restricted to the roads, and constrained by traffic laws. When you are walking, there are much fewer constraints. Walk across the front lawn, take shortcuts and jump fences. When talking about the metaphor of driving, I talked about the need to follow directions and traffic laws. But I think there is also a place for bending rules. When I am reading the text playfully, I am less concerned with responsible interpretation, paying attention more to what a text evokes in you, more than what it says. Of course there are boundaries, pedestrians can still be hit by cars and not all trespassing is benign. But the fact remains that some of our best spiritual insights comes when we think outside the box and let our minds and hearts wander a bit while we read. Where does your reading take you?
3. Explore new ground. Sometimes when I am running, I may notice a road or path I haven’t travelled before and just decided to take it and see where I end up. Frankly the willingness to drop your plans and go a whole new direction opens you up for the joy of discovering new things. Sometimes I become goal centered in my reading plans, wanting to read through certain sections in x number of days. Reading playfully demands that I scrap thinking about reading as work, and sometimes read just for the fun of it. This can mean paying attention to what other Biblical references are referred to in the text and taking the time to follow them back (i.e. Old Testament quotations in the New), stopping reading to research different features of the Biblical landscape in commentaries, journaling wildly about the implications of what you are reading, making your own Bible puns, etc). When you are exploring new terrain, there is freedom to run off in different directions.
4. Reading well involves finding ways to internalize what you are reading Using the text to inspire your creativity One way of slowing down and having fun with the text is doing something creative. This can be art, a poem, a song, etc. Once I lead a bible study where I read a narrative I had written on the passage and then had everyone re-read the passage to see where my story got it wrong. Another time, I assigned characters from a Bible story to people in a group and had them retell the story from that perspective. By finding ways to be creative, we each internalized the text in new ways. My friend Randall writes a haiku based on the lectionary text (read them at Lectionary Haiku). This is his playful way of internalizing what he’s reading. What is yours?
…I don’t even know why
I grew up in an Evangelical culture where there were Bible trivia games, songs sung, discussion about Biblical characters, art and poetry produced, kids crafts, etc. None of these things involve work but through them I know my Bible and my God just a little bit better. In his book on the nature of play, aptly titled Play, Stuart Brown says “Play Activities don’t seem to have any survival value. The don’t help in getting money or food. They are not done for their practical value. Play is done for its own sake. That’s why some people think of it as a waste of time. (17)” The fact is the ‘aimlessness’ of play makes it play. If you attach too firm of a of a goal to it, it ceases to be play(or only play?). This is one of the chief differences between ‘driving through the text’ and ‘walking through it,’ remember in today’s western culture, we drive to get places, we walk because we want to.
This does not mean that ‘play’ in the text does nothing. In fact it is in the playful appropriation of the text that we begin to really know and understand the Spirit who inspired these pages. Brown goes on his book to explore how play teaches both animals and people crucial skills and ways of navigating their social environment. The thing is, working on the text tackles an issue directly. Play is about indirection. You play in the Bible because it’s fun; through your play the Spirit is at work, beckoning, shaping, re-shaping. When you read for the fun of it, God plays too.