How to Read the Bible Part 2 – how to read stuff

How to read stuff is a lot more than just learning your abc’s. Reading the words is just the beginning.

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The Midrash, which is the collection of Jewish rabbis teaching and interpretation of the Bible, says that the Bible was written in black fire and white fire – the black was the ink on the page, the white was the spaces between the words. What they meant by this was that there is as much to learn from the spaces, the things left unsaid, the questions unanswered. Jewish tradition understood that the Bible was always meant to be a conversation and an invitation to more.

I’d suggest that to learn to read the Bible, we actually need to learn to read stuff in general! I don’t mean read more, or read better things, but to find a new way to read with a more open mind that knows how to see the negative space of the white page as much as the black letters of the text. But that’s a bit abstract and brainy, so let’s make it a bit more concrete. This blog won’t be about the Bible exactly, but it will be some practical ideas on how to read this way.

True Stories

Which one is the most accurate?

One of our Bible hang ups is around historical accuracy. But anyone who loves painting instinctively knows that something can be a true likeness without necessarily being photographic. In fact, the brush strokes, the choice of colour, the movement and framing all tell us something true about the subject.

In each one of these pictures of the Queen, the artist makes choices to show something and to miss out many other things in order to highlight one aspect of the her character and nature. Sometimes they want to show her as a mother, sometimes as a regal monarch, other times they shock us to show us what she is not. But each one reveals something of who she is and could be said in its own way to be a true likeness because we recognise something of her within the picture.

This is particularly interesting when you think of the four gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Scholars believe that John was perhaps the least ‘historically accurate’ of the accounts. Matthew, Mark and Luke are known as the synoptic gospels and are quite similar in style and content. John was much more poetic and scholars believe he inserted lots that he had later realised about who Jesus is into his accounts – you could picture it like a painting with big, bold, noticeable brush strokes, showing visibly the secrets the artist learned about what was inside – and all there to draw attention to certain aspects of who he now knew Jesus to be. But is a less of a true likeness because it’s not exactly how things happened, or does it show us a better view of one aspect of the character and life of Jesus?

Read it with a smile

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Email is famously difficult to read right. Just take this simple example:

Mike, come to my office as soon as you get in. We need to talk about your future at this company.

Read it one way and it will have Mike trembling in his boots. Read it another way and he’s already thinking of which jet ski he will spend his bonus on.

I once tried taking some of the most difficult passages of the Bible – you know the ones, full of judgement and anger and curses – and tried to read them picturing God with tears running down His face. I thought of how it was the exact opposite of what He was longing to pour out, and scribbled next to each negative word the positive thing He really wanted to do- I knew that even the judgements were a call to something better and hinted at the good that was in store the second His stubborn kids turned around and accepted it. So famine became flourishing, slavery became true freedom, sickness became life and health and restoration.

What we think God is like will radically impact how we read the Bible. So give it a go, read it with a smile on your face and see what He shows you.

Expectation is tricksy

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These quotes are taken from newspaper articles about immigrants:

‘They come here with this mentality… wanting to keep themselves to themselves and feel no obligation to integrate into our way of life’

‘They tend to live in a bubble’

‘There were worrying beginnings of gang behaviour among immigrant youths in high-concentration areas’

‘More than half this community are foreigners but less than 12% have registered to vote’

‘There are some fully integrated who have learned the language, but many live in an almost sealed community’

We approach quotes like this filling in the gaps in our heads. We picture what we think this looks like – the neighbourhoods we imagine the text might be referring to. What might be surprising to some is that these quotes are all referring to English expats living in Spain.

We have to be aware when reading the Bible that it is an ancient piece of literature written in the context of a culture radically different to our own. Without meaning to, we can paint the people, events and meaning in the light of what we know and understand – we have no other way to picture it! But approaching the Bible with humility means knowing that we may be jumping to the wrong conclusion sometimes and being willing to be challenged and see another way.

Get the Big Picture

Sometimes just because you read it, doesn’t mean that’s what it’s saying.

Take this picture taken during the riots in London several years ago. What do you think is happening? This image was used on the front page of nearly every paper to report on the riots.

riot closeup

But see the bigger picture, and it shows something pretty different.

riot zoomed out

I’m not saying we can’t put our faith and trust in the Bible – but I am saying sometimes we have it all back to front, and we were always meant to read it with the help of a Wise Counsellor to help us get it in the right order. Just take a look at this poem by Jonathan Reed to see what I mean:

I am part of a lost generation.
And I refuse to believe that
I can change the world.
I realize this may be a shock, but
“Happiness comes from within”
Is a lie, and
“Money will make me happy”
So in thirty years, I will tell my children
They are not the most important thing in my life.
My employer will know that
I have my priorities straight because
Work
Is more important than
Family
I tell you this:
Once upon a time
Families stayed together
But this will not be true in my era.
This is a quick fix society
Experts tell me
Thirty years from now, I will be celebrating the tenth anniversary of my divorce.
I do not concede that
I will live in a country of my own making.
In the future,
Environmental destruction will be the norm.
No longer can it be said that
My peers and I care about this Earth.
It will be evident that
My generation is apathetic and lethargic.
It is foolish to presume that
There is hope.

And all of this will come true unless we reverse it.

There is hope.
It is foolish to presume that
My generation is apathetic and lethargic.
It will be evident that
My peers and I care about this Earth.
No longer can it be said that
Environmental destruction will be the norm.
In the future,
I will live in a country of my own making.
I do not concede that
Thirty years from now, I will be celebrating the tenth anniversary of my divorce.
Experts tell me
This is a quick fix society
But this will not be true in my era.
Families stayed together
Once upon a time
I tell you this:
Family
Is more important than
Work
I have my priorities straight because
My employer will know that
They are not the most important thing in my life.
So in thirty years, I will tell my children
“Money will make me happy”
Is a lie, and
“Happiness comes from within”
I realize this may be a shock, but
I can change the world.
And I refuse to believe that
I am part of a lost generation.

So there we go, a few tips to get you thinking about how you read:
Look for a true likeness and realise the brush strokes are there for a reason
Read it with a smile on your face
Be aware expectation can be a tricksy thing
Get the big picture
And above all, ask the Creator for some help!

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