Reflections by Jerry Webber

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Studying Scripture, Missing the Point

Many well-meaning Christians miss Jesus because they only look where they expect him to be.

That is pretty much how it was during Jesus' lifetime, when the most religious people around completely missed him. They knew the Scriptures, as least from a particular vantage point, but they could not see Jesus as the One to whom the Scriptures pointed.

It is possible, after all, to live underneath a framework of holiness and piety - completely unaware that you are doing so - that blinds you to the presence of Jesus in your midst.

This is one story from John 5:

“You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.

“I do not accept glory from human beings, but I know you. I know that you do not have the love of God in your hearts. I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not accept me; but if someone else comes in his own name, you will accept him. How can you believe since you accept glory from one another but do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?

“But do not think I will accuse you before the Father. Your accuser is Moses, on whom your hopes are set. If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But since you do not believe what he wrote, how are you going to believe what I say?” (Jn. 5:39 - 47)

Jesus: “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”

I rarely find a Christian who has seriously studied the Scriptures, and who also knows and discerns the Scriptures. In contemporary Christianity, most of what we think of as “studying the Scriptures” is applying a certain mindset or predisposition to the Scriptures, one which most always brings us to the conclusions we have looked for.

Such Scripture “study” is not open to inquiry. Neither is it truly open to whatever the text might say, in all its complexity (or simplicity). It reads with a particular aim, to find certain “truths” affirmed.

This kind of reading does not submit itself to Scripture; rather, the Scriptures always submit to the preconceptions of the reader/studier.

I believe this is the kind of “study” Jesus refers to in this passage . . . the kind of reading that could study, study, study a passage, so that all persons call you, “Bible Scholar!” but still leave you missing the point.

It occurs to me that the forms of Bible reading common in contemplative spirituality do not emphasize correct doctrine. They do not hinge on a person coming out of their Bible reading with a certain orthodox understanding. They do emphasize, however, surrendering to the Word, opening to it and living into it as fully as possible.

Lectio divina – praying with Scripture – listens reverently to the text without preconceived notions of what you will find there. It simply listens openly to whatever the word of God for you might be.

Praying with Scripture in the Ignatian tradition, where one puts himself or herself in the biblical scene, interacting with Jesus via the imagination, is also approached in a spirit of openness and receptivity. You go where the Spirit of God leads you in your imagination. You find yourself in the text and interact within the biblical drama as a participant, even utilizing your senses to participate in the life of Jesus.

Neither method utilizes a filter . . . “this is wrong!” . . . or, “you shouldn’t be thinking that!”

I hear people resist both of these methods because, “I’m not sure I’ll get something that’s not heresy.” Or, “I want to know that I’m not going to be led astray.” So in our concern to get something “orthodox” (which again is usually judged according to our preconceived theological systems), we miss the word God speaks to us.

In the same way that the most religious persons of Jesus’ day missed him, so it is possible for us to think of ourselves as Jesus-literate, when we, too, have utterly missed him.