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Jane Williams: Devotional use of the Bible

page 3 Jane W on seatDevotional use of the Bible

Jane Williams

The Bible, like the Church, is a gift of God. Like the Church, one of its many properties is that it makes it much harder for us to make God in our own image. Much as we would like to construct a divine being whose likes and dislikes matched ours, whose priorities were what we would like and who liked the people we liked and, perhaps even more importantly, hated our enemies, the Bible brings us into salutary contact with another reality. This book, or library of books, is full of strange ideas, situations and people; it cannot be shaped by us, but instead invites us to step into its world, rather than trying to make it part of ours. It forms us as we read.

So the first thing a devotional use of the Bible needs to attempt to do is to put down the desire to treat the Bible as our tool. What we are searching for as we read the Bible is the humility to allow ourselves to be addressed by God, rather than demanding answers to our questions.

For most of its history, the Bible has been read aloud, in community. Its many different books have survived, humanly speaking, because they built and rebuilt, admonished, renewed, inspired, encouraged and taught the groups of people who heard them. Imagine the tiny Christian community in Colossae, gathered together, perhaps in someone’s home, perhaps outside, very early in the morning, while one of the literate members of this odd, insignificant group read to them about how their faith was known all over the world. How precious must this letter have been for them to copy it over and over again, handing it on to succeeding generations, until we, too, can read of the reconciling work of God in Christ.

At the Lambeth Conference in 2008, when bishops and their spouses from the Anglican Church all over the world came together in Canterbury, they used a method of Bible study that was pioneered in parts of Africa where literacy is low and where books are scarce. So the primary resource available for Bible study was the group of people gathered around the Word. For those of us with a theological education, it was painfully hard to lay aside all the armoury of scholarly equipment we usually bring to the text – what does the Greek actually say, to whom was the passage originally written, what is the best exegesis of this passage – and learn how the words were heard by others in the group, what resonances they had in people’s lives, how people tried to live in response to what they heard. It was a humbling and enlightening experience to encounter the power of the Bible to speak, at all times, and to all people.

Reading the Bible in company is a devotional practice that has been taken for granted, then, for most of Christian history, and there are all kinds of helpful traditions for doing it. One of the most ancient and simple is Lectio Divina, with its superb combination of respectful attention to the text, openness to the Holy Spirit, and opportunity to learn from each other.  Lectio is not seeking information or answers, but is allowing God to speak into our noisy, demanding hearts and minds. Very often, after a period of Lectio, a word or phrase from the passage of scripture will have lodged in our memory, and can go on feeding us.

So simple attentiveness to the Bible is one aid to devotional reading, as is reading with others. But there is also a place for intellectual hard work on the text. Some parts of the Bible are hard to understand, and some parts, that seem deceptively simple, actually have hidden depths. When you realise, for example, that the story of Martha and Mary is not so much a commendation of the contemplative life in opposition to the active life, but an offer to women of the chance to learn at the feet of Jesus and not just cook his dinner, then the text is speaking in new and liberating ways. But unless we realise that women did not sit at the feet of rabbis to learn, we do not see how breath-taking is the picture of Mary, the disciple.

It is also a good idea occasionally to compare translations of the Bible. We all have our favourites, and can be quite taken aback to realise that translators have to make intelligent and prayerful choices about their use of words. They have to make informed judgements about what is the likely meaning of a Greek or Hebrew phrase, so it can be helpful to get some idea of the range of possibilities.

Working at the text in this way can be really helpful to bring us up hard against the reality of the diversity of people who call this book scripture. Its pages are full of human beings of every kind, good, bad, indifferent, powerful, rich, poor, old, young, God-fearing and God-despising. All human life, all human emotion, is here, and apparently none of it is alien to God. God has seen it all and not gone home in disgust. As we work to understand the history, the poetry, the sayings, the stories, we are drawn deeper into our own motivation, too.

Through it all, there is God. I Timothy 3.16 says that all scripture is inspired by, or breathed by, God. That phrase has been interpreted in many and various ways over the centuries, but at the heart of it is the truth witnessed to by all who come with humble and fervent hearts, that the Bible is full of the life-giving breath of God. Commentaries on it fill libraries, and readers, hearers, preachers of it fill continents and centuries. This one, compact volume has done and continues to do just what God intends it for, which is to draw its users into an ongoing relationship, across time and space, with each other and God.  f

Jane Williams is a Tutor in Theology at St Mellitus College, and the author of books, including Lectionary Reflections for Years A, B and C.