EUGENE PETERSON, adapted from Eat This Book: A conversation in the art of spiritual reading
My wife picked up our seven-year-old grandson at noon on an Octo¬ber Saturday at Holy Nativity Church. Hans had been attending a class in preparation for his First Communion. They drove off, heading to a local museum that was featuring a special children’s exhibit on gemstones. On the way, they stopped at a city park to eat their lunches.
The two of them ate while sitting on a park bench, Hans chattering all the while—he had been chattering nonstop ever since leaving the church. Lunch completed—his was a lettuce and mayonnaise sand¬wich that he had made himself (“I’m trying to eat more healthy, Grandma”)—Hans shifted away from his grandmother, faced out into the park, took from his bookbag a New Testament that he had just been given by his pastor, opened it, held it up before his eyes, and proceeded to read, moving his eyes back and forth across the page in a devout but uncharacteristic silence. After a long minute, he closed the Testament and returned it to his bookbag. “Okay, Grandma, I’m ready—let’s go to the museum.”
His grandmother was impressed. She was also amused because Hans cannot yet read. He wants to read. His sister can read. Some of his friends can read. But Hans can’t read. And he knows he can’t read, sometimes announcing to us, “I can’t read,” as if to reinforce our awareness of what he is missing. So what was he doing “reading” his New Testament on the park bench that autumn Saturday?
When my wife later told me the story, I also was impressed and amused. But after a few days, the story developed in my imagination into a parable. At the time I was immersed in writing [Eat This Book], an extended conversation in the practice of spiritual reading; I was finding it hard to keep my hoped-for readers in focus. They kept blurring into a faceless crowd of Bible-readers, Bible-nonreaders, Bible teachers, and Bible preachers. Is there an impediment, a difficulty, that we all share in common when we pick up our Bibles and open them? I think there is. Hans gave me my focus.
I have been at this business of reading the Bible ever since I was not much older than Hans. Twenty years after I first started reading it, I became a pastor and a professor. For over 50 years now, I have been vo¬cationally involved in getting the Christian Scriptures into the minds and hearts, arms and legs, ears and mouths of men and women. And I haven’t found it easy. Why isn’t it easy?
Simply this. The challenge, never negligible, regarding the Christian Scriptures is getting them read, but read on their own terms, as God’s revelation. It seems as if it would be the easiest thing in the world. After five or six years of schooling, most of us can read most of what is written in the Bible. If you don’t own one and can’t afford to buy one, you can steal a Bible from nearly any hotel or motel in the country.
But as it turns out, in this business of living the Christian life, ranking high among the most neglected aspects is one having to do with the reading of the Christian Scriptures. Not that Christians don’t own and read their Bibles. And not that Christians don’t believe that their Bibles are the Word of God. What is neglected is reading the Scrip¬tures formatively—reading in order to live.
Hans on that park bench, his eyes moving back and forth across the pages of his Bible, “reading” but not reading, reverent and devout but uncomprehending, honoring in a most precious way this book but without awareness that it has anything to do with either the lettuce and mayonnaise sandwich he has just eaten or the museum he is about to visit, oblivious to his grandmother next to him: Hans “reading” his Bible. A parable.
A parable of the Scriptures depersonalized into an object to be honored; the Scriptures detached from precedence and consequence, from lunch and museum; the Scriptures in a park elevated over life on the street, a book-on-a-pedestal text, buffered by an expansive and manicured lawn from the noise and stink of diesel-fueled 18-wheelers.
It is the devil’s own work to take what is presently endearing and innocent in Hans and perpetuate it into a lifetime of reading marked by devout indifference.
What I want to say, countering the devil, is that in order to read the Scriptures adequately and accurately, it is necessary at the same time to live them. Not to live them as a prerequisite to reading them, and not to live them in consequence of reading them, but to live them as we read them, the living and reading reciprocal, body language and spoken words, the back-and-forthness assimilating the reading to the living, the living to the reading.
Reading the Scriptures is not an activity discrete from living the gospel, but one integral to it. It means letting Another have a say in everything we are saying and doing.
It is as easy as that. And as hard.