Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Butchering Scripture

It's a common scene: several college students are huddled around a table, pocket-sized Bibles open to the ceiling; a dozen businessmen and lay ministers meet in a section of a local coffeehouse, their burgundy leather, gold-edged study Bibles resting on their crossed knees; a group of middle-aged couples sit in a semicircle of folding metal chairs, each grasping an unzipped pleather Bible cover and staring down into its contents; five or six young marrieds hold their Bibles while they lounge in living-room furniture, watching an intro DVD and trying to ignore the sounds of their children roughhousing in the basement. In each of these situations, one occurrence is inevitable: someone, or several people, will read a Scripture passage aloud. Unfortunately, other factors are also inevitable: this reading will be a flat, monotone, and halting series of struggles with multisyllabic words, improperly placed inflection, incorrect pronunciation, and omitted words or lines—all, strangely enough, executed at breakneck speed, as if to minimize the perception of these errors by mumbling through the very words of God and reaching the end of the passage as quickly as possible. You may laugh at these characterizations or rush to come to the defense of these inexperienced readers, but that's only because you've experienced this very phenomenon. I am here to tell you, my brothers and sisters in Christ, that this is not to be taken lightly or dismissed. In fact, I believe that such readings are a true butchering of Scripture and a horrible injustice to the inspired word of the Holy Spirit.

I have endured such readings many times, and have participated in not a few. However, I was convicted a few years back of the flippant attitude that led to such a mistreatment of the Word of God. What is this attitude? In his book Public Reading of Scripture: A Handbook, Clay Schmit points out that
We assume we can all read, so it takes no skill to stand up and read the Bible. Some people think the Bible reading doesn't matter. Others—and I'd like to end this myth—think, "I, an average person in the church, do not want to add any of my interpretation. To allow the Holy Spirit to work in hearts, I will read in a flat, plain, well-paced, articulate style, and I'll pronounce all the names right."
Others recommend that readings only be done by a trained group of lay leaders who exhibit a "recognized ability or potential for public reading." This is unacceptable! Every follower of Christ will, at some point, need to read Scripture publicly. We can't pass off an unwillingness to read Scripture on a lack of oratory skill or excuse our lack of respect for God's Word with pious-sounding rationale about our unworthiness to interpret Scripture by our inflection. Moreover, Schmit argues that "any lack of interpretation is actually a misinterpretation. If you read without interpretation, you send the message that Scripture is meaningless and boring."

The suggestion of having a pool of "official readers" sounds reasonable until we recall Paul's command to Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:13: "Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching." I believe it's the duty and grand responsibility of every Christian to be prepared to read Scripture—and read it well.

I don't think that's an unreasonable request. If Scripture is exciting, if the gospels are an involving narrative, if theological exposition incites our intellect, if we take the Bible's warnings and promises seriously—why do we somehow justify a stumbling, monotone reading of such things? Why not just let the words breathed from the very mouth of God have their effects on our reading? Is it because we're too focused on performing well? Is it because, since we're the ones reading, we're not expected to understand the passage; all we have to do is get the words out there? Or is it because we see no meaning or value in Scripture, and we read His Word the same way when we're studying privately, as well? I fear that the butchering of Scripture reading indicts something much deeper, something that jeopardizes the merit of our own quiet times: lack of respect for the Bible.

I won't attempt here to give a five-point list of how to read Scripture effectively. I think that would defeat the purpose. It certainly would never strike at the heart of the matter—a matter of the heart. If the Bible means something to you, then your reading will carry meaning. If you think Scripture is dead, then you will read it like that. If you think a narrative is boring, then you'll ensure that the rest of the group is bored, too. But if you are excited about what you read when you're studying the Bible, if you see it as living and active and effectual, then you not only emulate the reading style of an expert storyteller, you already have the content to back it up!

My Scripture is alive, people. It gets me excited about the things of God. It changes my life every day. Please don't castrate it. Please don't kill it.

May this be my attitude, and I pray that it is yours, whenever we are henceforth presented with the glorious opportunity to read Scripture aloud:
Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.