Some recent discussions online about how we read the Bible made me remember a question a friend asked me a while ago – how do you read the Bible? He wasn’t asking for my hermeneutic principles or my stance on the dispute between the ancient schools of Antioch and Alexandria, but for a practical account of when and where I passed my eyes over pages of the Bible. Answering that question made me think a bit about what we mean by “reading the Bible”, and the occasions on which it happens. It’s a more vexed question than it seems at first. So here are a few ways in which I read the Bible, and how I think they might work.
The most straightforward way I read the Bible is by picking it up and doing so. At least, that seems the most straightforward to me, but who knows what impulses direct one’s reading whims. Reading it in this way usually involves starting at the beginning of a Biblical book, and continuing more or less in a straight line until the end. The upside to this approach is that it encourages me to notice the literary shapes and symbols of the book. Repetition, whether of images or phrases, becomes more visible. It was on one of these reads, for example, that I noticed that early in his romantic life, someone plotted that David would die on campaign and so leave his beloved unmarried.
It helps in getting a sense of the tone of voice of a book, its characteristic ways of thinking and presenting the world, and the kind of relationship it offers to a reader. The downside – if it is a downside, which is making some assumptions – might be that this makes it easier for me to pick my favourite books, and those with which I’m more accustomed. So Ecclesiastes tends to be read more often, as does Ruth. I pick up the Gospels of Mark and John more frequently than the other two, and 1 Corinthians gets more play than the other epistles. Revelation and the Psalms are becoming more frequent fixtures recently. Some of those choices are probably guided by aesthetic preference, or a comfort or fascination with the theological world of a particular book. From a religious point of view, that might provide some pause for thought, and even concern, since it might allow me to slip into reading books which suit me, and which bolster my existing attitudes. Whatever the cause, that’s one way of reading the Bible which features in my life.
Another major way is through the liturgies. The service I regularly take part in on a Sunday is the parish Eucharist at my local church, and this involves a fairly continual stream of Biblical text. There are the set readings from the Bible: on an ordinary Sunday, a reading from the Old Testament, a reading from a New Testament epistle and a reading from a Gospel. A psalm is sung antiphonally, with a member of the choir singing each verse and the congregation replying with a refrain. These are easily recognisable as Biblical texts, but other elements of the liturgy involve the congregation saying or singing words from the Bible. The Gloria, for example, begins with the words of the angels at the declaration of Christ’s birth to the shepherds. The Agnus Dei borrows phrases from John’s Gospel. The words often said before receiving the Eucharist, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed”, draw from conversations with Jesus in the Gospels.
This may be rather far from the idea of reading I started with – of beginning a book and reading through to the end – but it involves a great deal of reading, singing and repeating the words which appear in the Bible. The same is true of the liturgy known as the Daily Office, which I do not pray as regularly as I ought or would like. This also involves psalms and readings from the Bible, as well as passages where the worshipper repeats Biblical texts as their own prayer. The Nunc Dimittis, for example, takes the words of Simeon on seeing Jesus in the Temple, whilst the Magnificat uses Mary’s song at the Annunciation. These are not marked as “Bible readings”, but they use Biblical words in recognisable speeches or songs, which the person praying repeats on their own behalf.
It’s difficult to say what the upsides or downsides of this way of reading the Bible might be, without making large assumptions about why someone might be reading it or what we might assume should happen. But I think it’s fair to say that this can, on its own, give a rather fragmented experience of the Bible. Hearing an extract read in the liturgy, or praying a passage with which one is not familiar, might lose some of the context which gives the passage much of its meaning. It’s difficult to identify those narrative patterns and tones of voice I mentioned, which give coherence and illuminate the meaning of individual elements. Terms like “water” and “light”, or entreaties such as “have mercy on us”, can potentially lose some of their charge and complexity when extracted from the text where they have built up layers of meanings over the previous chapters.
