When I was a theology student, I had the very good fortune of attending a presentation by John Bell, a minister in the Church of Scotland and noted composer of hymns, who is also a member of the Iona Community.
The subject of the presentation was how people – Christians and non-Christians alike – read the Bible, and how that reading affects the way we relate to and understand the Bible both as a cultural-historical document, and (for Christians) as the Word of God. Bell made the important point that the content of the Bible was originally composed by a predominantly oral-transmission society; that is, a society that was largely illiterate (from the standpoint of modern society) but which composed and transmitted stories across generations through a process of memorisation and embellishment and story-telling. The importance of this insight is that it points to the fact that the Bible is, for Christians, part of our lived history – but is too often approached from a literary (reading) perspective instead of from an oral / lived tradition perspective.
To further illustrate this point, Bell spoke about the traditions of sacred story-telling and poetry and hymn-making from the Celtic-speaking communities of the UK and Ireland, which were only written down and compiled in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Many of these poems and songs and stories are hundreds of years old; some, indeed, in one form or another, over a thousand years old. And yet they have been retained and transmitted across generations by the societies in which they were retained; partly as an aspect of those societies’ cultural identity; but also as a vibrant and ongoing manifestation of the life of those communities.
But what needs to be particularly remembered is that these poems and songs and stories are part of these communities’ understanding of, and engagement with, the text of the Bible – as this text was transmitted orally to those communities via the media of pictorial representation or dramatic presentation. By way of example, Bell read a poem from Ireland in which a woman talks about her desire to entertain Jesus and Mary and the apostles, and describes heaven as a lake of beer from which they might refresh themselves for all eternity. In a telling phrase, Bell described poems like this as “the argument between the common people and the text” – the word “argument” being used in its original sense as a conversation or dialogue. In other words, the text of the Bible wasn’t simply a “dead weight” to be passively received; it was a living expression of faith which in turn prompted and inspired people to their own interpretation, their own understanding of and response to the Word of God.
However, one of the outcomes of the Reformation, and the invention of printing in the wake of the Renaissance, was that the Word of God ceased being a Word that was transmitted and served as a point of discussion and expression; instead, it became a matter of “black and white”, a text which existed in an unchanging – or, perhaps more accurately, in a solid – form that could only be read, not listened to. And in this regard, Bell made some important points about the assumptions among Christians that emergedas a result:
- That understanding the Bible is an intellectual exercise. The point being that this assumption mistakenly believes that the intellect is the only vehicle through which the Word of God can be – or must be – understood. But as the poem from the Irish woman who depicted heaven in terms of hospitality and a lake of beer that lasted for eternity demonstrates, she was responding at a far more visceral and human level – a level that involved all her senses as well as her intellect. She was giving expression to her yearning to see Jesus and Mary and the apostles, and to incorporate the experience of knowing them in her life through the cultural and communal expressions of hospitality and the pleasure of food and drink. It is altogether beautiful and moving and deeply, intensely human.
- That we should be able to understand or “work out” the Word of God. Many Christians have a highly attuned sense of the transcendence of God, of the ineffability and mystery that is God viewed from the human perspective. And yet, when it comes to the Bible, especially if we approach it as a “text”, we have this assumption that we should be able to work it out and understand it completely in all of its parts. In other words, while God is ineffable, a mystery, God’s Word isn’t! But of course this is absurd; partly because the humans who composed the Bible were themselves attempting to respond to, and make sense of, the mystery of God; and partly because, if “understanding” is the only point of the Bible, then it is in fact pointless. In other words, the point of the Bible is not “enlightenment” but response; it’s not about “getting it”, it’s about how we find meaning, and how we incorporate that meaning into our lives so that God’s Word becomes a lived experience.
- That people should take their Bibles to church and follow the reading instead of listening to it being spoken. Of course, Bell recognised that there were perfectly good reasons why someone might take a Bible to church and follow the reading; for example, those who were hard of hearing. But the point he was making was that, in assuming that we should “read along”, we are in fact missing out on a crucial means by which the Word of God becomes a lived experience. Because the oral tradition was not simply about conveying a story; it was concerned with conveying meaning through speech, transmitting to the audience elements and ingredients of understanding and potential for response through the way the speaker delivers the text to the hearers. Cadence and inflection and all the modes and mannerisms of speech affect the outcome, affect how people will receive information and respond. But that is the very point of the oral tradition; and it is the very reason why we should listen to the Word of God, instead of merely “reading along”.
In detailing these assumptions, Bell was making the point that although it is frequently pointed out to us that the Bible consists of many different literary forms, we are rarely – if ever – taught how to read those forms in a manner suited to them. More critically, we are not taught how to speak those forms or listen to those forms in a fashion that gives attention to their literary construction. Indeed, we tend to approach the Bible as though it were a homogeneous document written by the same person; as a result of which, we pass through the various literary forms in the Bible without changing our “perspective as reader”. We read the poems as though they were prose; we read the historical chronicles as though they were fiction; we read the prophetic literature as though they were text books. The result is people who tend to read Scripture in one of two extremes: either in a dull monotone; or as though it were a production from an amateur dramatics society.
Bell’s point was simple and important: different kinds of literature require different kinds of attention. They need to be approached in different ways and conveyed in different moods and voices. In order for the Word of God to be part of our lived experience, we must appreciate the textual diversity and richness of the Bible; we must listen to the different literary forms with a different ear; we must ditch our assumptions about the Bible and how we must approach it as God’s Word; and we must view the text not as a “text” carved in stone, but as one half of an engagement – one half of an argument, a conversation, a dialogue in which both we and God are active participants, and in which we formulate and work through and live out our own response and understanding.
(c) Copyright Brendan E Byrne 2018. All rights reserved.