I took a break from reading Gitta Sereny’s weighty tome on Albert Speer this weekend – to read Eugene Peterson’s (relatively) recent book EAT THIS BOOK (which takes its title from one of John’s visions in Revelation 10:9-10).
As well as enjoying the chapter explaining the genesis of and his approach to his bible translation The Message, I actually found it hugely challenging and full of real gems on how to read the Bible as disciples. I found myself grabbing a pen in order to underline at length! So here are just a few of my highlights:
page 42: One of the characteristic marks of the biblical storytellers is a certain reticence. There is an austere, spare quality to their stories. They don’t tell us too much. They leave a lot of blanks in the narration, an implicit invitation to enter the story ourselves, just as we are, and discover for ourselves how we fit into it. “The Scripture stories do not, like Homer’s, court our favor, they do not flatter us that they may please us and enchant us – they seek to subject us, and if we refuse to be subjected we are rebels.” (Erich Auerbach, Mimesis (Princeton NJ, 1953)
I love this one. What an adventure of a lifetime it is to read the bible:
page 45: Henry David Thoreau, one of our canonized American sages, wrote of having “travelled a good deal in Concord” (the small New England village in which he spent his life). An item in the oral tradition that formed around Louis Agassiz, the celebrated Harvard biologist and professor, remembers that he returned to his classroom after the summer vacation and told his students that he had spent the summer travelling and made it halfway across his backyard. I want to hold out for travelling widely in Holy Scripture. For Scripture is the revelation of a world that is vast, far larger than the sin-stunted, self-constricted world that we construct for ourselves out of a garage-sale assemblage of texts.
page 48: It takes the wholeBible to read any part of the Bible. Every sentence is embedded in story and can no more be understood accurately or fully apart from the story than any one of our sentences spoken throughout the course of the day can be understood apart from our relationships and culture and the various way sin which we speak to our children and parents, our friends and enemies, our employers and employees – and our God. Northrop Frye, who has so well taught us to read the Bible largely, wrote that:
“The immediate context of the sentence [any sentence in Scripture] is as likely to be three hundred pages off as to be the next or preceding sentence. Ideally every sentence is the key to the whole Bible. This is not a factual statement about the Bible, but it helps to explain the practice of preachers who knew what they were doing, like some of those in seventeenth-century England. In the sermons of John Donne, for example, we can see how the text leads us, like a guide with a candle, into the vast labyrinth of Scripture, which to Donne was an infinitely bigger structure than the cathedral he was preaching in.”
This is a helpful insight on the curious ambiguities and challenges that derive from the fact that God has chosen to reveal himself in words:
page 93: I sometimes marvel that God chose to risk his revelation in the ambiguities of language. If he had wanted to make sure that the truth was absolutely clear, without any possibility of misunderstanding, he should have revealed his truth by means of mathematics. Mathematics is the most precise, unambiguous language that we have. But then, of course, you can say “I love you” in algebra…
page 94: Metaphor is a form of language that cannot pass such logical scrutiny, cannot make it through the laboratory tests. Unfortunately (or fortunately, as it turns out) the Bible is chock full of metaphor, which means that if we assume that ‘literal’ is the only means to ‘serious’ we are going to be in trouble much of the time. For a metaphor is literally a lie.
A metaphor states as true something it is literally not true. For instance, ‘God is a rock” a frequent Hebrew assertion about God (‘The LORD is my rock… [W]ho is a rock, except our God? Ps 18:2, 31). If we take the sentence literally, instead of going to church on Sunday mornings to worship we will visit the local stone quarry and shop for a god rock that we can erect in our backyard. The alternative is to dismiss the sentence as meaningless, which would leave us with a Bible with every other sentence or so deleted, including some of our most prized: the Lord is my shepherd (Ps 23:1); the Lord is a warrior (Exod 15:3); I am a rose of Sharon (Song 2:1); I am the true vine (John 15:1).
Finally, this is the bit that most jumped out at me. For it helped to put ministry and our own growth into the larger perspective of a lifetime of discipleship. The Bible presents us with an alternative world – which is actually MORE real than the one we’re so often presented with. But because it is a world that has God at the centre and not us, it is actually something we resist at times, we try to shake off at times, we attempt to domesticate at times. And the Christian life is never characterised by quick fixes. And one sermon or one Bible study will never be sufficient to do the job of transformation (even if we can all perhaps point to specific moments where growth particularly occurred). I need to remember that when I get discouraged in ministry and in my own discipleship. This is the long haul… What struck me in this paragraph is that Peterson doesn’t just say ‘years and years’ – he says ‘years and years AND YEARS’!! Too right.
page 105: This world, this reality, revealed by God speaking to us, is not the kind of world to which we are accustomed. It is not a neat and tidy world in which we are incontrol – there is mystery everywhere that takes considerable getting use to, and until we do it scares us. It is not a predictable, cause-effect world in which we can plan our careers and secure our futures – there is miracle everywhere that upsets us no end, except for the occasions when the miracle is in our favour. It is not a dream world in which everything works out according to our adolescent expectations – there is suffering and poverty and abuse at which we cry out in pain and indignation, ‘you can’t let this happen!’ For most of us it takes years and years and years to exchange our dream world for the real world of grace and mercy, sacrifice and love, freedom and joy.
So check it out. It’s full of good stuff.