Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Experiencing Scripture

I just read an interview with Eugene Peterson, retired pastor and professor, translator of The Message, author of many books (A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places) in which he discusses how he learned to read Scripture contemplatively.

"In high school I was very much involved in poetry. You cannot read a poem quickly. There's too much going on there. There are rhythms and alliteration. You have to read poetry slow, slow, slow to absorb it all. That's how I began reading and praying psalms as a student, because I realized they were poems....The first time you read a poem, you usually don't understand it. You've got to read it ten times or more. You've got to listen to it. (Emphasis mine)

I know I wasn't trained to listen to a text the way Peterson is talking about. I was taught to read for content and comprehension, information and insight, facts and figures. I can't even say that I was taught to read poetry any differently. "What is the writer saying?" Get the point, then move on. No one ever suggested that I read a poem ten times or more, and I never did. If I didn't get it after a few readings I was either too dull or it was too obscure. (Usually I concluded it was some combination of the two.)

But Peterson is suggesting that a poem is not to be excavated as much as it is to be experienced. If that seems too esoteric, let me put it another way: good poetry is a filet, it's not oatmeal. Pam regularly makes steel-cut oatmeal for us to eat for breakfast, and I don't savor a single bite. I add fruit to give it some flavor, but I don't eat it for the taste or the experience, I eat it because it is healthy and will help clear out my coronary arteries.

But a good filet, grilled to perfection with just the right amount of pepper and garlic salt--ah, you don't rush through that. It's not about nutrition, it's about a sensory experience.

Peterson is saying that we need to approach Scripture similarly, and not just the poetry in the Bible. There is a time and a place for reading for comprehension, for getting the biblical facts straight. It's important to understand the events that led to the Babylonian Exile.

But if that's all that we do, we miss the Bible as a living text, as Wisdom and Spirit and Logos and Two-Edged Sword.

Just as savoring a bite requires slowing down, so also does savoring Scripture, and that is probably our biggest obstacle: we are all in too big of a hurry. And we are noisy. And we're too verbal. And that makes us really, really bad listeners. When a person really wants to listen, they stop what they are doing, they eliminate distracting noises, they speak little or not at all, and they devote as much time as it takes.

When do we really do that? With Scripture? With prayer? With God? With each other?

I know I don't, not nearly enough. I'm not sure I really even know how. But I know I better learn.

Because what does it profit a man if he knows that the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem in 586 B.C. but loses his soul?

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