How to Read Scripture
Reading scripture is meant to be hard. I don’t mean that it has to be tedious or boring or anger-inducing or something like that. I mean that the meaning is not just floating on the surface, waiting to be scooped off like so much pond scum. No, the meaning is deep and immersive, and you can’t get to it unless you fall in.
When it is soaking you, when it is filling every pore, then you may start to get a feeling for what’s going on.
This is because scripture is most fundamentally art. You might have been less surprised if I said literature, but of course, literature is just a form of art that we sometimes forget is art.
Art is meant to change you. Art is not created just for the surface-level effect of figuring out what it means, but for the change that happens in the viewer as they view it. When you look at a painting, “figure out what it means”, and then move on, you’ve missed the point of looking at paintings.
A lot of people do the same thing with scripture. Some branches of Christianity even cherish this dismissive attitude as the only true and proper approach to take. Just the facts, ma’am.
But this is far from the approach modeled to us by the writers of scripture themselves. They remark, for example, on the fact that the ancient prophets did not understand what they were prophesying. It is not that the ancient prophets secretly understood that Jesus was coming in this way and in this form, it’s that without knowing any of this, they prophesied in ways that leapt forward into the future, and evoked a set of expectations and hopes that could only ultimately be fulfilled in Christ.
Their prophecies were thus not exhausted by their own personal interpretations, but were a matter of something moving inside of them, inspiring them to speak.
This is the nature of art. An artist, when truly creating art, does not fully understand what it is that they are creating. Something inside them is moving, and though one or two meanings may be apparent, deeper meanings are hidden within, pushing their way to the surface.
It is not that all meaning is in the eye of the beholder. It is not that art is open to any interpretation, as if there was nothing real happening within it. Some interpretations are false, some are true.
What makes art distinctive is that there are always multiple true meanings, playing together in unison. Just as a musical chord is formed by playing multiple notes together, the experience and depth of art is formed by playing multiple meanings together.
Not every note belongs in the chord. Not every meaning is truly in the art. But we are invited to harmonize, to hum a note that does belong, but which is perhaps not quite apparent. With music, we may do this silently, or we may do it out loud. With paintings, we may do it in our emotions, or we may do it in our reactions. With scripture, we may do it unconsciously, or we may do it in our interpretations, or in our lives.
Truly listening is humming along. You don’t get out of it, you can’t get out of it. Instead, it situates you, and you become part of the chorus.
Heaven help you if you sing a discordant note. But heaven bless you if you hear where the music is going, and at the right moment, raise your voice to crescendo.
How do we know whether our contribution is in harmony or is discordant? In a sense, we don’t, until everyone’s contribution is tested by the fire of performance. But as musicians, we learn to listen. We learn to listen to the other voices, to the arc of the music so far, to the themes that have been played and are likely to be played again, to the ebb and flow of emphasis and rhythm.
And then we open our mouths and sing, because the music is moving inside of us.