On the other hand, liturgical texts allow a kind of play with the Biblical texts which is not always possible when they are encountered as part of an ongoing narrative or argument. I remember the surprise of realising partway through a verse passage of the Daily Office that I was praying the words of one of Paul’s sermons. It was a far more emotional encounter with the apostle’s words than I was used to. In liturgy, the symbols and the episodes can be cut off from the context which loaded them with meaning, as I suggested above, but that makes them available for new contexts. It can be easier to find how “mercy” or “water” might fit into my own life by inhabiting the text in a liturgy than by reading the book and then looking for “relevance”. It can soak the imagination in the symbols of Scripture, and allow them to shape hopes and desires.
To use a rather double-edged analogy, I don’t remember the first time I heard either the songs “Soave sia il vento” or “Defying Gravity”. They were both on albums I was quite familiar with some years ago. But I do remember the first times I heard them in performance, sung as part of Cosi Fan Tutte and Wicked respectively. Both songs were exactly the same music that I knew, and probably better produced and mixed on the album. But they were mindboggling different in performance. The blend of emotion and irony in the Mozart trio, with all three characters meaning something slightly different by the words whilst the audience knew their entreaties were undercut by the plot. The feelings expressed by the young women singing seemed all the more real by the fact that I knew they were being deceived. In Wicked, the narrative loaded more moral complexity on the desire to “defy gravity”, from the disability of another character who used a wheelchair to the tableau earlier in which we had already seen Elphaba elevated to receive the scorn and hatred of those below.
Both songs revealed complexities and emotional impacts in production which I had not perceived despite knowing them quite well from recordings. As I mentioned, this is a rather double-edged analogy. On one hand, these texts gained immensely from being embedded in their narratives, with the ongoing story and characterisation igniting parallels and symbols at which I had not guessed. This seems rather like my experience of reading Biblical books as a whole. On the other, it was the immediacy and drama of the performance which made the texts into almost physical things in the moment of realization. The life which coursed through them, and which touched me, felt rather like the experience of inhabiting a Biblical text in liturgy.
Perhaps that’s apt, since this is not an argument between ways of reading the Bible, but rather an exploration of how some of them happen. The third major way in which I find myself “reading” the Bible is when I recognise it in allusion and reference in other works. In my scholarly and leisure-time reading I am continually encountering Biblical echoes and quotations. From Beowulf to P.D. James, from Margaret Drabble to William Dunbar, and from Shakespeare to P.G. Wodehouse, the literature I find myself reading is loaded with it. This is a more oblique way of encountering the Biblical texts than liturgy, and somewhat more sparse, even given the vast influence of the Bible on English literature.
But it is a way in which the Biblical texts are brought before my eyes every day. Like liturgy, it can involve reinterpretation and the reshaping of familiar meanings. And like liturgy, it can take some attention to the possible echoes and symbols to recognise the connections across texts. Encountering a parody of a Biblical story in an Aubrey and Maturin novel, or hearing a quotation from an epistle in Agatha Christie, causes me to bring the earlier text to mind, and to probe its connection to the book in my hand. How are they related? Is this simply a borrowing of the words? How do those words differ in their new context? Is there a pastiche of the style, or an echo of a character? Is there an ironic thread of a Biblical narrative running below of the surface of the modern text I have been gazing at?
Though this doesn’t make me more familiar with the Biblical texts, it can expand my sense of their meanings and implications. Simply recognising the points of contact with a later novel or poem requires me to search my mind for telling details, for memorable phrases, for the shape of the narrative and the twists of the plot. It requires me to mentally (and sometimes physically) reread the texts with which I am familiar, and to flex my understanding of them until I find a shape that fits. Is this new text the same pattern but backwards? Does it swap the reader’s sympathies around? Does it follow the story and then turn it inside-out at the conclusion? I cannot know the full meaning of the new book until I have brought the Biblical text to mind and examined it from all the angles I can think of. Unsurprisingly, this can lead to new ideas about that text, whether presented by the novel or poem being read, or simply as a side-effect of that rereading.
Those are the major ways in which I read the Bible, and the term “read” has had something of a work-out in the process. But I think that’s necessary, because “reading the Bible” sounds such a simple phrase, and is so often proffered as a good thing which people should do more, that it can be easy to overlook exactly how it happens.